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How are APC members improving their communities’ lives? In this column we’re highlighting stories of impact and change by our members, supported by APC subgranting. EMPOWER Malaysia has been contributing to women’s rights and gender equality through on-the-ground initiatives aimed at developing a more vibrant and just democracy.
Human rights group EMPOWER Malaysia has been a member of the APC network since 2017, focusing on advancing women's political equality through feminist and human rights principles. A key aspect of their work, in their own words, is “to create spaces for journeys of discovery and skill building”.
Women centre stage at Festival Perempuan
In 2018, EMPOWER hosted the Festival Perempuan (meaning “Women’s Festival” in Malay) with help from an APC small grant to highlight “missing and invisible women’s voices by bringing their lived realities in public and political spaces.”
Coinciding with the “16-Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence” campaign, the festival included live screenings, spoken word poets, women-led bands and exhibitions on gender-based violence, tweetchats and forum discussions.
“All of the performers we engaged with are women and queer people – they are mostly small-timers, even though they have extensive work and produced quality music and poetry,” EMPOWER said, adding that they had used the opportunity to introduce the performers to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the Feminist Principles of the Internet, a series of statements that offer a gender and sexual rights perspective on critical internet-related rights.
For a number of the performers, the festival was transformative, EMPOWER recalls. “Some of the women-fronted music bands and singer-songwriters that we engaged started their own feminist platforms in the local music scene after that,” the organisation reported, while others went from performing “in their bedroom” to gigging live with others they met at the festival.
“The festival succeeded in bringing feminist messages to the ground. Human rights and feminist languages are jargon and concept-heavy, so having the messages and principles presented in various forms of art is a refreshing view, and more palatable to crowds who are new to our work,” they added.
Going online for safety
On the weekend of the festival, the organisers found themselves facing a potentially dangerous situation. Due to security fears on account of a rally organised by a local right-wing extremist movement just a few kilometres away from the venue, the decision was made to hold the Festival Perempuan online. EMPOWER responded quickly to the potential threat by listening to the concerns being expressed and adapting their programme. “People were afraid. They are violent,” the organisers recalled participants saying. “Due to this situation, some of our content makers, especially the storytellers and some of the volunteers, opted out from the Festival, and we were forced to move the Festival online for the day of their rally.”
Creating safe spaces is key, they insist, to continue “our journey of discovery and skills building” and to ensure that key events like the Festival Perempuan can bring people together and put women’s rights at the forefront.
Tackling gender discrimination in the legal system
More recently, EMPOWER partnered with another small feminist organisation, Family Frontiers (formerly known as Foreign Spouses Support Group) to undertake some work on discriminatory citizenship laws in Malaysia. The two organisations applied for an APC subgrant in order to highlight a very blatant gender discrimination law – the conferring of citizenship to children when one of the spouses is non-Malaysian.
“This project contributes to APC’s objective of interconnecting and mobilising diverse communities and movements through shared knowledge, platforms and collective action, particularly through shared resources,” Family Frontiers reported.
EMPOWER and Family Frontiers managed to provide current and verifiable information on the impact of Malaysia’s discriminatory citizenship laws and policies on Malaysians in transnational marriages and their non-citizen spouses and children. With the information gathered and curated through this project, they campaigned to promote and protect the rights of Malaysians in transnational marriages, and their non-citizen spouses and children. Their work also showcased how crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbate the violations and discrimination faced by the most vulnerable.
This piece is a version of a story highlighted in Continuing the conversation: Lessons from APC subgranting, a report that presents the findings of interviews and surveys of APC members and partners who were recipients of funding through its core subgranting programme, supported by Sida, and of subgrants offered through other APC projects and staff working on subgranting in the organisation.
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