This International Women’s Day, we applaud the United Nations women’s rights activist for changing the landscape of gender equality in Malaysia.

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There’s so much a woman can be grateful for in celebration of International Women’s Day, centralised around the theme ‘Be Bold for Change.’ Many of us can reference inspiring heroines like Hilary Clinton, Beyoncé and Malala Yousafzai as modern-day role models, but really, it's the the humble local female activists who deserve credit for turning around the female rights situation in Malaysia.

One such virtuous soul is Mary Shanthi Dairiam, who’s played a key role in liberating women, instilling awareness and most notably, enforcing the Domestic Violence Act passed by parliament in 1994. Moved by the plight of abused, helpless women during her voluntary stint in the late 1970s under the Federation of Family Planning Associations (FFPA), Shanthi, now a United Nations expert and founding director of International Women’s Rights Action Watch – Asia Pacific (IWRAW -Asia Pacific) gave up her teaching job and set out on a mission to eradicate gender inequality. 

In the first part of Malaysia Tatler’s International Women’s Day tribute, we make a comparison of female empowerment values in the past and how it influences women now and in the future. 

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Bridging the (equality) gap

“In the '70s and '80s, violence was not recognised as a violation of human rights, it was never condemned and it remained a family matter. The biggest change is now: the police are recognising it as a violation of law, a legal and criminal issue. The government has set and achieved the target of 30% female participation in senior positions in its sector.”

A woman's legacy 

“For women to believe in themselves and to have that self worth – that’s a legacy. I think I’ve already done that with my two daughters. They’ve made their decision about their jobs, where they live, or if they want to get married.”

Legal reforms

“When I began to recognise the root causes of inequality and discrimination, I set out to mobilise women nationally and internationally to move towards attaining that equality. There’s been many legal changes in Malaysia as part of the women’s movement here. I founded the IWRAW-Asia Pacific in 1993 that works with women’s groups from 140 countries through alternative reports that challenge and keep government women’s rights reports in check.”

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Self education

“First, women must be aware of discrimination. Oftentimes, women with resources don’t see the discrimination that is happening to them in the private sphere. To be educated is for a woman to understand what discrimination is, how it affects them and how they can change their situation: without realising it, change in one person’s life has the power to bring about change to a whole community.” 

Qualities of a female leader

“Women are much more communicative. They express how they feel and in their ability to encourage the sharing of opinion and expression, they create a conducive environment for good management. Women know when to listen, cultivate self-expression and encourage communication.”

In our second International Women's Day instalment, we speak to Professor Tan Sri Dr Sharifah Hapsah on the development of women in the workforce.


Words: Jessica Liew

Photography: Shaffiq Farhan


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