A doctor that also heals the spirit of abused women. By Mariam Mokhtar.
Young and talented, Dr Sharifah Halimah Jaafar, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist working in Perak, is an exceptional woman. Explaining what made her start a non-governmental organisation, ‘In my practice, I have encountered women with gynaecological symptoms but without the gynae-pathology. They sustained domestic violence, rape and sexual assault. They could not speak out, so they symptomatised their traumas into gynaecological problems. Doctors treated the symptoms, but not the causes.’
Perak Women for Women (PWW) was registered to provide community service as well as to improve the status of women in society
Dr Sharifah voiced her concern to Dr Mary Cardosa, a colleague and the president of a Kuala Lumpur-based NGO that supports victims of rape and violence, All Women Action Malaysia (AWAM). In early 2003, Dr Sharifah was introduced to a group of like-minded women including Yip Siew Keen. Meeting Siew Keen resulted in the forming of an NGO similar to AWAM—in April 2004, with Dr Sharifah as President and Siew Keen as Secretary, Perak Women for Women (PWW) was registered to provide community service as well as to improve the status of women in society. Their advocacy work in promoting awareness about sexual discrimination, rape, domestic violence and women’s health soon spread, and the number of women who seek PWW’s help increased.
Dr Sharifah is full of praise for Siew Keen: ‘Siew Keen is the pulse of the society. She coordinates our activities, maintains our Facebook entries, and works full-time for PWW voluntarily. Sadly, people like Siew Keen are hard to find. PWW lacks funds for full-time staff and the enthusiasm of some members [or volunteers] is short-lived.’ Dr Sharifah continues, ‘When I needed to be away for a year, Siew Keen single-handedly ran the society and kept it alive.’
The Good Shepherd, a missionary-based NGO that provides shelter for victims of violence, also enjoys a good working relationship with the PWW.
Unfortunately, some women feel uncomfortable about being counselled by nuns. Dr Sharifah also says, ‘We did not require government help initially, but they supported us because we connected them to the people. We also work with established NGOs like Women’s Centre for Change, AWAM, Women’s Aid Organization, and Sisters in Islam.’
PWW, an apolitical, non-profit organisation, helps everyone irrespective of race and religion. Unfortunately, many women are afraid to come forward because of shame and the fear of reprisals. Dr Sharifah says, ‘Typically, when a woman walks into our office or calls, Siew Keen assesses her needs. If counselling is required, Siew Keen chooses from three counsellors. If the crisis is acute, Sister Helena from the Good Shepherd and Halida, another PWW member, would see to them immediately and assist in the follow-through, like accompanying them to the police station. If temporary shelter is required, we will find it. Sometimes I give them money, for their basic needs. We also search for long-term financial support.’
PWW holds a counselling session as well as a domestic violence support group every Saturday. Single mothers also attend a class to learn new skills that can help them generate their own income. Dr Sharifah reflects on a specific case. ‘One mother found out that her husband had raped their 8-year old daughter. He was a drug addict who also threatened to kill his wife. After lodging a police report, both mother and daughter came to us for support.’ She continues, ‘We counselled them, helped [the mother] file for divorce in court, accompanied her to prevent discrimination, [and] we helped her supplement her income. She is now happy, and able to support her four children. Looking back, she never thought she could make those big changes alone.’
However, some women are too frightened to face change. Dr Sharifah reveals, ‘One housewife and mother of five suffers from a recurrent sexually transmitted infection, acquired from her husband who sleeps around and visits sex workers. She is too scared to leave him, and she hopes that he would change.’
‘The rate of women with HIV is rising in Malaysia. Their numbers exceed those of drug addicts and sex workers combined, [and] most of them are housewives. PWW could be their saviour. If they feel trapped, we can help them take charge of their lives. We must create awareness and educate people on their right to [live] a happy life.’
Dr Sharifah also goes on to say that the alarming rise of abandoned babies in Malaysia is mostly from the Malays as ‘the Malays are intolerant of unmarried mothers’. She hopes that sex education classes are implemented in schools across the country, but in reality, she doesn’t think that this would happen in the near future.
Her Other Loves
With a young family and a busy work schedule, Dr Sharifah manages her time carefully. Although she attends to hospital emergencies, she will go to her children immediately if they need her. The opposite is also true with PWW and the women who need her help.
Dr Sharifah blushes when she learns of how she was described: bubbly, hardworking, full of ideas, determined, active and a workaholic who survives without much sleep. She adds, ‘I am an emotional and expressive person, a true Capricorn. Not sure about [being] full of ideas, but the PWW needs them.’
Her husband, a paediatrician, is proud of her contributions to the PWW. Dr Sharifah confides: ‘I married a fellow Malaysian whom I met at university, and who is of a different race, religion and culture. We are two different people but we share the same values. My husband is supportive of whatever that brings me personal growth and satisfaction—he was the first to contribute to PWW’s fund-raising. He never complains, and he will assume my role, at home, if I am away… If I were to die and live again for seven times, I want to marry the same man because he is very rare and special.’
Her daughter, the eldest of three, is studying medicine, while her son is at university in Canada. ‘I try my best to spend time with the children, but they sometimes complain [that I am too busy]. My 5-year old daughter occasionally accompanies me to PWW meetings. At home, though, the family gets my full attention.’
It is because of Dr Sharifah’s commitment towards the betterment of women that she was able to negotiate an agreement with the Perak government to help set up a shelter for Muslim women, that is also open to women of other faiths. If all goes to plan, the shelter will open its doors in 2011 to young women troubled by unplanned pregnancies, rape and incest, as well as to victims of domestic violence and their children.
‘I leave everything in God’s hands,’ says Dr Sharifah. ‘I became a doctor because I wanted to save lives or bring new life to others. I love people and my job. I am glad the PWW is the stepping stone to a better life for many women.’
Dr Sharifah’s message is simple: ‘Charity work is not for when we have free time, or when we are free from responsibilities. It starts by having the heart for it. My mother likens our lifetime to a savings account in the bank; we must spend not only for ourselves, but share it with the family and community. And when we look back on our lives, we’ll know if we have spent it wisely.’
Perak Women for Women
52 Jl Sultan Azlan Shah, Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia 31400
Cash donations can be made though Maybank account number 508177206492