Kuala Lumpur – To mark the International Women Human Rights Defenders’ Day on the 29th of November, women members of the national indigenous peoples’ organization, Jaringan Orang Asli SeMalaysia (JOAS), announced the launch of their own indigenous women’s network, “Wanita-JOAS”.
“The birth of Wanita-JOAS comes at a critical time when indigenous women across Malaysia are confronted with the need to defend their livelihoods and protect their heritage in the face of threats to the very survival of their communities from large-scale mining, rampant logging, the expansion of palm oil plantations, and the building of large-scale dams. They are not only joining alongside men in their communities in this effort, but are taking important leadership roles. It is more important than ever before that indigenous women have the space to share information, strategies and perspectives and develop a platform like Wanita-JOAS to help strengthen their collective resolve,” said Mary Giun, Secretary of JOAS.
For Fatimah Bah Sin of Kampung Mengkapor, Pahang, this willingness to take a leadership role has led to a precedent-setting victory significant for her entire community of Semaq Beri people. As a plaintiff and an appellant in a native customary lands rights case, she explains, “For decades, we have sought to assert Orang Asli customary land rights. We want our children, their children and the generations to come to be able to know the forests, the rivers and the land of our ancestors. Although we had to take this case beyond the High Court, finally, with a positive decision from the Court of Appeal, we stand a higher chance to have our rights to our customary land affirmed.”
Rimbu Ngang, headwoman (Tuai Rumah) of the Sungai Sawai Suai Niah Longhouse and chairwoman of the Wanita-JOAS chapter in Sarawak, is similarly keen to protect the land of her ancestors from being ravaged by logging operations and destroyed for palm oil plantations. But in doing so, she also asserts a call for respect. “We work in partnership with the men in our communities. We also need them – along with the Malaysian public – to respect us. We are taking a stand for our land rights, our rights to cultural survival, and the right to a dignified livelihood; we are speaking about the same concerns as men in our community. But in this day-to-day work, inside and outside our homes, we also demand dignity – violence against women in its many forms within our own communities must end. Men and boys in our communities have a role to play in helping to cultivate respectful attitudes, listening to our perspectives, giving us space to speak out, and being willing to share leadership.”
According to Caroline Nyurang, co-chair of the Save Sarawak’s Rivers Youth Committee, “Although the media and the government have focused on a few voices of people who are concerned about the Baram Dam, we want the public to know that there are thousands of us – including women and young people – who have not agreed to surrender our land rights and give way for the building of the Baram Dam. We have never given our consent to Sarawak Energy’s plans to flood our land and force up to 20,000 of us to move to resettlement sites so that they can build a 1200 MW hydroelectric project. In the resettlement sites set up for the Bakun and Murum Dams in Sarawak, we have seen how women are struggling to feed their families, to have clean and sufficient water for household needs, and to lead dignified lives in the midst of despair. We are determined here in Baram not to face the same fate.”
Diana Sipail, from Kampung Terian in Sabah, echoes the same sentiment in her concerns about the proposed Kaiduan Dam. She has been active in Kampung Terian Protection Action Committee, and asserts, “Our communities have been consistently raising our concerns about the proposed Kaiduan Dam, as we have never given consent for it to be built on our customary lands. We, including the women of the affected communities, are clear – there are better, less destructive ways for sustained water storage in Sabah. There is no need to displace our communities and to force us to live in resettlement sites where we will be sure to face shortages of food, poor housing conditions, and spiraling frustration, depression, hopelessness as well as violence within our communities.”
Serene Lim, of the national human rights group, SUARAM, explains, “Too often, women taking a stand in defense of rights guaranteed in our constitution and committed to by the Malaysian Government are neglected, ignored or marginalized.” She concludes, “We hope the marking of this year’s International Women Human Rights Defenders’ Day will bring a new level of willingness to make way for their voices and concerns to be heard.”