Illustration by Sunita
“Gender issues are political issues. Our foremothers faced discrimination throughout their lives because their issues were never taken seriously. I am who I am today because of the road that they have paved for me. For a gender-equal and inclusive country, I will continue to fight so that my generation does not have to suffer like they did.”– Christyne Surindai, Co-founder of Safe Campus and Sabah Women’s Action-Resource Group (SAWO)’s Gender Equality Advocate
When I was a kid, my mother told me that my grandmother raised three daughters as a single and uneducated mother. Many women in my family were not sent to schools because they were told that they would be married off and would end up in the kitchen anyway. At that time, I didn’t understand why they were treated that way.
After graduating from secondary school, I furthered my studies in West Malaysia. I realized how developed West Malaysia is compared to Sabah. I learned that there were many educational opportunities and platforms available to build skills and gain knowledge in many areas. However, in Sabah, basic amenities such as electricity, clean water supply, and internet access are not readily available throughout the state. All of these led to us having poor access to information on the many opportunities available out there that will enable us to live a comfortable life. I was angry and I did not understand why Sabah was left behind. As a Sabahan who was sponsored to further her studies in the Peninsular, I felt the responsibility to bring about change to my hometown.
When I started working in a male-dominated industry, I was seen as weak and incapable by my male colleagues and superiors. In their eyes, I, as a woman, was only good in certain areas, such as clerical work. This triggered a question in my mind – why am I facing this? But I could not get the answers. I always thought that by having higher academic qualifications, I will be breaking the glass ceiling, unfortunately, I was wrong.
While struggling with these injustices and discrimination, I looked for a place where I could empower myself. That was when a friend introduced me to Sabah Women’s Action-Resource Group (SAWO) – a civil society organization that advocates for gender equality and women’s rights in Sabah. The first SAWO activity I participated in was a closed group discussion and sharing on “Prejudice and Stereotypes in Malaysia”. For the first time in my life, I felt safe sharing my encounters of being stereotyped at work. I could also relate to the experiences shared by other participants and how this unjust treatment had affected their lives. The activity and conversation motivated me to attend more of SAWO’s activities.
At SAWO, I started to build and empower myself. I learned to understand social issues, improve my confidence, communication, leadership, project management skills, and so on. Through the capacity building that I received and the hands-on tasks that I have carried out, I was finally able to find the answers to the questions that have always been lingering in my mind since I was young – that the gender roles that have been ascribed to our families and the larger society that we live in have contributed to the discrimination faced by my grandmothers, aunts, and myself. I also learned that the social issues that are occurring in Sabah are all interrelated and affected by the slow progress of development in Sabah.
My life has become much more meaningful after joining SAWO. I am able to work with like-minded people to bring about changes in my hometown. For me, no matter how big or small the change is, I feel at ease knowing that I have done what I can to uplift Sabah. Safe Campus is my first project as an activist that I will remember for a long time. It was the moment where I started to embrace my journey as a gender advocate. Safe Campus is a campaign that I co-founded together with other SAWO young leaders to raise awareness on sexual harassment on campus. We realized that almost all campuses in Sabah do not have policies or response mechanisms to protect students from sexual harassment despite there being news reports on students getting sexually harassed on campus. Through this campaign, we want to empower students to understand sexual harassment and what can be done to tackle it.
Apart from Safe Campus, I have also participated in running many of SAWO’s programs and activities to empower women and girls from all walks of life. These experiences taught me that all women and girls have different lived experiences and circumstances and that they must be consulted to create inclusive policies – especially in Sabah, as an underdeveloped state, rich with diverse ethnicities and where the people are physically, geographically disparate.
I am grateful for this opportunity to serve the community in Sabah. I am indebted to all the silent and invisible women who have paved this pathway for me and other gender equality activists in Sabah. I hope to see more women and girls in Sabah take up their rightful place and that the leaders will start treating gender issues as crucial political issues so that the people will follow suit.
My advice to all aspiring young advocates and leaders is this: Breaking the chain of incompetent leadership and ensuring the continued progression of Sabah will only happen if we center on the principles of inclusivity, participatory, and empathy in our decision-making process. So, let us all strive and continue to be the leaders that we want to see in our country.