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International Women’s Day 2022: Celebrating makchic’s Sheroes

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Forget Marvel – we’re celebrating makchic‘s Sheroes this year!

Who do we mean exactly? We’re talking about women of strength and resilience. Women who have shattered glass ceilings, and broken the mold. Women who have dreamt wildly and lived fully, who have impacted the world around them in big (and little) ways. Women who are our personal female superheroes. 

International Women’s Day 2022: #BreakTheBias

Source: @rajavi_patel

March 8th marks the globally-observed International Women’s Day (IWD), which celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements that women have made. This year’s IWD theme, #BreakTheBias, seeks to raise awareness against gender discrimination, and to sound a call to action for the acceleration of women’s equality.

For IWD this year, makchic seeks to shed some light on some hidden figures that deserve to be recognised for their amazing stories and the quiet contributions they’ve made – ordinary women, who have lived extraordinary lives. Take a walk in their shoes, and find out what it means to them to #BreakTheBias.

Adele Cheah Gillian Chong Desiree Kaur Norliza Nordeen

 


Adele Cheah –  Single Mother of Two and Survivor 

2013 was the year Adele gave birth to her young son, completing the beautiful family she had built with her husband, Kevin Tan, and their older daughter. And then, the unthinkable happened.

In November 2013, Kevin, an adventure tour guide, tragically lost his life rescuing another from drowning. Almost overnight, Adele found herself thrust in the role of a single parent, bearing the weight of caring for their two young children, whilst grappling with her grief at the same time.

Now, almost 9 years later, Adele – who is a professional emcee – looks back on her journey and shares some of the things she’s learnt along the way.

Your story is one of great personal loss – but also amazing strength. What are some of the things have helped you through your grief after losing your husband, Kevin?

Losing Kevin was devastating, and there were many days and nights I spent crying and feeling lost. The main thing that helped me through my grief however, was (and still is) my faith in God – and the knowledge that He remains good, sovereign and has plans to give me and my children a hope and a future.

My community of friends and fellow believers also surrounded me, came to check in on me, helped me buy groceries, hung out with me and the children, and in doing so, lent me the strength I needed during that difficult time. The other thing that helped me immensely was the grief support group that I joined a few months after Kevin’s death. Through that, I learned how important it is to go through a proper grieving process, and how being able to journey with others who have suffered a similar loss is crucial to grieving well.

What are some of the challenges or fears that you face as a single mum?

One of the main challenges being a single mum is that I am, almost always, invariably outnumbered. In a normal 2-parent family, both parents share the duties or take on certain roles – but in a single parent family, that one parent has to do almost everything. It’s a one-man (or one-woman show!), and this can be a really lonely journey, as the entire weight of bringing up and providing for the family rests on your shoulders.

Of course now, with the children growing up, it’s easier to get them involved with helping around the house, but in the earlier days, it was tough. I hardly had time to sit down during the day and the only time I could get any work done was when the children were fast asleep. The days felt really long, and the nights weren’t really restful.

The biggest burden without a doubt is providing for the family, as single parent means single income. But I have to say, I have been blessed to have God open doors for me to do work that does not require me to be away from my children for too long, and most times, it’s work that I am able to do from home. I am also very thankful that my parents have been so supportive and loving – being there for us, helping to look after the children when I have to go away for work, cooking us wonderful meals and just being present.

Of course though, the biggest fear is not being able to be there for my children, or them having to lose me as well – and so, this makes me conscious of looking after my own health.

What advice would you give to someone who is facing a similar situation as yours?

If you are struggling with grief, reach out for help. It is more than ok to ask for help. If you are a single parent, know you are not alone. There are others out there who are going through a similar situation – find a community you can relate to. Stay thankful for what you do have, and don’t focus on the things you don’t have. Most importantly, don’t give up hope.

On the topic of International Women’s Day (IWD), what are some changes you would like to see for women in Malaysia?

One specific change that I would like to see in Malaysia is the end to child marriage, which is a prevalent issue in our nation. Even though child marriage does occur for young boys as well, a larger percentage of child marriage still occurs with young girls, robbing these young, yet-to-be women of their chance of a wholesome childhood, proper education and bright future.

The theme of this year’s IWD is #BreakTheBias. What do these words mean to you on a personal level?

On a personal level, this year’s theme for IWD reminds me that, even as single mums, we can be equally strong contributors in society, despite our social status – nation-building begins in the home, after all!


Gillian Chong – Co-Founder of Agape Vision

From the time Gillian was a young child, she had two dreams – 1) that she would someday give sexually abused children a voice and safe space to receive support and healing, and 2), that children and youths who had been abused and marginalised would have a committed and caring adult to walk with them through to adulthood. These childhood dreams have since become a reality. 

As the co-founder of NGO, Agape Vision (meaning Vision of Love), Gillian has served as a mother figure to over 200 youths for the past 11 years. With programmes in place to empower at-risk youths who have suffered childhood physical and sexual abuse, neglect and abandonment, this shero is truly fighting the good fight. 

 Tell us a bit more about Agape Vision and what inspires you to do the work that you do

When I first started volunteering, I realised there were no long-term programmes for teenagers who have been abused and traumatised – there were only one-off events. That concerned me, because I believe that these youths need someone to walk alongside with them during what are often the toughest years for them.

Agape Vision focuses a lot on building relationships between caring, committed adults and the youths we serve. Our volunteers know that they must stay with us for the duration of at least six months with us, because it takes time to build a relationship (and most of our volunteers end up staying for years!).

One thing we quickly realised after working with our youths is that, they don’t trust easily. People come and go in their lives, and they have had so many promises broken by their loved ones. Being someone whom the youths know is safe and who cares deeply for them and won’t give up, matters a lot to me. It shows them that they are worthy of that love and care – just by being themselves.

What changes would you like to see for women in Malaysia?

My dream is for Malaysia to be free from violence against girls and women, and for a change in mindset in boys and men in how they view, respect and treat women and girls. We also need a change in the mindset of women in how they view, respect and treat each other! Violence against girls and women will not stop until we (all) change,  because victim-blaming and shaming is what keeps the violence a secret.

The theme of this year’s IWD is #BreakTheBias. What do these words mean to you on a personal level?

The same as above. I will extend it to my prayer that people come to understand youths who act out, not as budak nakal, but youths who are deeply hurt and need support. Underneath the behaviour is a wonderful person- there have just been layers of abuse in their background that was never disclosed. The misconduct is just an expression of the emotions triggered by a cycle of abuse.


Desiree Kaurmakchic Contributor and Founder of Project Haans

As a mother to her neurodiverse young son, Haans, makchic contributor, Desiree’s journey has been nothing short of inspiring. Thrust into a world of the unknown when her son was diagnosed with autism in 2017, Desiree has persevered through each challenge, powered by a mother’s fierce and faithful love – and a desire to support other parents on the same path.  This wondermama has since founded Project Haans, a space for parents, caregivers, self-advocates and allies of neurodiversity to share and seek support. 

Could you share a bit about your journey in establishing Project Haans?

Haans, my son is the inspiration. When he was diagnosed in 2017, I struggled because I did not know enough about autism, or how to help my son. I did not know where to begin, and this made me so angry. While I searched for information, visited various intervention centres, I became angrier. I had no help, no pointers on where to begin and the NGOs I approached offered no support  – besides telling me they had a long waiting list for therapy, which was competitively priced with private centres. 

That was when I realised I needed to help myself and my family. So, I pursued my Masters in Education (Special Education) and I also wrote about my journey on makchic. Then, I realised my struggle did not need to be the struggle of everyone else.

Project Haans came about when I organised an awareness event in 2019 (in collaboration with Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur), meeting many amazing parents, advocates and practitioners in the process. Things took a turn last year when I discovered Clubhouse, and began hosting rooms on topics related to autism and neurodiversity, as well as getting invitations to speak at several other events. 

Around this time, I also started working on myself. I worked with a life coach, to process a lot of residual feelings over the last couple of years. It was then that I realised Project Haans could be an avenue of information, so that people would have a starting point and not have to struggle like how I did in the beginning. So, I bought the website domain, and on 27th July 2021 (Haans’ 6th birthday), I launched the platform. It contains a list of services here in Malaysia, resources, online courses and a collection of articles on topics related to neurodiversity.

You often speak about “wanting to see the world through your son’s eyes”. What are some of the lessons you’ve learnt from being a mama to Haans?

Wow…where do I begin? Haans has been my greatest teacher so far. I have learnt that I don’t need to be a perfect mum for the world to see. I just need for Haans to know he can depend on me, no matter what. When I see myself through his eyes, I see love.

I have learnt that love is the best intervention my son can get. Yes, we are blessed to be surrounded by some of the best and most passionate therapists, teachers, play buddies, friends and family. What all these people have in common is the love Haans has for them, because they chose to love him first.

I have learnt that by joining his “stims” (or I prefer to call “isms”, which is a SonRise term for stims), I understand better how he feels, and the kind of relief he gets from them. In fact, it is the best way to bond with him, by joining him. Joining him is my sneak peak into his world. 

I have learnt that when Haans is having a hard time or tantrum, it is for a reason which is not my fault or his fault. He just needs me to love him in that moment, and be there for him, to comfort him. 

What advice or encouragement would you give to a fellow parent of a neurodiverse child?

Love first. Everything else comes second. Remember that first day you held your newborn baby in your arms, and keep that emotion with you everyday. A diagnosis cannot, and will not, change that love you felt from the day they were born. 

Everyone deals with a diagnosis in their own way – there is no right or wrong way. The most important thing is to remember: our child’s diagnosis is not about us, and is not about something we didn’t do right as parents. Our child’s diagnosis is about them –  so now that we know, we need to learn how we can connect with them in a way that they understand. 

Empower yourself with knowledge. Join support groups, read books and connect with neurodiverse adults. Find your tribe that speaks to you and your child. If you can’t find one, build your own.

Source: Chela B. on Unsplash

On the topic of International Women’s Day (IWD), what are some changes you would like to see for women in Malaysia?

I think we need to stop being so hard on ourselves. No, we do not need to do it all or prove a point to the world. I am not saying we should not have ambition. I am saying, we are human! There’s so much pressure around being “supermums” “superwomen”, “super-this-and-that”…well, how about just being women first! 

We have come way past notions of “the woman’s place is at home”. We have come great lengths for equality at work, and having our voices heard, and equal rights. I think it’s time we also give ourselves equal rights at home. Self-care is not selfish, asking for help is not being weak, and needing a break is not a crime. Let’s be kinder to ourselves, because we are modelling how we treat ourselves to our children, daughters, nieces, sons, nephews and fellow human beings.

 

The theme of this year’s IWD is #BreakTheBias. What do these words mean to you on a personal level?

This is a tough question, because I think everyone has biases. Bias is something I have experienced on so many levels – not just as a woman, but as a human being. I think everyone has biases, but those who act on it, do it as a reaction to their own personal trauma and experiences. 

On a personal level, I would say #BreakTheBias starts with me. Stop being biased against myself, stop being so hard on myself, stop expecting perfection from myself.  We have to learn to break our internal biases – because our children and the next generation are watching us. This is something I try consciously to do as a parent.


Norliza Nordeen – Founder and Coordinator of Al-Ikhlas Hope Society

Former aviation consultant,  Norliza Nordeen, founded Al-Ikhlas Hope Society to support the needs of the Rohingyan community in Malaysia. As refugee children have no rights to education and are unable to attend national schools in Malaysia, this UNHCR-certified school aims to provide a safe place for them to learn and thrive. As an advocate for refugees, Norliza mobilises the community around her, and remains instrumental in elevating causes that are close to her heart. 

What inspired you to set up Al-Ikhlas Hope Society?

In early 2017, I started volunteering with a refugee tutoring programme on Saturday mornings. The refugee children I tutored, who were so enthusiastic and eager to learn, inspired me. Education is a basic right they have little opportunity for in Malaysia, and which their parents and previous generations had been deprived of back in their homeland.

I was particularly moved by the phenomenon of forced migration over the years, and was appalled to learn of the injustices refugees face in our own backyard. Their lives are at an impasse in Malaysia, waiting 10 to 20 years for resettlement – and sometimes more. Educating the children would give them a chance to fill their growing up years beneficially, and to help them better adjust, or integrate, into the societies they will eventually join in future.

The tutoring programme eventually led me to Al-Ikhlas School, a primary school and kindergarten for refugee children. This learning centre was set up in 2015 by one of the few educated Rohingya in the community, Ustaz Arfat, using his own funds, to provide the children of the 200+ Rohingya and Myanmar families who had settled in the area over the years with a chance for education. 

When the school was at risk of closing down due to lack of funding, I helped to set up the Al-Ikhlas Hope Project in January 2018. We started a crowdfunding campaign  – the “Adopt-A-Child-For-School” appeal, on social media – and  reached our RM45,000 target within 3 weeks. By mid-2018, we had doubled the size of the school, and as the project continued to gain traction with the support of the general public, we formally registered the school as the Al-Ikhlas Hope Society in February 2019. 

Today, Al-Ikhlas Hope Society does not only fund and oversee the running of the school, but it also offers the premises to be used as a community centre to provide for the needs of the surrounding refugee families. The society is also a major partner of the Refugee Emergency Fund (REF), providing a platform to fundraise for emergency medical and rental cases.

What are some of your proudest moments or achievements in your journey?

  1. Being able to sustain the funding of Al-Ikhlas School over the past three years. It is now into its 4th year (though it has not been easy), and this allows the school to keep going.
  2. Seeing the kids at the school, joyful and growing in confidence over the years, as well as progressing in their secondary education and beyond. A former student, for example, just completed four iGCSE papers, achieving 3As and a B. Most heartwarming!
  3. Being able to ease financial problems faced by refugee families through our fundraising efforts, within the Al-Ikhlas community itself and through the REF.

We want to do our part! How can we contribute?

We would appreciate your help to spread the word about our “Sponsor-A-Child-For-School 2022” appeal (formerly known as “Adopt-A-Child-For-School”). The relevant details are set out in the poster below. 

On the topic of International Women’s Day (IWD), what are some changes you would like to see for women in Malaysia?

Do not limit yourselves. Have dreams, and strive to achieve them. This is what girls are told. Opportunities abound for women in Malaysia, especially in education, and we are encouraged to take and make the best of them. I truly applaud this, as we can only fight discrimination, abuse or exploitation with competence.

But come child-bearing age, women often struggle to balance their career and their family. The role of a mother is, unfortunately, often undermined – especially in an environment where women are challenged to “have/do it all”. Finding the balance is key.

If there was a change I would like to see, it would be for greater support to be given to working women in their roles as mothers and carers. This is necessary to enable them to continue excelling in the workplace. and to contribute gainfully where required — whilst having the flexibility or ability at the same time to nurture, and be there for their children.

The theme of this year’s IWD is #BreakTheBias. What do these words mean to you on a personal level?

Source: Unsplash

I have met so many interesting people in this journey, working with the refugee communities. It hurts, therefore, when certain segments of society –  through reports in the media and online comments – paint a very unfair, skewed picture of these communities (and of foreign workers too!), calling them “troublemakers”, or “here only to steal our jobs and our limited resources”. 

We cannot generalise; there are bad apples in every community. But the refugee individuals I know and call friends are among the most patient, stoic and resilient human beings, having gone through much hardship in their lives – smiling through the restrictions placed upon them, really not wanting to depend on handouts. I have come to realise that I have much to learn from them. They are here only to seek safety and shelter; something we in Malaysia take for granted. It is great that Malaysia opens our doors to them here, but we can be more welcoming and accepting of them being here too, and allow them to contribute as well.

Last but not least, I have seen incredible generosity from many of them. Many of those whom I work with to reach out to the underprivileged communities (including to Malaysian B40s), are refugees themselves, who have very little to begin with. I would regard us Malaysians as being very lucky to have the world at our doorstep – actually, and ironically, from this crisis. Embrace the opportunity to learn about the places the refugees have come from, their culture, their food. And ultimately, in doing so, take the chance to make lifelong, endearing friends.

*The contents of these interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.


We hope that these amazing stories from these amazing women have inspired you the same way they have us, #makchicmumtribe. Happy IWD 2022!

Elaine is a mummy of two who moved from the financial world to become an early childhood educator. She loves travelling, books and her cup of tea to unwind after a long day of diapers, school runs and pretend play.