“I don’t want to miss one single call from a survivor, so I started to bring my phone with me, even when I take a shower”

Interview with Charlene Murray, Service Director, and Joanne Melisa Wong, Crisis Support and Hotlines Manager, Women’s Aid Organization (WAO), Malaysia



The Women’s Aid Organization is a civil society organization which aims to end violence against women and promote gender equality in Malaysia. WAO operates helplines for survivors of violence against women, to any women who need support including women migrant workers, informing the survivors about their rights and available options, support them to make informed decisions. 

Joanne: I train volunteers to become Crisis Support Officers to ensure they can provide services for survivors who contact us for support. Working during this pandemic has been challenging. This is a situation that no one has experienced before, and no one was prepared for it. Before the pandemic, we received, on average, around 100 calls a month. Since the pandemic, we are getting 800 calls. We have had to train more officers to respond to the surge in cases during the lockdown. We need to provide support around the clock and make sure that they understand the level of risk of violence against women, how to manage it and how to report to our database.

Charlene: The trainings for Crisis Support Officers are quite intense as the WAO hotline is for anyone who needs support. Since we are talking to nationals and women migrant workers, the officers should fully understand migrants’ context and situation. There is no room for prejudice within the mindset of the officers. We must be aware that a common fear among women migrant workers is going to the police station in order to report a case as she could be arrested if she is undocumented. The purpose of the hotline service we provide is exactly this - we identify the best way forward for the caller based on her situation. There may be no other call from the same caller, so we have to give all the support we could give to the survivor right away.

Joanne: Since March the WAO hotline has been available to anyone 24 hours a day due to the movement control order (MCO). This is something we did not do before the pandemic. We reached out to our former officers, and quickly mobilized them into our roster. It took a day to make sure the hotline service was still available without anyone being in the office. We were also requested to share our hotline number with the Crisis Preparedness Response Centre (which is a government centre for the COVID-19 response) as an emergency hotline for violence, mental health and COVID-19.

Charlene: All these changes had to be done rapidly. There was no warning. The MCO was announced on 16 March and I had run immediately. We also quickly managed to move the hotline from a landline to a mobile line in order to channel calls to our officers. The pandemic completely changed the way we operate the hotlines.

Joanne: I don’t want to miss one single call from a survivor, so I started to bring my phone with me, even when I take a shower. I would have never thought of this! Sometimes the call could be very short, two rings, then it stops. From my experience, this could be an urgent case. You never know. My hair stands on end every time I miss a call.

Charlene:  We started using the “Think I Need Aid (TINA) WhatsApp messaging service more. It is cheaper and safer;  people feel more comfortable reaching out via chat, and when a survivor is locked with a perpetrator, it is safer to text us rather than call us.

Joanne: We always get calls about domestic violence and rape. Now we are also dealing with COVID-19 questions like, “How do I run away from my husband during the lockdown?” We had to learn the rules fast and give quality support to women and children. The cases from third party callers grew, our numbers were on all the radio channels, which meant our workload increased exponentially.

Charlene: While the MCO could flatten the curve, it has unfortunately brought out a lot of hostility against migrants. There were public messages that migrants were the ones who spread COVID-19. On the other hand, people are gathering their forces to support migrants.  Other service providers and the general public referred cases to us, asking us how they could assist a survivor. There was a case of a migrant domestic worker who needed support, and we contacted the police station in advance to ensure her safety when she arrived and prepared the officers to avoid any further harm.

Joanne: I hope hotlines can be free for everyone including migrants who do not have their own phone and need to make a call from someone else’s phone, for teenagers or children who don’t know what to do, and for mothers who need help for themselves and their children.

Charlene: From the management perspective, hotlines are very expensive to run. While our number was disseminated as one of the emergency numbers, we didn’t receive funding from the government to cover the costs incurred to respond to the increased number of calls. We are grateful to our supporters who immediately jumped in to help us, including the Safe and Fair Programme.

The ILO-UN Women programme “Safe and Fair: Realizing women migrant workers’ rights and opportunities in the ASEAN region”, under the global EU-UN Spotlight Initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls, supports front-line service providers to ensure essential services are available for women migrant workers who are subject to violence. More: www.spotlightinitiative.org/safe-and-fair   

If you or someone you know has experienced violence against women in Malaysia, contact WAO for support no matter your migration status.

  • Hotline: 03 7956 3488
  • SMS/WhatsApp: 018 988 8058

More contacts of service providers are available in the Service Directory for Women Migrant Workers in the ASEAN region: https://bit.ly/services4wmw

Interviewed by: Yen Ne Foo

Written by: Younghwa Choi

Edited by Gihan Hassanein