“No one deserves discrimination, inequality and violence, in hard times or in normal times.”

Interview with Prema Thiyagu, Programme Manager, Tenaganita, Malaysia



Tenaganita is a civil society organization specialized in case management related to violence, exploitation and abuse of women migrant workers. They work to protect the rights of migrants, support survivors of trafficking in persons and also provide shelters for survivors of violence. As a Migrant Worker Resource Centre supported by the Safe and Fair programme, Tenaganita is providing women migrant workers with services such as hotlines, shelter, case management and capacity building in Kuala Lumpur/Selangor and Penang in Malaysia.

Prema: As a Programme Manager for the last 10 years, I have devoted myself to protecting the rights of women migrant workers. Currently, we operate two shelters with a hotline, provide legal aid, counselling services and medical support for migrant workers.

Since I started working at Tenaganita, I have seen things that I didn’t see before. Lots of migrant workers, especially domestic workers are working in the shadows of society where people don’t see them, and they have experiences that people can’t imagine. It is the unspoken side of our society.  

Unfortunately, the issue of violence against women migrant workers has not gotten better in the last 10 years. Access to essential services is still a common challenge for women migrant workers when they seek supports. That’s why we work hard to create more space for women migrant workers to advocate for themselves and to provide services for those who need support, especially women migrant workers who have been trafficked and exploited. During COVID-19, we also provided emergency food aid.

COVID-19 has been an extremely challenging time for me, both professionally and personally. On the professional side, of course, responding to the urgent needs of women migrant workers has been challenging. We have started providing food aid to migrant workers and milk powder for their children. There were 25 people, 5 women with kids from Indonesia and Bangladesh, who were locked in their overcrowded dormitory. They were construction workers and there was no work under the movement control order (MCO). Food aid has not been one of the usual forms of support we provide, however, we couldn’t ignore a woman with a baby who hasn’t eaten for three days.

Besides immediate livelihood issues, we found there were many more cases of violence, especially against domestic workers during the pandemic. Violence against domestic workers has been more prevalent as employers are always in the house. The thin separation between the workplace and home for domestic workers got much thinner under the lockdown. They had no freedom, and the abusive attitudes toward them were already there, even before COVID-19.

When a domestic worker needs urgent support, we help them to exit the violent situation and provide shelter for them. Unfortunately, it is common that we don’t get support from the police as they take the side of the employers. Some have even said that domestic workers are ‘creating’ cases because they want attention. Even when we are lucky enough to have a police officer who would allow the domestic worker to stay in the government shelter, we often witness that they end up in detention centres, especially when they are undocumented.

Under COVID-19, there has been another layer of challenges: the COVID-19 test. It was so expensive when the pandemic started! Now the cost is lower than before, but we used to crowdfund to pay for those tests.

As a woman activist, I often asked myself: ‘are you giving your own kids the support they need?’ This makes me doubt myself constantly, if I am spending enough time with them, or am I actually neglecting them? I am a married woman and a working mother with three children.

On the hotline, the job is no longer 8 - 5. When there is a call coming in, I have to leave my children and go out to help women migrants. When I go to migrant communities, I have to put aside those concerns as I know there are many people who depend on me. If I don’t support them, who will do it? The need is there. I can’t close my ears and eyes, can’t ignore them and say I have to take care of myself first. And when I am home, I just do my best for my children, love them as much as I can. At least, I try to take a break and disconnect, although it has been difficult during the pandemic.

I successfully planted core values in my children; my daughter, she speaks about rights, women’s rights! And uses respectful words to describe domestic workers.

It’s really simple -  enough for my little daughter to understand - that we have to respect people. Respect women migrant workers as we do ourselves. No one deserves discrimination, inequality and violence, in hard times or in normal times.

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 who know has experienced violence against women or trafficking in persons in Malaysia, contact Tenaganita for support, no matter your migration status.

  • 24 hr helpline: +6012 335 0512, +6012 339 5350

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