One Future Inspire is a series of interviews with young people across countries, borders, spectrums of work and being. These people share a common quality — they inspire us. Our aim is to bring their work to the fore with the hope that it might ignite a spark in someone, somewhere.
We begin our series of interviews with Kaanchana Suppayah, an intersectional feminist, currently leading a team at work with child survivors of domestic violence at Women’s Aid Organisation in Malaysia. She and her team ensure the children’s protection and empowerment, their continued access to education, and actively adopt a rights-based approach in their work with these children.
Please tell us a little about your personal journey. What brought you to your work at WAO?
I grew up in a rather traditional family with strong patriarchal values. I vaguely remember a close relative telling my male cousins to leave their dirty plates in the sink after they had eaten so I could wash them up. I was 9 then. I guess that was when I started being sensitive about gender equality. Then, when I was 17, I experienced sexual abuse by a relative – I shared this with a family member who removed me from that situation, but could not assist me in seeking legal redress and mental health interventions because she did not know what to do. I know that was what pushed me to want to work with child survivors of violence. I aspired and continue to aspire to be that person I wish I had when I experienced the abuse.
We understand that WAO works with child survivors of domestic violence. What are the challenges you face at work? What are the resources or requirements — what do you need to work in this field?
On an organisational level, our current challenge is to educate and constantly remind the women survivors of domestic violence that their children, like their mothers, are also survivors of domestic violence, and that they are entitled to accessing our services. It is a common misconception that children who experience violence often don’t require any intervention as they would “forget” the incident. On a higher level, it is an ongoing challenge to lobby for more protective laws and policies for women and children to be passed in Malaysia, due to the politicisation of religion, among other reasons.
What is your idea of mentoring or leadership?
I definitely think that mentoring is being in a position where I am not just the mentor but the person who is being mentored. I am always learning new things and I pride myself to be someone who is not ashamed to say “Hey, I don’t know this, please guide me”. Also, attitude is everything, especially when you are coming from a position of learning, and I am always learning. My idea of effective leadership would be someone who has extensive experience and knowledge in field work, and is able to participate in the team and not just providing supervision.
Describe a day in your life.
I consider myself lucky when I’m not woken up by a phone call in the wee hours of the morning. As a Child Care Manager who oversees the overall management of the child care centre, there are usually many emergencies to respond to, ranging from situations like eg: a child is extremely sick, or is injured, to eg: perpetrator has showed up at the gate. Our day then is revolved around ensuring the children return from school, and ensuring that they are safe, and provided with adequate care. In addition to these tasks, I develop and manage all children’s programmes within WAO, and participate in external forums and conferences pertaining to issues related to child protection and child rights.
How do you think the youth will tackle or address issues of equality, equal rights, and access to education?
I believe that new strategies developed by the UN and other bodies will empower both young women and men as partners in addressing issues of equality in terms of accessing rights, and ensuring access to education.
What would you like for people to understand better about your work?
At WAO we support women, as well as children who have endured violence. We understand that children of survivors of violence ARE survivors of violence, and recognise that they too have needs that must be addressed. This will then pave the way for children to be empowered to empower their peers and adults around them.
Which country’s policies on equal access are worth learning from and why?
I’m sure you’ve heard this one before – Iceland. They have so much to look up to, but I particularly admire that both men and women there share the power as decision-makers, and that there is a high number of men advocating for gender equality.
Why should we care about equal rights?
Why shouldn’t we? A man shouldn’t be put on a pedestal just because he is a man. A white person shouldn’t be perceived as innocent of a crime just because he/she is white. A girl should be given access to quality education, just as much as a boy should. A girl survivor of rape should not be blamed for the incident because of what she wore, or how much alcohol she consumed, it is the guy/man who should have kept it in his pants and showed respect. Why are girls deliberately silenced by their families, after being sexually assaulted? How is it okay for boys to make rape jokes? How is it okay for a 40 year old man to be married to a 9 year old girl? This here is a very ugly picture and it should not be that way.
List 3 books or tell us about three people that have impacted your life.
My mother, Phoolan Devi, and Princess Diana (in that order).
What is your advice to the youth today?
You don’t need to officially join any particular movement to fight sexism, racism, classism, xenophobia, homophobia, and violence. All you need to do is to be aware of your surroundings, and when you see or hear something that is not right (even a rape joke made by your friend/boss), you do something (help the victim, tell your friend/boss rape jokes perpetuate rape culture). Educate yourselves, there is so much stuff online!
I want to be free, but patriarchy and capitalism tether me!
Pride with OFC, 2022
Who decides what queerness looks like?