Monday, August 15

Sixty years of empowering women in Sarawak

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SFWI’s diamond jubilee signifies indomitable spirit of its members and also women’s contributions to state development

Raja Permaisuri Agong Tunku Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah (front, left) gracing the ‘Sarawak Traditional Food Cooking Demonstration’ organised by the SFWI during Her Majesty’s visit to Kuching in 2019. Seen on Tunku Azizah’s left is Minister of Women, Childhood and Community Wellbeing Development Dato Sri Fatimah Abdullah, while at centre is Norhyati.

THE Sarawak Federation of Women’s Institutes (SFWI), one of the largest women’s organisations in the state, is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.

Established in October 1962, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) is a non-racial, non-sectarian and non-political movement comprising caring, committed, dynamic and enterprising women from all across Sarawak.

Not many civic organisations are able to last this long and be successful in fulfilling their avowed mission.

SFWI’s success and longevity as a NGO is a testament to the indomitable spirit of its members and the role that the women of Sarawak play in the development of the state.

Over the past six decades, the organisation has continuously evolved to keep up with the needs and demands of the times.

Today, SFWI can boldly lay claim to being an entity that has played a crucial role as a catalyst in empowering women and transforming Sarawak’s dynamic communities.

Mission: To empower women of Sarawak

SFWI was originally set up to teach women the right method of farming, as most of the womenfolk in the rural areas of the state then were the ones working on the fields.

Federation’s founder Elizabeth O’Kelly was invited to Sarawak to set up the Women Institute (WI) with a grant from the Asia Foundation.

O’Kelly needed to reach out to rural women of Sarawak and naturally, she needed to recruit someone who could help her undertake such a task.

Dato Rugayah Abdul Majid, who has a Degree in Community Development with a minor in Rural Economics, ended up being the most qualified person to assist in establishing the WI and subsequently, she was appointed as the assistant national organiser for the institute, which was under the Department of Agriculture Sarawak back then.

Dato Rugayah Abdul Majid is among the SFWI’s pioneers.

Rugayah recounted how certain decisions were made in relation to the organisation, with them started talking to women and getting to know their needs and interests.

It was then when they realised the main thing that they needed to do for the women of Sarawak was to make them see what they themselves could do to improve their living conditions.

“During those initial months of establishing SFWI and talking to as many women as we could, it became very clear to us that it should be an organisation that would work for women’s empowerment.

“The idea was for SFWI to play a major role in improving the living conditions of Sarawak women. At the outset, we worked hard in instilling that common understanding among us all that if we worked together, we would be able to change our situations for the better.

“We want them to see their latent potential to be an effective catalyst in changing their communities for the better,” said Rugayah.

As the women interacted with one another and took part in the planning process for the organisation’s activities and projects, they realised that all of them shared the same needs and aspirations for their families and communities. Amongst the common wishes shared by the women of SFWI was for their families to be safe and healthy, and for their children to fulfil their potential.

This shared purpose helped bolster the multicultural building blocks of the SFWI.

While the NGO has evolved in its methods and projects, it has never deviated from the one overriding mission of women empowerment for the good of their families and communities throughout all these years.

The organisation has afforded the women of Sarawak, regardless of their ethnicities and different backgrounds, the avenue to apply their own skills, abilities and contributions, as well as to work together towards fulfilling their aspirations for their families to be healthy, happy, successful and living in harmony together within their homes and with others in their communities.

Nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit

Photo taken during Pesta Cucur in Limbang in 2017, shows SFWI members frying some ‘cucur’ (fritters) at their stall.

SFWI members have remained strong in their internal culture of boosting each other’s confidence and supporting each other’s endeavours.

It comes integral to the culture of the organisation to have a strong faith in the creative and enterprising abilities of their members.

Members would proudly say ‘yes’ if anyone asked them if their organisation was all about cooking, as their answer meant that they stayed true to their mission of empowering women by making them realise that they could change their children and their communities’ destiny – starting in the kitchen.

SFWI’s cooking activities have not only helped address the major issues affecting Sarawak’s children — malnutrition and underperformance in school; moreover, the learning experiences shared while working in their kitchens have also birthed the desire among the women to educate themselves in other areas that would help improve the lives of their families.

As well, these activities have instilled the entrepreneurial spirit in many Sarawak’s rural-based women.

Smart partnerships

Norhyati (fourth right) together with ACWW Area President for Southeast Asia and the Far East, Norjanah Razali (centre) and other SFWI members in a group photo during the ACWW Conference 2019 in Melbourne.

In much the same way that SFWI has made its members realise that it is only by working together that they can accomplish anything they set their hearts and minds to do, it also applies the same principle as an organisation.

SFWI recognises that it can only be effective in working for its avowed mission when it builds and nurtures fruitful collaborations and smart partnerships with other entities, be they at state, national or international level.

Barely two years in existence, the SFWI hosted the Third Asian Regional Conference of the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW) in August 1964, in which they welcomed delegates and observers from Malaysia, lndia, Sikkim, Singapore, Australia and Brunei to the event.

Since then, SFWI leaders have been actively participating in all ACWW activities and conferences held in different countries, for knowledge-sharing and networking.

By doing so, they have put the dynamism of Sarawak women onto the world arena of dynamic and enterprising women.

Since then, Sarawak has hosted ACWW international conferences five times.

SFWI has strong linkages with women’s organisations as well as government entities involved in promoting women’s role in development at state and federal levels.

It is also an active member of the National Advisory Council for the Integration of Women in Development (NACIWID) – a machinery set up by the federal government to act as an advisory body to the government as well as the NGOs on matters pertaining to women’s issues and their roles in development.

The council was also tasked with coordinating activities and projects by the government and NGOs related to women’s roles in development.

In keeping with this culture of collaboration, SFWI has a reputation for being the ‘go-to’ entity when other agencies seek to start programmes or projects aimed at tapping, developing and upgrading Sarawak women’s potentials and capabilities in various areas.

As more and more agencies and institutions seek the assistance of the organisation to implement their respective programmes and projects relevant to women’s roles and contributions in development, SFWI begins to realise that there is a need for a government body in Sarawak to oversee and coordinate programmes and projects targeting women.

It then proposed the setting up of the Women’s Bureau, which was the precursor of the present-day Women’s Department within the Ministry of Women, Childhood and Community Wellbeing Development.

Good governance, practices in digital age

In keeping with the digital age, SFWI is making efforts to strengthen its organisational capacity to keep up with the demands of a technology-driven era.

Primarily, it is making use of digital technology in strengthening its good governance and practices by enhancing its transparency and accountability.

A comprehensive strategic planning exercise was completed in 2018 under the leadership of SFWI’s present chairperson Dato Norhyati Ismail.

In the digital age, we cannot afford any slip up in governing our organisations. — Dato Norhyati Ismail

This exercise yielded a ‘comprehensive strategic plan’ detailing the processes, procedures and practices that SFWI must follow to ensure integrity and good governance in the way it undertakes projects and activities.

Moreover, in keeping with the demands of the global digital economy, the plan also incorporated the measures that would have the organisation be ready and able to take advantage of the opportunities that the digital economy would afford the women of Sarawak.

“In the digital age, we cannot afford any slip up in governing our organisations.

“All organisations are now subject to the glare of social media and as such, we must ensure that our processes, procedures and practices are above-board, following good, but strict principles of governance.

“We must continue to implement our projects and activities with accountability and integrity,” said Norhyati.

Moving forward, she said SFWI had begun to gear itself up to actively contribute towards empowering women to take advantage of the opportunities presented by Sarawak’s digital economy transformation.

“We are grateful for the confidence given to Sarawak women by our Premier Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg when he recently declared that women had the capacity to involve themselves in economic activities based on technology,” she said.

According to Norhyati, SFWI’s primary task now is to help equip its members to take full advantage of the opportunities available to them in Sarawak’s digital economy thrust.

“We are going to do this by strengthening our partnerships and collaborations with other institutions, providing capacity building on digital skills, knowledge and technological resources that our members can avail of,” she pointed out.

Keeping spirit of volunteerism alive

SFWI headquarters at Green Road in Kuching.

Throughout the years, it has become imprinted in the organisational DNA of SFWI to be in the thick of the action when a community needs ‘caring hearts, creative minds and hardworking hands’.

SFWI has grown and keeps on growing because its members do their acts of making a difference in others’ lives without any fanfare.

One needs to only look around the communities in Sarawak where there is an SFWI branch to see evidence of the impact of the collective strength and dynamism of the women of Sarawak.

In these communities, there would no doubt be individuals or families or even whole villages or neighbourhoods that can point to an example of changed scenarios for the better as a result of SFWI’s programmes and activities being run over the last 60 years.

For the daughters, granddaughters, nieces, and grandnieces of these women, they can stand tall and proud because they have in their family one or several women having actively contributed to the changed landscape of Sarawak’s development.

The women who have learned that nutrition, sanitation, clean water, literacy, applying their creativity, sharing their knowledge and cherishing their enduring bonds of friendships can make a vast difference in the quality of life of their families and in the economic growth of their communities.

The pioneers of SFWI and those who came after them have played a crucial role in paving the way for the succeeding generations of women in Sarawak. The women of today are now enjoying the fruit of their labour, sacrifices and dedication.

SFWI is, without a doubt, an organisation that because of its proven culture of ‘Care, Compassion, Commitment’ for the common good, had been and would be able to keep the torch of women’s empowerment burning bright throughout all the changes and challenges of the times.