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Mass Exco Resignations Hit WAO, Executive Director Defies Ouster Attempts

Internal turmoil is roiling the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), after the resignations of 8 of 9 exco members in Jan. WAO ED Sumitra Visvanathan says she’s fighting attempts to suspend her and will legally challenge the appointment of an interim exco.

Women's Aid Organisation (WAO) executive director Sumitra Visvanathan speaks at the Malaysia Women and Girls Forum (MWGF) 2022 organised by UNFPA Malaysia on December 15, 2022. Photo by MWGF Secretariat.

KUALA LUMPUR, March 8 — The Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), one of Malaysia’s oldest women’s rights groups, has been hit by internal turmoil, following the resignations of nearly its entire executive committee last January.

WAO executive director Sumitra Visvanathan – who assumed her position nearly a decade ago in October 2014 – revealed that she is fighting attempts to suspend her from office, after the appointment of an interim exco that included Sumitra’s predecessor and WAO founder, Ivy Josiah.

Sumitra told Ova today that the appointment of the interim exco was in violation of the Registrar of Societies’ (ROS) regulations and that her lawyer would mount a challenge against it.

Sumitra also accused Ivy of being “key in getting me suspended”, but maintained that she is still the executive director of WAO. 

“Most of the staff at WAO still recognise me as the executive director,” Sumitra said, adding that she would explain the situation further in an upcoming interview with Ova.

WAO advocacy director Abinaya Mohan confirmed that eight of nine exco members quit their positions last January and that there is now an interim exco that includes Ivy. 

“There is no resolution to a new and permanent exco as the AGM (annual general meeting) will be taking place in April,” Abinaya told Ova.

When asked about the reason for the resignations of most of WAO’s exco members and to confirm if Sumitra was still the executive director, Abinaya declined to comment further due to the “precarity of the situation”.

Ova was unable to contact Ivy at the time of writing.

According to a LinkedIn post by WAO, its exco members for 2023 to 2025 are Sharmila Ravindran (president), Tan Hei Zel (vice president), Hew Hui Shan (treasurer), Lim Tai Ching (assistant treasurer), Kavita Subramaniam (secretary), Cynthia Anand (assistant secretary), Alya Aisyah Fadil (exco member), Dr Nalini Velaitham (exco member), and Kaberi Dutta (exco member).

It is not known which exco member is the remaining one who did not quit in January. 

Sumitra has been the executive director of WAO for almost 10 years now after her appointment in October 2014, replacing Ivy – one of Malaysia’s most prolific women’s rights activists who served as WAO executive director for 19 years from January 1995 to December 2014.

WAO is a non-governmental organisation with the stated mission of ending violence against women and promoting gender equality in Malaysia.

Founded in 1982, WAO established Malaysia’s first domestic violence shelter and, according to its website, is the largest service provider for domestic violence survivors in the country.

Correction note: The fifth paragraph has been corrected to state “most of the staff” instead of the originally reported “all of the staff”.

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