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WAO Confirms Executive Director Suspended After Mass Exco Resignations

WAO confirms that Sumitra Visvanathan was suspended as ED on Feb 2, after 7 of 8 exco members quit on Jan 19. The resignations were “precipitated by the breakdown in the working relationship” between the exco and Sumitra. A new exco includes Ivy and Meera.

Women's Aid Organisation (WAO) executive director Sumitra Visvanathan speaks at the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women 2023 launch event organised by UNFPA Malaysia on November 24, 2023. Photo by UNFPA Malaysia.

KUALA LUMPUR, March 9 — The Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) confirmed today that Sumitra Visvanathan has been suspended as its executive director, after most of the organisation’s executive committee quit.

The women’s rights group said Sumitra was suspended effective last February 2, after seven of eight exco members submitted their resignations en-masse on January 19. The sole exco member who did not quit was WAO vice president Tan Hei Zel.

“The resignation was precipitated by the breakdown in the working relationship between the exco and WAO’s executive director, Sumitra Visvanathan,” WAO said in a statement today that was not attributed to any particular individual.

WAO added that an independent investigation panel has been appointed and that the new exco will “take steps to ensure that the investigation is carried out in a fair and just manner” – without specifying the issues under investigation following Sumitra’s suspension.

Ova broke the story on International Women’s Day yesterday about the mass resignations of WAO’s exco members, after the organisation’s advocacy director, Abinaya Mohan, confirmed with Ova that eight of nine exco members quit in January and that an “interim exco” now includes Sumitra’s predecessor and WAO founder, Ivy Josiah.

Sumitra insisted to Ova that most WAO staff members still recognised her as executive director, besides accusing Ivy of being “key in getting me suspended” and announcing plans to file a legal challenge against the appointment of the interim exco.

WAO’s statement today did not use the word “interim”, simply saying that based on legal advice on how to “reconstitute” the exco, as per WAO’s constitution, the exco now comprises Tan, Ivy, former WAO president Meera Samanther, as well as Maria Erica Van Wynen, Divvyananthini Manoharan, Majidah Hashim, and Shoba Aiyar – who were “invited or co-opted” into the exco.

“The primary objective of the exco is to ensure the continuity of the organisation including meeting its obligations, provision of services and the payment of salaries to its staff.”

WAO also said certain members of its exco, together with its legal advisor, met the Registrar of Societies (ROS) Selangor director last February 16 to brief the ROS on the status of the organisation, including the appointment of its “new” exco.

“Consequent to the above-mentioned meeting, the Pengarah issued a letter on the same date, i.e., 16 February 2024, advising WAO to comply with its Constitution.”

WAO added that since the constitution of its new exco, the non-governmental organisation is taking steps to raise “much-needed” funds, finalise financial statements for audit, ensure that salaries are paid “notwithstanding many challenges”, and to convene an annual general meeting (AGM) as soon as possible.

“We have informed our members that the 41st Annual General Meeting is scheduled for April 28, 2024. A formal notice to convene the AGM will be issued at the appropriate time. The timing of the AGM aligns with the ongoing audit process.

“According to WAO’s Constitution, it is a requirement for the audited accounts and WAO’s annual report to be presented at the AGM, ensuring that an audited financial report and an annual report are available for members.”

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