The woman's man

AMONG the many stories of women being blamed for crimes committed against them – rape, domestic abuse, snatch theft; pick your poison – and the many narratives along the theme of "Well, she asked for it," it's heartening to see men in the front lines of the fight for gender equality.

More often than not, one of those men is 28-year-old Yu Ren Chung (pix), Advocacy Manager for the non-profit Women's Aid Organisation (WAO).

Although at the time of writing, he's about to embark on a year of study leave to pursue a master's degree, he's adamant that he'll be back to serve WAO – and by extension, the women and children of Malaysia – as soon as he's completed his studies. In his own words: "Why should men care about women's rights? Because women are human beings."

Why did you choose to join WAO, given your background in electrical engineering?
I loved science and engineering. But as I progressed through my undergraduate years, I gained a broader understanding of what it would take to address injustices in the world. I realised that the main obstruction to change was a dearth in political will to implement effective and just public policies. I ended up double-majoring in Economics and Electrical Engineering and minoring in Environmental Policy and Culture. Joining WAO made sense – I was joining an organisation at the forefront of advocating for systematic improvements in violence against women, and human rights more broadly.

How do you feel as one of the few men involved in advocating for women's rights?
Sometimes people applaud me for being involved in the women's movement, but I don't think this is really merited. A woman who excels in a male-dominated field is rightly celebrated, because despite the gender-based challenges that she faces, she still succeeds. But for men working in a women-dominated field, male privilege still exists. In any case, it's our collective responsibility to end violence against women.

How do you feel about the women's rights scene in Malaysia?
Domestic violence is a particularly heinous form of discrimination against women, which needs to be addressed more urgently. A study by Universiti Sains Malaysia released last year estimated that 9% of ever-partnered women in Peninsular Malaysia have experienced domestic violence, suggesting that roughly 800,000 women in Malaysia are presently experiencing or have experienced abuse.

The 2014 Global Gender Gap Report, published by the World Economic Forum, ranked Malaysia 107 (out of 142 countries) in gender equality. One particularly glaring gap pointed out by the report is the inequality in political empowerment, where Malaysia ranks a dismal 132nd. Having more women in parliament and state legislatures will likely help ensure women's issues receive more attention.

Why is it important for men to care about women's rights?
The basic idea of feminism is the recognition that we live in an unequal society where women enjoy fewer rights and opportunities compared to men, and the acknowledgment that action needs to be taken to remove this inequality. Some men don't understand the need for feminism, because they simply have never experienced the discrimination faced by women on a daily basis. My message to these men is, talk to a woman – your sister, your partner, or a friend – and ask them about their experiences as women or girls. Listen to what they have to say.

Some men feel threatened by feminism. Addressing this is more complex, because it is political. Fundamentally, these men don't want their privileges to be taken away. Building understanding can be productive. But often privilege and power are not given up easily, and political action becomes necessary to change minds and behaviours.

What has been the most rewarding part of your job so far?
Advocacy outcomes are rarely achieved quickly. But I've seen how our work – in collaboration with allies – has created meaningful policy changes. It's a humbling experience to be part of an NGO that changes the lives of hundreds of women and children directly affected by domestic violence each year.

Heroes: The social worker, volunteer and survivor.
Favourite way to relax: Having dinner with his wife.
Favourite books: Carter Beats The Devil (Glen David Gold), Mountains Beyond Mountains (Tracy Kidder), Three Kingdoms (Luo Guanzhong) and Karpal Singh: Tiger of Jelutong (Tim Donoghue).
Favourite hang-out: Cafes with Wi-fi that serve soy milk in their drinks.

Women's Aid Organisation (WAO) provides temporary shelter, social work and counselling services for domestic violence survivors. Call 03-7956 3488 for more information.