Legal Support Services for women and children

SAWO’s Legal Programme renders legal consultancy, advisory and representation services to women and families who contact the SAWO Helpline or are referred by individuals, other women NGOs, groups and/or agencies providing support services to women and families in crisis. Clients referred to us are often women who are marginalised with little means and resources, such as single mothers and foreign women, who have legal and other socio-economic problems and who cannot access existing services and assistance provided by government agencies and other NGOs.

Some of the organisations that have referred cases to the SAWO Legal Centre are the Medical Social Unit of Queen Elizabeth Hospital, West Coast Single Mother’s Association and various parishes.

Aside from legal advisory services provided over the telephone and face to face, the Legal Centre provided legal assistance and representation to no fewer than 20 women and families in crisis in 2008 and another 25 women and families in 2009. The cases related to legal issues arising mostly from relationship and family breakdown which involved instituting divorce, custody and maintenance proceedings, immigration issues faced by foreign women and issues pertaining to the citizenship status of their children, issues relating to restriction on media reporting and protection of identity of minors in criminal proceedings.

A major activity undertaken by the Legal Centre is to hold a watching brief on behalf of public interest groups in criminal trials involving violence committed against women and children. Any inadequacies of the trial process and judicial system observed by the counsel appointed by us to hold the watching brief are fed back to our NGO clients, which can then take appropriate action to press the authorities concerned for improvements or changes.

Ms Mary Lee was appointed by SAWO, Bukit Harapan Shelter Home and Seri Murni Crisis Centre as counsel to hold a watching brief in 2008 and 2009 in the first two cases of human trafficking prosecuted in Sabah, namely PP v Chong Bong Beng & 4 others and PP v Lim Se Lan & Ling Siew Ling which involved Filipinas. The accused in both cases were charged with exploiting the Filipinas for prostitution and other vice activities. The court proceedings were highlighted by the local media. Please see accompanying newspaper reports attached.

Although the accused in both cases were acquitted, the watching brief was valuable as they provided us with many insights to the issues and weaknesses that need to be addressed in order to strengthen the law and prosecution against human traffickers. For example, the daily needs and shelter for the women before and during the trials have to be provided for as they are no longer able to work. They are also unable to remit money home to their families and other commitments and are thus most reluctant to remain as witnesses for the prosecution. Through the watching brief, we are also aware of the scarce resources and constraints of the prosecution which hamper their ability to mount an effective case against the accused. We were also privileged to know the late Mr Finardo G. Cabilao, Social Welfare Attache’, Embassy of the Philippines who was deeply committed in his fight against human trafficking.

SAWO was also invited to conduct talks and training to raise awareness of gender issues and the legal rights of women and children, such as laws affecting women and children, human rights of women and children, and sexual harassment. Talks presented by Ms Mary Lee included Violation of Human Rights: Rights of Women and Children organised by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) for Ketua Polis Balai Sabah in 2008 and 2009, Laws affecting Women and Children organised by the Sabah  Society for the Blind for members, An Overview of Violence against Women (VAM) In Sabah organised by Polis Diraja Malaysia Kontinjen Sabah.

We acknowledge with deep gratitude the compassionate financial support that the German Committee of the Women’s World Day of Prayer extends to our legal support services. The grant comes from the collection of the ecumenical World Day of Prayer Services on the first Friday in March each year. It represents an act of solidarity made by women for women to promote the struggle and aspirations of women in all parts of the world, as well as the promotion of ecumenical fellowship.