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Monday, May 6, 2002

The Net: A life-saver … really


PETALING JAYA: The Internet has certainly changed the way we communicate with each other, and websites have become an important source of information – but how many have actually saved lives?

Well, there’s at least one, and it’s a local one at that –, the website of the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), a non-profit, non-religious and independent body that fights against discrimination and especially violence against women.

The website was launched in November, 2000 to serve as a resource centre for people looking for information on women-related issues such as rape, abuse, etc.

“We used to get a lot of calls from students and researchers especially, looking for statistics or case studies,” WAO executive director Ivy Josiah told In.Tech recently.

“With a website, we felt that we could provide a resource centre that these students and researchers could refer to whenever they needed information about women and issues relating to women,” she said.

Little did anyone suspect that the website would one day help save someone’s life.

According to Josiah, it all started with a phone call she received from a young man called Matthew (not his real name) in Britain, on a Friday evening sometime in March.

“The moment I heard a man’s voice asking if he had reached WAO, my defences were up,” she said. “I became even more sceptical when he said that he was calling from Britain.”

According to Josiah, WAO gets a lot of prank calls, or emotional calls from husbands looking for their wives and kids.

“Since WAO provides shelter for many abused victims, we have to be very careful when dealing with these types of calls,” she said.

Since she could not be absolutely certain if Matthew was telling the truth or pulling a prank, she spoke politely and asked him how she could help him.

“That’s when he told me that he was calling us because he was worried about his mother Grace (not her real name), who was at home alone in Damansara (a suburb in Petaling Jaya) at that moment.

“He said that he was afraid that his mother might have done something to hurt herself because she had sounded very distressed when she called him earlier that day to tell him about some very shocking news she had just received about her husband.

“He also said that he had became even more worried when he tried contacting her at home but could not reach her on the phone, even though he had only spoken to her minutes earlier,” she said.

Josiah asked for his mother’s phone number and address, as well as Matthew’s contact details, and promised to get back to him as soon as she had determined what was going on.

“As soon as he hung up, I told my staff to try calling the house to see if there was something really wrong with the phone line.

“Sure enough, the phone line was engaged. So we contacted Telekom Malaysia Bhd to see if perhaps they could intervene, which they’re allowed to do so in cases of emergency.

“Telekom however informed us that they could not intercept the call because the phone was probably off the hook. That’s when we started getting really worried as well,” said Josiah.

In the meantime, a WAO staff Anne (not her real name) who happened to live in the area volunteered to drive by the house and check on Matthew’s mother.

“It was very brave of Anne to offer to drive to Grace’s house at that moment, since WAO volunteers do not usually go to victims’ houses, but rather have them come to us.

“I warned her however to be very careful when she got there because I did not want her to get scolded for trespassing or anything like that,” said Josiah.

When Anne arrived at the house, she found the door slightly ajar, so she started calling out loudly and repeatedly.

There was no answer, but Anne heard someone crying as if she were in a lot of pain, and decided to enter the house.

Anne found Matthew’s mother lying on the floor upstairs in a very distressed state, crying helplessly. She immediately got Grace to sit up and started talking to her … and that’s when she found out that Grace had taken something.

“Thankfully, it was not serious enough to do kill her,” said Josiah. “Matthew’s mother was so emotionally distressed at that moment that Anne had to sit and counsel her before taking her to the nearest clinic for some medical attention.

“As soon as Anne contacted us to let us know that Grace was going to be alright, I immediately called up Matthew and told him what had happened and that he could now call his mother at home,” said Josiah.

According to Josiah, it was only then that it occurred to her to ask Matthew how he had come by WAO’s phone number in the first place.

“He told me that when he could not reach his mother by phone, he went online and started looking for women organisations in Malaysia – that’s when he found the WAO website with our contact number on listed on it.

“Imagine my surprise when I heard that,” she said.

“It was only then that I realised how very real the information on our website could be to some people,” she said. “I never realised that someone could actually have an immediate connection to a website like that.”

“Knowing that our website had helped save a life, was the best news we’ve had in a long time.

“It was a team effort and we were all very glad to have been there to help Matthew and to be able to provide that emotional support and counselling that his mother needed at that moment,” she said.The WAO website, which features information on research and advocacy, services, news, information on violence against women as well as links to various other women-related organisations throughout the country, presently receives 550 hits a month.

All information is provided by WAO staff.

According to WAO communications officer and website coordinator Jaclyn Kee, the organisation is planning to revamp the website to include more critical information, opinion pieces and current issues.

“We want to make the website more dynamic and user-friendly so that women – especially those who need help but are too afraid or shy to call us – can go online and get the help they need from the website instead,” she said.

Kee said that by providing information – such as guidelines on what to do or how to help someone who is being abused or sexually harassed – the organisation hoped to be able to help victims who were too shy or afraid to come out and ask for help.

“Although WAO encourages face-to-face counselling, we hope that by providing women with the information and help they need online, we can help prevent more women from becoming victims of abuse,” she said.

WAO has been in operations since 1981 and aims to promote and create the respect, protection and fulfilment of equal rights for women.

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