In Kuala Lumpur, on 23 Nov, 2011, Friends of Women with Joint Action Group for Gender Equality held a press conference to congratulate Saraswathy Muthu on receiving the Yayori award on Human Rights. Her struggle with the grassroots community started when she was 17 years old and has spanned over 40 years! This is her dedication. She has inspired many women to follow her footstep. She shared her struggle with women workers, displaced urban settlers, displaced farmers, communities faced with health hazards and she worked across racial boundaries.
Nakahara Michiko, Director of Women's Fund for Peace and Human Rights was present at the press conference to share with us on why Saras was chosen for this award. She said that the women who won this award came from Kashmir, Nepal, Guatemala, "... struggled for human rights for women in very, very difficult situations ... religiously, politically ... just like them Saras stood out ..."
The Yayori Award honours women who work at the grassroots level with socially marginalised peoples to create a 21st century free from war and discrimination against women. Established in 2005, it recognises those who best emulate the passion and courage of the late Yayori Matsui, a pioneer woman journalist and women’s rights activist in Japan.
This year’s winner is Saraswathy Muthu (Saras). She was chosen for her tireless work at raising public awareness of the plight of marginalised communities – and in particular, women – in Malaysia.
Saras began her remarkable 40-year journey as a community leader and organiser when she was 17. Through the organisation she helped co-found, Alaigal, she has stood at picket lines in support of exploited workers, and spoken-out fearlessly against injustice. She has also championed equal rights for women in poor communities, and in so doing, challenged deep-seated patriarchal cultural practices.
In a Malaysia that is increasingly divided by ethnicity and religion, Saras and Alaigal’s work has been critical in cutting across artificially constructed boundaries. These qualities of hers have been an inspiration to the youth of marginalised communities, as well as women organisers and union leaders.
Despite numerous arrests fighting for the socio-cultural, economic and political rights of marginalised peoples, Saras’ beliefs have never wavered. This year, along with a number of other women and men from her party, Parti Sosialis Malaysia, she was again arrested while on a nationwide campaign ‘Udah-lah … bersara-lah …’ calling for a change in government at the next general elections. All were remanded for a week under investigation on the charge of “waging war against the king.”
Saras and five others were subsequently detained under the Emergency Ordinance, a draconian legislation which allows for detention without trial, for their alleged role in Bersih 2.0, a coalition calling for free and fair elections.
During this period she was held in solitary confinement, and endured severe intimidation and grueling interrogation, to the point where her health was jeopardised. Local and international pressure eventually forced the government to release Saras and her comrades after they had languished in jail for almost one month.
We are extremely proud that the international community has honoured Saras, a fellow Malaysian activist, with this prestigious award. It is not only testimony of her dedication and hard work but also, what many others like her have done at the community level in Malaysia. May this inspire her and other activists to persist with our struggles.
We thank the Yayori Foundation for the encouragement and solidarity that it has extended to women’s rights activists across the globe.
The award ceremony will take place in Tokyo on 3rd December, 2011.
Website on the Yayori Award: