A woman’s touch in a boys’ school
By Su-May Tan
Malaysian women share their voices with UNICEF to mark the country launch of The State of the World’s Children (SOWC) 2007 on International Women's Day.
Themed “Women and Children – The Double Dividend of Gender Equality”, the SOWC 2007 examines the discrimination and disempowerment women face throughout their lives – and outlines what must be done to eliminate gender discrimination and empower women and girls.
KUALA LUMPUR, March 2007 – Education in Victoria Institution is towards moulding every student to become a 'scholar, sportsman, and a gentleman'. Counseling teacher, Mrs Nirmala Arunasalam, 56, is helping to achieve just that. “As a woman and a mother, I visualise the needs of the students differently,” she says. “If I had the opportunity, I would very much like to have sex education, marriage and parenting skills added into the curriculum.”
For now, she has collaborated with various local NGOs to introduce a series of educational programs for adolescents. These include workshops on gender stereotyping, teenage relationships, personal safety, violence against women and HIV/AIDS awareness.
In her previous position at the Methodist Girls School (MGS) in Kuala Lumpur, Nirmala’s focus was on teaching girls how to protect themselves. “But because the perpetrators are often men and boys, we should be educating boys,” she realised. If boys were educated from a young age to respect women, there would be fewer incidences of rape and abuse, making the world a safer place for women. The opportunity to put this revelation into practice came in 2006 when Nirmala was put in charge of counseling at one of Malaysia’s elite schools, the Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur.
Educated women, educated children
Nirmala’s passion for education is matched only by her own thirst for knowledge. Being raised by a single mother after the death of her father did not hinder Nirmala’s pursuit for self-advancement. In fact, it was encouraged by her mother, a school teacher herself. Nirmala received her Bachelor of Arts (Economics) in the early seventies. Much later, she pursued a Masters in Educational Psychology and a second degree in Psychology. She is not quite finished and plans to undertake a doctorate in Psychology after her retirement in May this year.
Like many women during that time, Nirmala started as a teacher. But her big break came in 1997, when counseling was introduced to schools and she was made counseling teacher at MGS. “I found my vocation,” she said. “Because it was in that position that I could help young people. I had the job satisfaction that made me want to continue working, it was a passion.” Together with her NGO counterparts, Nirmala spent 10 years at the school running programs in sex education, HIV awareness and breast cancer.
Managing the household
If Nirmala’s passion and vision have helped society’s youth, its effects are also evident in her home. Since her husband was often away for work on police duty, Nirmala was mainly in charge of the children. “Having that independence gave me the freedom to make decisions, to do things I thought would be best for my children,” she said.
In the home, it was Nirmala who encouraged and paid for her children’s additional activities such as piano, organ and violin lessons. Although her husband was supportive of an academic education, he may not have considered an education in music seriously, she explains. As a result of her conviction and belief, both her children have had opportunities to learn more about the world they live in, having traveled to perform in Australia, Bangkok, the USA, Singapore and Macedonia since young.
The female perspective
Knowledge was key. “If I didn’t have a university education I would have felt a little less confident about handling my children’s needs,” she admits. Her experience in the education field enabled her to make informed decisions for herself and for her children. “It is about knowing where the opportunities lie,” she said. Her son and daughter have also benefited from cultural exchange programs to Germany and the USA respectively.
Both at work and at home, Nirmala brings with her an alternative edge to a male-dominated environment. She advocates education in sex, love, marriage and parenting, particularly important in today’s world.
“If we witness violence against women today, it can be attributed to a large extent to the lack of education on respect for women and the family institution,” she says. “Educational institutions should place greater priority on making ladies and gentlemen of their students.”
SOWC 2007 - Women in Malaysia Speak Out!
State of the World's Children Report 2007
Women & Children: The Double Dividend of Gender Equality
Download Report (pdf)
State of the World's Children 2007 - Malaysia