The Butterfly Effect - President’s Address, Annual General Meeting of the Association of Women Lawyers 27 April 2017

A warm welcome to all of you. Thank you for attending AWL’s 34th Annual General Meeting. It is marvellous to see new and familiar faces amongst us. For the benefit of our new members, it would be appropriate for me to begin with a brief history of AWL.
AWL was established in 1983 by the diligence, foresight, sacrifice and commitment on the part of our founding members -  Dato’ Noor Farida Ariffin, Tan Sri Dato Seri Siti Norma Yaacob, Dato’ Ambiga Sreenivasan and Chen Kah Leng. In those early years, AWL was one of five (5) women’s groups[1] whose tireless advocacy and lobbying efforts culminated  in the passing of the Domestic Violence Act 1994[2]. Malaysia was a pioneer and the first country in the Asia-Pacific region then to have domestic violence legislation.
However, subsequent to those early trail-blazing years, AWL, under the unfortunate moniker of FOWL[3] (Federation of Women Lawyers, Malaysia), fell into a downward spiral and appeared to have lost its significance for well over a decade.
Fortunately, in 2008, we managed to shed our FOWL feathers and went through a process of renewal and reinvention, emerging like a phoenix from the ashes. A few individuals were instrumental in leading this change to revamp the society’s structure and mission. Some of these individuals are here with us today, Ms Jane Pragasam, Ms Vicky Alahakone and our immediate past President, Ms Meera Samanther. 
As the society began to regain its footing, there was recognition of the need to support female lawyers in the profession but empirical data was required to provide credibility to any proposals or projects for change.
The beginnings of an idea for a survey was suggested[4] over a latte by Sheena Gurbakhash to our immediate past-President, Ms Meera Samanther. On 26 June 2014, that idea became a reality! The Findings of the Baseline Survey[5]on the Working Conditions of Male and Female Lawyers in KL & Selangor was officially launched at the KL Bar Auditorium with copies of the Baseline Survey ceremoniously handed to the then President of the Malaysian Bar[6](Mr. Christopher Leong) and both Chairmen of the KL and Selangor State Bars. Notably at that time, no female lawyer had ever held the chairman post for both State Bars.
The AWL Baseline Survey provides hard data that women lawyers faced gender discrimination and vindicated what in the past, had been mere anecdotal accounts.  Key areas were identified with recommendations and programmes to eradicate gender inequality in the legal profession. 
In October 2016, AWL was invited by the Thailand Institute of Justice (TIJ) to participate in the South East Asian Regional Roundtable Discussion on “Women As Justice-Makers[7] held in Bangkok. We were most elated to have been given the privilege of presenting a copy of our AWL Baseline Survey to the then Australian Ambassador for Women & Girls, H.E. Natasha Stott Despoja.
The AWL Baseline Survey provided the seed that grew into an organic collaboration between AWL and the Bar Council, leading to the formation of the Gender Equality Initiatives (GEI), a platform to raise awareness on issues on gender discrimination amongst students of local law colleges.
Last year, the theme “Women in Leadership Positions” was selected for the GEI Colloquium[8] held in June, 2016 and the GEI Moot in November 2016. Special thanks to the organising team led by Meera Samantha and Santhi Latha, our Secretary, Kathlyn Lee who delivered the Colloquium keynote address and our Treasurer, Daniella Zulkifili who crafted the moot problems based on real-life case studies. The GEI theme and moot questions were intended to make the students to think and analyse why was there a dearth of women in leadership roles. Is there discrimination? If yes, why does such discrimination exist? What were the underlying root causes? These questions and more, highlight and bring into focus the barriers to a woman’s career and leadership progression - issues such as pregnancy and the double burden of child and elder care.
To me, it was an extremely befitting theme given my own personal experiences and the internal mental struggles I had to overcome before deciding to stand for the post of Chair at the Kuala Lumpur Bar Elections earlier this year, on 23 February 2017. But I did it! We did it!
I now move on to the AWL Annual Report which chronicles the hard work of the society. The successful implementation of our projects was only possible with the passion and dedication demonstrated by my fellow Exco members. We do this work not for ourselves. Our success and satisfaction comes from helping other people, advocating for gender-sensitive laws and policies[9], working for a more inclusive bar and educating others[10]. We work so that the term “feminist” will one day shed its unfair negative connotations and to narrow the gender gap[11].
The next stage is for AWL to continue on its mission to advocate for an enabling environment for women lawyers. A platform for women lawyers to speak out about what we can do for one another. Mentoring, friendships, supportive networks whether formal or informal. To help someone behind us to accomplish and fulfil their fullest potential, to level the playing field.
Next, is a project close to my heart, the AWL’s Child Sexual Crimes team. This originally began in late 2015 as a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) project in collaboration with the AG’s Chambers, WCC Penang, relevant governmental stakeholders and child-focused NGOs.

In 2016, one representative each from AWL and WCC Penang, were selected to represent the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) at the Sexual Crimes Taskforce[12] which led to the eventual tabling of the Sexual Offences Against Children Bill (SOAC)[13]. It gives me great delight to inform you today that the SOAC Bill was passed last night by the Dewan Negara[14].

We would like to thank Melissa Akhir of WCC Penang and our Vice President, Tham Hui Ying. Melissa (also an AWL member) and Hui Ying were tremendous sources of support during the hectic weeks in March and April this year during our SOAC engagement with Parliamentarians. It’s been a wonderful journey. So far, what moves each and every one of us is the possibility of making a difference and the exhilarating feeling that comes when we see it crystallise and happen.

Needless to say, our work to strengthen victim support services for child victims of sexual crimes is far from over. AWL continues to support the Star’s R.AGE Team in this area. Most recently, we have been invited to participate in the filming of a mock trial[15] on the new offence of sexual grooming, to take place next Saturday. 

I don’t believe anyone has to wait to make a difference. Your ability to impact others never stops. If you say no, you only shut yourself from opportunities, like attending a networking event, meeting new people and transforming mindsets, others and yours. So what I would advise is, be open to opportunity and from my personal experience, life has begun to change in a very positive way. It has not always been easy, it is hard work, there are costs and sacrifice involved. However, we should take on the challenge and stretch ourselves to gain new experiences and skill sets.
To conclude, how many of you have heard of the Butterfly Effect[16]?  I read about this recently and it’s a powerful illustration of how little acts can result in dramatic effects. The butterfly effect chaos theory is that a butterfly flapping its wings in South America can affect weather patterns causing a typhoon halfway around the world!
So, we owe it to the next generation of women lawyers to put our hands down and pull them up. These small gestures will have tremendous and lasting impact on the careers of women. Together, we can be very powerful. Let us be part of the solution. Let us effect amazing change…  just like those butterflies, right here in Malaysia.
Thank you.
Association of Women Lawyers (2015-2017)
[1] Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), Association of Women’s Lawyers (AWL), Malaysian Trade Unions Congress Women’s Section, University Women’s Association (University Malaya) and the Selangor and Federal Territory Consumers’ Association
[7] “Women and girls in the justice system should not only been seen as “passive citizens, victims, inmates or mere onlookers but also as lawmakers, law enforcers, law supporters and indispensable resources for the system reform.”
Malaysia is placed 106 out of 144 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index 2016
[12] “Azalina to head new taskforce on crimes against children”
[13] Predator in my Phone “Congratulations Malaysia, We did it.”
[14] 26 April, 2017. “Dewan Negara Passes Sexual Offences Against Children Bill 2017”
[15] At ILKAP on 6 May 2017