Not many people will be familiar with the name “Sarasvathy” compared to “Ambiga”. If mention the word “Jerit”, probably a small segment can recognise the name. Congrats to Sarasvathy for the award.
WHEN she was told that she was suffering from liver cancer in early 2002, journalist and campaigner for the rights of Asian women Yayori Matsui used her remaining days to lay the foundation for her long-time dream, the Women’s Active Museum of War and Peace the world’s first to focus on violence against women.
Her “crazy” courage was of no surprise to those who knew her this is the woman who “charged” Japan’s Emperor Hirohito for the crimes against Japanese comfort women during World War Two in the symbolic Women’s International War Crimes Trial in 2000.
Matsui’s whole life was one big defiance of the patriarchal Japanese society as she sought to expose the truth about the oppressions and exploitations of Japan’s marginalised communities, especially women.Fearless struggle: Sarasvathy, seen here with Prof Nakahara, has been honoured for the challenges she faced working in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.
It is in recognition of that passion and courage that an annual women’s human rights award named after the late Yayori Matsui is given out to a woman activist who best embodies her spirit since 2005.
And this year, the Yayori Award has been won for the first time by a Malaysian woman, M. Sarasvathy, 58, who has been championing the rights of disadvantaged communities in Perak for the last 40 years.
Touched by the international recognition, Sarasvathy says she is humbled to even be thought of in the same league as Matsui.
“When I read about who she was, what she was fighting for and how she was fighting, I felt so honoured. Her life story is truly inspiring,” says Sarasvathy before she left for the award ceremony that was held in Japan yesterday.
According to Prof Emeritus Michiko Nakahara, a member of the selection committee for the Yayori Award, Sarasvathy was chosen out of 20 nominees because of the challenges she faced working in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.
Crucially, she adds, the Yayori Award is not only for Sarasvathy, but for all Malaysian women.
“It is from all Japanese women we would like to send warm encouraging messages of sisterhood to all women in Malaysia who struggle for equality, freedom and justice.”
Sarasvathy is known for her tireless work with any group that she feels is being oppressed from women workers to urban settlers and farmers.
She does not hesitate to speak out against injustice even defying authorities and tempting arrest.
And her work really does cut across race and religion. Showing support at the event organised by local women movements Friends of Women and the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (Jag) to celebrate Sarasvathy’s win was Cheng Sau Ying from Kampung Pinang in Pusing, Perak.
“We did not get a good compensation from the developer who took over our land, and my friend suggested that we ask Sarasvathy to help negotiate. She helped us without charge and now she has even become a good friend,” says Cheng.
Like Matsui, Sarasvathy got her calling early; at the age of 17, she started helping a few factory workers who were being exploited by their employer to fight for better wages. She later co-founded mass movements Alaigal and Jaringan Rakyat Tertindas (Jerit).
Sarasvathy says she faced a lot of opposition from her mother for her work at first.
“My mother is very traditional, so she was not happy that I was doing this. She even locked me up to get me to stop because she said it would be difficult for me to get married.”
After meeting some of the women that she has worked with, however, her mother slowly changed her mind.
“She said that since she can’t change me, it’s better that she leave me be. Now, she even joins me,” she says, dedicating her Yayori Award to all the unsung heroes dedicating their lives to make the world a better place.