I have a background in child psychology. After graduating with a Masters in Child & Adolescent Mental Health from UCL, London in 2013, I returned home to Malaysia and  wanted to work in a setting whereby I could advocate and speak for children who “don’t have a voice” and assist them in any way that I can. I worked at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for seven years, from 2013 until November 2020. At UNHCR, I case managed many vulnerable children (eg: child marriage cases, children who have been abused, children who have been trafficked or exploited). Many refugee children are not able to practice their rights according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) due to their circumstances.

When I learned about the current project  I am involved with at HOST International Malaysia, which is also implemented by UNICEF and co-funded by the European Union and UNICEF in Malaysia, I was very interested in its’ objective; to strengthen community-based child protection mechanisms for 350 refugee children in the context of COVID-19 in Malaysia. I wanted to  be a part of  the project whereby I could enhance my skills as a supervisor, network and engage with more partners/ organizations that can assist refugee children, as well as conduct trainings whenever possible and incorporate my knowledge on mental health during these trainings/ workshops. I hope to enlighten and educate others on the importance of mental health and being aware of the various protection issues refugee children experience.

Presently, I am the project coordinator for HOST International Malaysia. My role is to supervise and train caseworkers from a local organisation called MKKM (Malaysian Council for Child Welfare). I am the main focal point of referrals coming in from UNHCR and other organizations. I also monitor and review case management reports and ensure that the reports are submitted in a timely manner. In addition to the above, my team and I are constantly working hard to build an effective working relationship with partners who will be able to further assist the children that are being case managed.

Most of the caseload at HOST are child marriage cases. These girls believe that they HAVE to marry because they need to respect their parents’ decision, or they marry hoping to ease their family’s financial burden.  Some elope because they follow the footsteps of their peers or older sisters.  What they do not know is that by being a child bride, their childhood is robbed from them, they can become victims of domestic violence or sexual and gender-based violence(SGBV), they are at risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, their health can be compromised or they may feel isolated and they can develop mental health issues.

We humanitarian workers strive to do what we can for our refugee clients, to the very best of our ability and within our capacity.  The most wonderful thing about working at HOST is that we can partner up with other organizations and provide appropriate interventions in a timely manner, for these refugee children such as children at risk of child marriage or trafficking. The team at HOST International Malaysia, which include refugee community members, have been trained in child protection issues and are able to advise the children and their family members on the implications of child marriage. We can continue to monitor cases to ensure that the child continues to live in a safe environment.  We are also in a fortunate position whereby we can engage with organizations that can assist girls who are interested in attending school or receiving vocational training. In fact, many of these girls would share during their interview that they yearn for an education because they wish to have a bright future.

My hope via this project is to reach out to more young girls – especially those involved in early marriages and learn about their case history, their needs and consequently link them up with the appropriate services that can help them emotionally, mentally as well as empower them.  These young girls NEED to know that they can reach for the stars. They can become strong, independent young women. They should dare to dream. There is nothing they cannot do.

Ashwini