Cover story: Freedom fighter

This article first appeared in Options, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 25, 2019 - December 01, 2019.
Cover story: Freedom fighter
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From resettling refugees to helping women rebuild their lives when they escape domestic abuse, Sumitra Visvanathan has dedicated much of her career to the marginalised. In honour of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on Nov 25, Petrina Fernandez speaks to the executive director of Women’s Aid Organisation about her work in crises across borders and within the home, and the eternal optimism that helps her believe in the best of humanity despite the horrors she has witnessed.

Not all heroes wear capes, goes the saying. Some prefer to not wear shoes. Sumitra Visvanathan, for instance, pads up to us barefoot at the start our interview but genially agrees to slip on a pair of shoes to have her photo taken.

Laughing as she is put through the paces, from sinking into a chair with her feet hanging over an arm to sitting on a table with her legs stretched out before her, it is hard to reconcile this easy-going personality with the weight she carries as executive director of Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO). A quick glance through her profile underscores the gravity of the roles she has shouldered to get here: in between stints in the corporate and journalism worlds, she spent over 15 years with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) in various capacities. Her last posting was in Baghdad, where she was the senior project management officer of a field-based operation that placed her in the middle of the Iraqi insurgency.

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