PETALING JAYA, Dec 16 — Datuk Dr Raj Abdul Karim has spent her entire career giving a voice to those who have been silenced against their will.
For decades, the 73-year-old who was a former Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC) president, has worked tirelessly to push for sexual and reproductive health and rights in Malaysia.
More recently, she went into the dark underbelly of human trafficking in South-east Asia to uncover the links between exploitation, sexual violence and HIV transmission.
Her efforts won her the esteemed Patron’s Award during the Malaysian AIDS Foundation (MAF)-Berjaya Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award Gala Dinner on Sunday night at the Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur, an accolade that Dr Raj described as an “honour” to receive.
The award recognises the long-standing efforts of individuals in the fight to end the AIDS crisis.
“When you work on social and humanitarian issues, you work without the thought of getting an award like this.
“When it does come, it’s a surprise and I’m grateful for the recognition,” she told Malay Mail.
Dr Raj shared how her research on sex trafficking opened her eyes to the pressing need for quantitative studies on sexual violence and its correlation to HIV infections.
The emergence of social media as a tool to lure youths into being sexually exploited is also a new challenge that humanitarians have to contend with.
“I heard sex workers telling me their stories and the violence they’ve endured is unimaginable.
“It leads to HIV because they’re exposed to different men all the time without the observation of safe sex.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have any studies that show us the prevalence of sexual violence and its relationship to HIV.”
She added that there was a need to collect more data that can be used to influence governments and policymakers to look at the whole issue of HIV in a broader sense.
Dr Raj, who was MAC president from 2012 to 2016, added that there was still much to be done to look after people living with HIV (PLHIV) in Malaysia and prevent the disease from spreading, especially now that sexual transmission accounts for the majority of new HIV infections in the country.
Other positions that she has held is as former regional director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation for the East and South-east Asia and Oceania Region.
She was also a former Suhakam commissioner.
“Sexual transmission of HIV occurs in the most marginalised groups who are difficult to reach out to,” she said, referring to men who have sex with men (MSM), transgender people, and sex workers.
“Our main concern now is figuring out how to reach out to these groups because they don’t come out into the open.
“It’s not easy because of the stigma and discrimination attached to them, so they tend stay hidden and that’s even more dangerous.”
She said there was a need to have a system where myths about HIV can be dispelled.
“This can give everybody a chance for survival and access the treatment and care that they deserve.
“The HIV and AIDS epidemic is far from over in South-east Asia. It is still there and it will continue to be there as long as people are afraid of coming out and seeking treatment.”
Despite having a long and fruitful career fighting for the rights of women and children, Dr Raj has no intention of slowing down anytime soon.
When asked what motivates her to keep pushing on in her human rights journey, she said there were still many battles left to fight when it comes to protecting society’s most vulnerable individuals.
Right now, she is working on providing shelter and care for Rohingya refugees including young mothers and their children.
“For me, it’s a process of evolvement and evolving issues. It all started with ensuring the rights of women to survival.
“When I was working in the Health Ministry before this, we never looked at universal access to sexual and reproductive health as a ‘rights’ issue, we just saw it as the right thing and the best thing to do for women.
“That’s what drives me on.”