Spotlight On: Davina Devarajan & Arissa Jemaima Ikram, Co-Founders Of Women For Refugees

Annually, on the 8th of March, women around the world are celebrated for their perseverance in breaking barriers, for rising against the status quo and for their infinite love and care to the less fortunate. This International Women’s Day, we have highlighted nine women in the impact industry empowering other women; through providing means of income or through their fight for equal rights.

Davina Devarajan and Arissa Jemaima Ikram were just 25 and 23 when they started the Women For Refugees (WFR) initiative with a vision to help illiterate women from the refugee community learn to read and write[1]. Their formidable effort is a one-of-a-kind literacy programme that caters to refugee women, especially from the older generation who are often preliterate[2]


It was very essential for us to not pitch refugee women as a charity, where they are constantly requiring external aid and contribute back to the community. –
Arissa Jemaima Ikram, co founder of Women For Refugees [2]

With improved literacy skills, the benefits to the womenfolk are numerous, including allowing them to be more independent. One of the notable changes over the few months was the cropping up of a group of women leaders. 

Previously both Davina and Arissa liaised with a male community leader. But with the involvement of women leaders, they were able to identify specific support needs that women needed. 

Women in the refugee community need a different set of support, catered to their needs, their stories. That’s how you elevate them to play that collaborative effort effectively. This creates a ripple effect that ensures equality in the home and prevents women from being dependent on their male counterparts – often this can lead to significant abuse. – Davina Devarajan, president and executive director of Women For Refugees 

Davina recognises that women in the impact industry approach problems with a different set of lenses, perhaps, due to the shared experiences of the women themselves. Davina was raised by her single mother and she witnessed her own mother overcome abuse and financial problems while bringing up her family. The strength of her own mother helped Davina to form a formidable image of how women can be victors instead of victims. This knowledge continues to be fuel for her in her work with marginalised communities. 

Source: MM Times

In my eyes, they are all martyrs [referring to different demographics of women Davina had encountered]. But even martyrs need help – watching so many women from different backgrounds, women who go through poverty, struggle, abuse, violence and still show up every day. I want to redefine the idea of struggle, of being different, coming from less – I want to show the world how much dignity there is in these women.Davina Devarajan, president and executive director of Women For Refugees 

The grassroots movement is currently run by 20 volunteers teaching two-hour literacy classes in English and Malay in a two-story block that houses over 50 families. During the movement restrictions, classes relied on pre-recorded lessons viewed on three shared laptops. 

Through WFR, Davina has witnessed the contrast from day one and how the refugee women community are today. 

We walked into a group of slightly unsure and cautious women. Today they’re family – they welcome us with open arms, they’re louder, bolder, funnier. Their personalities start to shine around you and you realise, what they need is the ability to be seen throughout the work that you do with them. – Davina Devarajan, president and executive director of Women For Refugees

What was also encouraging is seeing many new organisations being championed by more women in the impact space. There are also a set of challenges that Davina had gone through, there are issues such as food scarcity, medical needs but also abuse cases and violence that puts the women at threat. In those times, safety is the prime concern. 

With humanitarian work, working in silos should not be in the books and what helps WFR is the collaboration with others that fills in the gap and binds together cohesively. 

Women For Refugees is where it is today because of all the pivoting and learning we’ve had to do. If I can encourage any young girl to join the space,  it would be to get comfortable with being wrong, being judged, being overlooked – it is all part of the learning process. – Davina Devarajan, president and executive director of Women For Refugees 

Explore our sources:

  1. Prestige Women. Davina Devarajan and Arissa Jemaima Ikram. Link 
  2. E.Ng. (2020). Malaysia group shows refugee women how to read and write. MM Times. Link

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