Women’s rights logo (Public domain)
ACCORDING to the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG), women in Malaysia have made little progress over the past 25 years. In a briefing for parliamentarians last week on 24 March, JAG listed out the good, the bad and the ugly that affect women.
JAG’s research into the issues that affect half our population was commendable. What was disappointing was the low turnout of Members of Parliament (MP). Parliamentary backbenchers and members of the gender caucus were invited, but only seven MPs came. They were Chua Tian Chang, Khalid Samad, Zuraida Kamaruddin, Teo Nie Ching, Fong Po Kuan and a representative for Teresa Kok — all from the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) — and independent MP Datuk Chua Soon Bui.
The extremely poor attendance by MPs and the complete absence of Barisan Nasional (BN) representatives is disappointing, more so at a time when women’s issues are growing increasingly complex. What can we glean from our MPs’ response to the JAG briefing? And how does the BN compare to the PR when it comes to women’s rights and issues?
JAG member, All Women’s Action Society senior programme officer Abigail de Vries, says the poor attendance reflects how women’s issues are a low priority for lawmakers.
“There is a perception that women in Malaysia are OK. Many are highly educated, have jobs, and that’s enough,” de Vries tells The Nut Graph.
de Vries (Courtesy of Empower) But it isn’t. To think that women are treated equally in Malaysia is to ignore women who survive below the radar of mainstream society. What about indigenous women who live far away in the rural interiors? Foreign women who are refugees and victims of human trafficking, but whom the authorities view as nothing more than illegal immigrants?
Additionally, JAG’s monitoring and lobbying for law and policy reforms over the past 25 years demonstrate that women are facing new lows. In its report The Good, Bad and Ugly, the coalition of women’s advocacy groups criticised the slow pace in reforms to protect women from violence and discrimination.
It also recognised the achievements made thus far. However, a closer look at “the good” reveals actions that did not go far beyond putting ink on paper. Laws can be amended or enacted, international treaties signed, crisis centres set up, but implementation and enforcement continue to be lacking.
Where the rubber needs to hit the road on more complex women’s issues that overlap with politics and religion, there appears to be complete lack of political will. Some of these issues include citizenship for foreign husbands; standardising syariah law across states; child custody arising from conversions to Islam; sexism in Parliament; and an insufficient code of practice against sexual harassment, when what is needed is a law.
It was these findings that JAG wanted to brief the MPs on and have a press conference about. But with just seven out of 222 MPs attending the briefing, was it a case of poor logistical planning, or lack of political will?
Nancy (Source: parlimen.gov.
my)Planning or political will
Parliamentary gender caucus chairperson Nancy Shukri says she was ill-informed about the agenda of the JAG briefing and the joint press conference JAG wanted to hold with MPs.
“It’s unfair to say that BN MPs didn’t want to attend. There wasn’t a proper agenda explained. They should have had a proper discussion with the caucus on what we were going to do.
“JAG said the agenda was about law reform, but as an MP, I’m not in the position to speak about laws that aren’t ready yet, and which are still with the relevant ministries,” Nancy tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview.
Regardless of the logistical arrangements of the briefing, it’s clear that political will is needed more than ever to empower MPs to take up gender issues. Women’s rights have moved beyond arguing about whether domestic violence is a crime, or whether there is a need to set 30% targets for participation. The JAG report indicates that women’s issues now involve overlapping jurisdictions with other authorities, which include state religious, immigration and human resources departments.
On this score, the BN government has proven itself to either be complicit in discrimination against women, or ineffective in addressing it. For example, it missed a defining moment to get to the bottom of sexual assaults against Penan women and children in a situation JAG describes as “impunity” for the perpetrators. Even if the police claimed a lack of evidence, what was stopping the government from ensuring justice was done, and the vulnerable Penan protected from future violations?
Penan mother and child (Pic courtesy of Sofiyah Israa @ Flickr)
The BN government also hasn’t addressed the contradiction between syariah law that allows women to be caned and the Criminal Procedure Code that prohibits it. It doesn’t see the point of repealing archaic laws on “enticing” married women. It is helpless in sensitising its MPs who use sexist language in Parliament. Its women, family and community development minister thankfully condemned child marriages but unfortunately, was quick to back off from concrete action, and instead deferred to the Islamic authorities.
Yet, the more complex things get, the more we seem stuck at correcting the most basic of prejudices. Cuepacs, the umbrella body of civil servants, worries that “female dominance” in the civil service will have “long-term implications on the progress and growth of the country”.
“There’s still an incredibly low level of awareness on women’s issues among ministers and lawmakers. One problem is that the ministry in charge of women’s affairs is too obsessed with the routine of providing welfare, and not focusing enough on driving policy and gender sensitisation,” says Zuraida, who is also Parti Keadilan Rakyat Wanita chief and a member of the parliamentary gender caucus.
Gender equality logo (Public domain)If pushing the women’s rights agenda begins with political will, then certain PR parties are displaying more understanding of what is at stake.
For example, the ruling government can at best say it has a target of having at least 30% women in all decision-making levels. But PKR has enshrined the same percentage for women leaders at central, state and division levels in its party constitution. At the same time, the DAP has committed to a 30% target for women participation in politics, while PAS, in Perak at least, has agreed with its PR partners to allocate 30% of seats for women candidates in the next general election.
If ever the opposition parties come to federal power, one hopes they will be able to deliver policies and laws that guarantee and implement protection and equal status for women in all fields. Their pledges will be held against them, just as promises made by the ruling government are now being called into account.