Thursday October 11, 2012
Women’s rights not there yet
By Marina Mahathir
Malaysian women’s groups have fought hard over the years and won some battles. But does this mean women are now truly equal to men in the country?
DO we women not matter at all? Are we only valuable around election time? Is the fact that we can vote the only indicator of our equality?
Women’s groups were in shock last week when – at a National Women’s Day celebration – the Women, Family and Community Development Minister stated that Malaysia had no need for a women’s rights movement because we were given equality from the start.
I understand that the remarks were off-the-cuff but it begs the question of how unimportant are Malaysian women viewed that they didn’t merit a carefully-prepared speech.
To say that we are better off than developed countries because we got the vote from the beginning is to skim the surface of history.
Yes, developed countries did not give the vote to women “from the beginning”. But they are also older countries, established during eras when archaic attitudes about women prevailed.
When we gained independence, of course we had to give women the vote because by then attitudes towards women had changed.
But what is more important is what has happened since then.
Switzerland did not give women the vote until the 1970s. But today they have had not only a woman president but half of their Cabinet members are women.
We, on the other hand, did not even appoint our first woman minister until a full 12 years after independence, despite the efforts that women put in during the independence struggle.
What’s more, we only amended our Federal Constitution to prohibit gender-based discrimination as late as 2001 – an act that even now is not fully implemented because a judge ruled that it does not apply to the private sector. Gender-based violence is also a discrimination issue because it is women who tend to suffer more.
If we had all our rights in 1957, why then did we need to fight for a Domestic Violence Act, a law that took six years to be passed by Parliament and a further two years before it could be gazetted?
Why did we need a Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce Act) in 1976 if women did not think their situation was unfair?
Why did we need the Guardianship of Infants (Amendment) Act in 1999 so that, finally, women could be recognised as guardians to their own children?
None of these changes that benefited women happened on their own.
A recent study by two American academics showed that, far more than women politicians, women’s groups are crucial in pushing for laws that benefit women.
Similarly, Malaysian women’s groups fought hard to gain these rights. They wrote memoranda, attended meetings, marched and protested. In the end they won some of the battles they fought.
Does this mean that we are now completely equal substantively to male citizens of this country? Of course not!
We are expected to work outside the home, and indeed often have no other choice, but we are still expected to cook, clean and care. This double burden can be deeply stressful especially if we have no support.
The Government has called for crčches at workplaces, but they seem to have no will to enforce that in the private sector.
But we are proud that companies are now being compelled to include women on their boards.
All well and good but the numbers being trained to do so are nowhere near the 30% government-mandated requirement. So, are we just meant to be tokens?
What is not mentioned is that when we signed up to the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, we said we would allocate 30% of the positions in all decision-making positions to women.
This means more than being on the board; this includes political positions.
So if we comply, we need to have nine women in the current Cabinet instead of the two we used to have. What’s more, 30% of all candidates in the coming elections should be women.
To say that we already have equality is to deny the very many reports on the status of women in this country that clearly states that we do not.