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Thursday August 29, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Thursday August 29, 2013 MYT 1:12:26 PM
by s. indramalar
Musawah director Zainah Anwar.
Women activists recently gathered to discuss the state of women's and children’s rights in Malaysia.
THE function room at the Petaling Jaya Hilton was packed to the brim last Saturday with women’s and children’s rights advocates, policymakers, government agency representatives and civil society groups, all of whom were brought together to discuss the kinks in the law and enforcement of laws pertaining to women’s and children’s rights.
The public forum, The Rights of Women and Children: A National Concern, was initiated by the Attorney-General’s Chambers and organised by the Razak School of Government and among the subjects discussed were gender roles and stereotyping, exploitation of women and children in laws and policies, healthcare as well as the efficacy of charter and conventions pertaining to the subject.
Made up of mostly women, the group of 120 or so participants were largely familiar with each other – the family of activists in Malaysia is not large but have a shared passion for justice and equality for women and the care and right-treatment of children.
Among those present were the director of Musawah, a global movement for the equality and justice of Muslim women, Zainah Anwar, director of the Women’s Development Research Centre (Kanita) based at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang Dr Noraida Endut, Women’s Aid Organisation executive director Ivy Josiah, Sharmila Sekaran from Voice of Children, Suhakam Commissioner James Nayagam, director of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch-Asia Shanthi Dairiam and programme director of the Women’s Centre for Change, Penang, Dr Prema Devaraj.
Many issues were raised at the forum. Zainah gave an impassioned presentation about the worrying trends in Islamic law reforms in the country that have been increasingly discriminative towards women. She urged the Government to look at international progressive scholarship on justice, equality and gender in Islam and allow Muslim women the equality that’s accorded to non-muslim women in the country, particularly in personal and family matters.
“There has been a regression in the rights of Muslim women in this country. Laws have become more restrictive and more intolerant and it is simply unacceptable. For Muslim women, the trend has been towards inequality. Muslim women don’t enjoy the equality that is available to non-Muslim women and we want to know what the Government’s stand on this is,” she said.
Zainah also urged Attorney-General Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail to update participants on the proposed ammedments to the country’s Islamic Family Law that were scheduled to be tabled in Parliament in 2009. The proposed amendments were subsequently held back because the Conference of Rulers wanted time to consult with the respective state religious councils.
Another issue that was raised was the need for the public - particularly women - to know what is due to them, particularly in relation to the international charters and conventions that the government has signed on to such as the United Nations’ Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) which the Malaysian government committed to in 1995.
Cedaw sets out a clear definition of discrimination against women. The convention also outlines the obligations of countries that have ratified the convention as well as the measures that have to be taken to eliminate discrimination.
Governments that have signed on to Cedaw are required to submit a report to the Cedaw Committee within a year of signing on detailing a comprehensive review of the women’s situation in the country. Subsequently, they have to submit a report every four years, to elaborate on the interventions made, progress or planned progress as well as the difficulties that continue to inhibit women’s enjoyment of their guaranteed rights and freedoms.
Malaysia submitted a combined initial and second report to the committee in 2006 but has yet to submit subsequent reports and now has four overdue reports.
“There is a sense of lack of commitment to implement the conventions that we have signed,” observed Nayagam in a session titled “Charters and Conventions - Do They Work?”. “The reason why we are here is because we have a problem. We have a situation. We have all the laws and conventions in place but why is there no commitment to implement them?” he queried.
One main problem, said Phenny Kakama, a senior child protection specialist with the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), was the lack of commitment to implement significant change.
“Is it just a fashion that countries sign these conventions? Putting a signature down is very, very easy but when it comes to actual implementation, it becomes an issue. Do these international conventions work? I’d say yes, they do but only if there is a commitment by the government to implement change. The principles of the convention have to be translated into domestic policies and legislation. Also, the general public must be aware of what their governments have committed to. If you go around Malaysia and ask the man on the street about Cedaw, would they know what we are talking about? If the they don’t how will they hold the country accountable?” said Kakama.
Josiah agreed wholeheartedly adding that it is not only important for various government agencies and departments to work together to implement the principles of these international conventions the Government has signed on to.
“I think we try and leave our international obligations to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs … what the ministry signs on to is kept separate from what happens in the country. So it is really up to not just civil society but also the government to promote the notion that we are accountable to not only Malaysians but the global stage.
We understand that the Government cannot deliver everything immediately. There can be progressive development. That we understand. But it is time that the government work with civil society to make things happen. Our mandate should be to people who are suffering discrimination,” she said.
Josiah also pointed out the shadow report that a group of Malaysian NGOs prepared that, among other things, highlight the laws that discriminate against women as well as recommendations to eliminate gender-based discrimination in Malaysia.
Dairiam summarised the group’s concern by calling for a integrated strategy for ensuring the principles of Cedaw are implemented.
“We all recognise that the Government has done many things for women but it has been piecemeal and fragmented. Institutional arrangements are weak and there is a lack of an effective policy that binds all agencies to ensure the justice and equality for women. Who is in the drivers seat to ensure the standards of the conventions are applied? There has to be an integrated and cohesive strategy based on international standards. The Malaysian Government has voluntarily ratified this convention. so they have accepted these standards. But the lack of a coordinating mechanism to monitor or enforce common standards for equality impedes a plethora of efforts that have been made,” she said.
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Women, Women, Cedaw, Abdul Ghani Patail, Zainah Anwar, Ivy Josiah, children, rights, Attorney-General’s Chambers, Razak School of Government
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