Although there have been positive developments for women and children in Malaysia, there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to eliminating misogyny and patriarchy, says Bukit Bendera Penang member of parliament Sherleena Abdul Rashid.
SDG 5, which is on achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls, sets the target to end all forms of discrimination against women and girls by 2030, while the SDG 5.1.1 indicator measures whether governments and nations have legal frameworks to promote, enforce and monitor equality and non-discrimination based on gender.
Sherleena highlights two issues: the lack of information/data and overlapping jurisdictions between ministries.
“One of the issues we face is the massive lack of information, statistics and data, which makes things difficult when creating policies. But now that we’ve this report, I will take it to parliament,” she says. She was speaking at the launch of The Report on Malaysia’s Progress and Commitment to achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5.1.1.
“I’ve raised a few issues on child protection and child marriage, and with this, we’re backed by solid information, statistics and data,” she adds.
To resolve the issue of overlapping jurisdictions, meanwhile, she figures that “better communication” is necessary.
“When we want to create better reform policies or amend policies, we need to deal with the issue of overlapping jurisdictions between the different ministries. This is where better communication is needed,” she says.
The right to be equals
The United Nations explains that gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.
The report, which was commissioned and launched by Sisters In Islam (SiS) and Musawah and prepared by global research company Ipsos, seeks to inform where Malaysia currently stands in eliminating discrimination against women and girls through existing legal frameworks and mechanisms, and achieving gender equality in areas such as marriage, family and workplace. Four key gaps in gender equality are identified: economic participation and opportunities, violence against women, marriage and family and data and statistics on women.
In 2021, the female labour force participation rate was 55.5% compared to males at 80.9%, while women’s involvement in politics accounted for only 13.2% of elected parliamentary representatives.
And, the proportion of women in decision-making positions in the private sector was still below the 30% minimum national target.
Also in 2021, there was a 42% increase in domestic violence cases compared to 2020, and Malaysia still does not have a specific legislation on marital rape.
Non-citizen husbands of Malaysian women are required to seek citizenship by naturalisation, while non-citizen wives may acquire citizenship by registration; also an average of 1,500 child marriages take place each year as of 2018, and 90% of the children married in 2018 were girls, states the report.
It also highlighted insufficient gender-based statistics from government sources: As of 2020, at least 45 agencies collected data related to gender issues, but most of these data have not been published.
And, interestingly, 63% of women in Malaysia said they were afraid to speak out and advocate towards gender equality, according to the report.
SDG 5 for gender equality is an imperative goal because, with women and girls making up half of the population globally, there can be no measurable change in living standards or sociocultural advancement unless women and girls are an integral and integrated part of the process, says Sisters In Islam board director Shareena Mohd Sheriff.
“The report tracks policies and laws that enable women to progress.
“Women in Malaysia have come a long way but we still have some ways to go,” says Shareena.
“In the digital economy, Malaysian women’s participation surpasses many countries in the west. We are at 35%, while USA is at 25%, and similar figures apply across European countries,” she says.
“This is because Malaysia has a major focus on growing the digital economy. We have STEM education to attract the girls, funding and knowledge programmes on how to incorporate technology into business, mentorship and entrepreneur programmes, and more,” she adds.
“Women in the corporate sector are also making strides. Diversity has been shown to drastically improve returns on equity to about 30%, so there is now a push to ensure 30% women representation on company boards, in government, organisations and institutions.
Bursa Malaysia now has a mandatory requirement for the Top 100 listed companies to have a representation of 30% women on the board,” says Shareena.
She adds that this can be seen in the National Budget where allocations have been made for skills development to provide a pipeline for women to be board members.
“And we are now 28.2% on reaching the target,” she says.
“This is a great achievement and clearly shows women in Malaysia have the capacity and tenacity to enter into new, unchartered fields and succeed at it, she adds.
No progress, not good
The report, published globally, also provides an in-depth assessment on the legislative system and policies in place that enforce and promote equality and non-discrimination based on the indicators of 5.1.1 through 45 key questions developed by the United Nations.
“We provide this knowledge for the benefit of government, civil society, researchers, academicians, and others, to effectively measure and track the progress of Malaysia, on all forms of discrimination against women and girls, and advance their equal rights and opportunities,” says Shareena.
This includes assessing Malaysia’s efforts in addressing these issues and identifying key gaps and challenges in eliminating discrimination against women.
“To address these gaps and to raise awareness, the report explores four key areas: overarching legal frameworks and public life; violence against women; employment and economic benefit; and marriage and family.
According to the report, between 2018 to 2020, Malaysia has shown no progress in these four areas.
Among the issues that have shown no progress are the citizenship of children born outside of Malaysia to Malaysian mothers married to foreigners, and while we see the Malaysian cabinet agreeing to amend Article 15(2) of the Federal Constitution recently (to grant these children citizenship), actions to amend this article have yet to be taken, says Shareena.
“In addition, marital rape has not been criminalised; child marriage is still happening in Malaysia despite two states, Selangor and Kedah, having raised their minimum age of marriage for both girls and boys; and the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act that has yet to be enforced despite receiving Royal Assent in October 2022,” she says.
None left behind
“The former Inspector General’s tweet that women shouldn’t be allowed to leave home without their husband’s consent is a glaring example of how the world is not on track to achieve gender equality by 2030 as stated in the SDG,” says Sisters In Islam & Musawah founding member Zainah Anwar.
“All the issues and lack of progress doesn’t bode well for Malaysia in achieving the goal to not leave anyone behind, given that there are only seven years left to realise the UN SDG goals by 2030.
“Even though SDG 5 on Gender Equality is a goal on its own, the impact of this goal cuts across the other 16 SDGs.
“Hence, it is critical that the government and all relevant stakeholders address the indicators of SDG 5 to ensure Malaysia is not left behind globally,” says Zainah.
“The report is pivotal as a starting point for all stakeholders, including the government, civil society organisations, researchers and academicians, as it provides a critical tool for effectively measuring and tracking Malaysia’s progress towards gender equality,” she says.
“According to the UN report on progress for the SDGs, in 2022, only 48% of data required to track progress on SDG 5 are currently available.
“In many regions of the world, there is insufficient data to assess several indicators including women and girls subjected to intimate partner violence, sexual violence, female genital mutilation, ownership of agricultural land, and the system to track gender equality,” she adds.
Zainah says that one reason such data is scarce is because “many governments don’t view it as a priority to care about half of the human race”.
“According to the SDG gender progress report in 2021, only one of the 18 indicators in Goal 5 is assessed as being close to target globally – the number of women in managerial positions,” says Zainah.
Zainah also highlights the prevalence of child marriage in Malaysia which she says needs to be addressed.
“Malaysia’s progress report to UN on HIV Aids includes statistics on premarital screening for HIV Aids for Muslims.
“Thirty two girls under the age of 10, and 445 girls between the ages of 10 and 14, had gone for HIV pre-marital testing, which means they were planning to get married. Only two boys were in that data. This means the girls were all going to marry men who were much older than themselves,” says Zainah. The population and housing census in 2020 reveals that 6,800 girls under the age of 15 were married, she adds.
“There were 235 children between the ages of 10 to 14 who were already widowed and 77 divorced. It was really shocking because people think child marriage only exists in underdeveloped countries and not in an upper middle income country like Malaysia.”
The proposed course of action in response, according to the report, is to incorporate guarantees such as access to education (to protect girls from underaged marriage) and provide meaningful evidence through granular data on the progress of women’s equality in Malaysia.
Also recommended are collaborations with women NGOs who deal directly with on-the-ground issues, strengthening gender equality practices within the public sector (as an example for all workplaces), making changes in legislation and working with religious bodies as partners to champion gender equality across the country.