Women's Tribunal a valuable tool for advocating policy change and law reforms

The Women’s Tribunal Malaysia report will help in advocating policy change and law reforms. Photo: Women's Tribunal Malaysia

The Women's Tribunal Malaysia’s final report compiles eye-opening stories on women and the violations and discrimination they went through.

There’s Latha, who was caught in the poverty web when she had to stop schooling to work as a rubber tapper at 15. She was then married off, raped and forced to resort to sex work by the men in her family. She eventually rose up by herself to become an activist.

Sports coach Leslie, meanwhile was “verbally harassed and bullied throughout her employment to a point that her mental health deteriorated and that "affected her daily life and social connections”.

Environmental activist Shakila Zen said she was stalked and harassed online, and even received death threats because of her vocation.

Malaysian Priscilla Collar, whose ex-husband is French, wasn’t able to confer citizenship to her two children when she returned to Malaysia. So she has had to pay additional expenses such as visa fees, special medical insurance, student passes and educational fees for foreigners which exceeded RM300,000 (as at 2021).

Another witness, Tharani Kutty, a hospital worker who is a transgender woman, shared how cleaners are “one of the most oppressed workers and looked down upon”.

“People think cleaning is a dirty job. Not only are hospital cleaners looked down upon, their rights to freedom of speech, assembly and association are also restricted,” she said.

Women’s Tribunal Malaysia convener Ivy Josiah says that often, discrimination is an intersectional experience, and it's not just one form of violation.

“In Tharani’s case, there are so many layers of her identity being attacked and discriminated against – that she is a hospital cleaner, a woman and a transgender.”

“The testimonies also reveal the devastating effects of poverty. When you’re poor, your choices are limited and you have no access to education,” adds Josiah.

The final report, which documents testimonies, advocate statements, judges’ findings, recommendations and other information, is not just a resource for students and academics interested in women’s rights and gender studies, but a valuable tool for NGOs advocating policy change and law reforms.

According to Josiah, all 26 women (witnesses) – who shared their experiences on violation and discrimination at the tribunal – knew that the testimonies they gave wouldn’t solve their problems, but they understood the importance of being part of a larger advocacy plan.

“The Women’s Tribunal Malaysia is not just about one woman’s story. When she talks about the violation she’s gone through, she represents others who have been through or are going through the same thing,” she says.

“By sharing their stories, these women become part of the building blocks that will impact policy change and law reforms so other women can be helped. And this isn’t just relevant to women in Malaysia, but also globally, especially in Asia-Pacific,” she adds.

Idea after retirement

Josiah says when a woman talks about the discrimination she’s gone through, she is speaking on behalf of many others who have gone through or are going through the same thing. Photo: The Star/Art ChenJosiah says when a woman talks about the discrimination she’s gone through, she is speaking on behalf of many others who have gone through or are going through the same thing. Photo: The Star/Art Chen

Josiah spoke to StarLifestyle a few months after the release of the final report on the first Women’s Tribunal Malaysia which took place over two days in November 2021, watched online by 3,850 viewers. There were 26 witnesses and a panel of three judges.

According to Josiah, who is 68 this year, the idea of a women’s tribunal came about after her retirement. While she admits that she’s retired from formal work and enjoys gardening, she says she is going to speak up as long as she’s alive, and as long as someone, especially a woman, is facing violence or discrimination.

“I wanted to educate not just government agencies and policy makers, but also the public, about violence and discrimination against women. It's my desire to advocate policy change and law reforms to help end violence and discrimination against women,” she says.

Josiah reveals that she started out by working with Internet personality and influencer Nandini Balakrishnan five years ago.

“She has produced YouTube videos on how to respond to cat calls, about child brides, what to do when someone body shames you, and about women wearing revealing clothes, among others.”

“My goal is to make sure young women know what violence against women is, what it is like when it happens, how to know when a person might be potentially aggressive and that violence is all about control,” she says.

That collaboration led to a series of YouTube and Instagram videos. Josiah would provide topic and information, while Nandini would produce the script and videos.

“It’s a popular way of reaching the public,” says Josiah, whose passion for women’s rights began when she was 10, growing up in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur.

“I heard the cries of a neighbour and I felt helpless because I wasn’t able to help. She was screaming in Tamil: ‘Don’t hit me, I love you, don’t hit me!’ My mother went to the kitchen and kept dropping pots and pans so that they would know someone was awake and could hear them. We didn’t dare confront them directly and in 1965, making a police report wasn’t possible because it would be dismissed as kisah rumahtangga or household affair.

“There wasn’t a Domestic Violence Act at that time. But now, people know that you can make a police report about such incidents,” she adds.

“I didn’t want to feel helpless. I wanted to help, so when I grew up, I went to university and started volunteering with Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO),” she says.

Together with her co-conveners – Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) executive director Wathshlah G Naidu and Association of Women Lawyers (AWL) committee member Meera Samanther – they wanted to empower themselves and other women.

“It’s not charity work or about ‘poor women being violated’. It’s about empowering women to speak up because we’ve all experienced discrimination in some form,” says Josiah.

Women’s voice

The Women’s Tribunal Malaysia report is part of the building blocks that have helped spur the passing of laws such as the Anti-Stalking Bill. Photo: FreepikThe Women’s Tribunal Malaysia report is part of the building blocks that have helped spur the passing of laws such as the Anti-Stalking Bill. Photo: FreepikIn 2021, while discussing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), she noticed how the Tribunal was effectively used in other countries such as Austria and Japan, and decided to start Malaysia’s own Women’s Tribunal to give women who are facing violation and discrimination, a voice.

“We had women share their stories because when you hear it from the survivors and not through an advocate, it’s more effective. Advocates then provide their statements on the cases, which include legal background, policies and context, and then, the judges will provide their judgement and recommendations,” she explains.

According to Josiah, the witness testimonies are diverse and intersectional and are only possible through the wide network of participating NGOs.

The Women’s Tribunal Malaysia has also given a “voice to the dead”, namely Adelina Lisao, a domestic maid who was abused by her employer, says Josiah.

“The report doesn’t just describe issues these women have experienced, but offers an analysis and possible solutions. The advocates’ statements and judges’ recommendations address all these. They also mention the law and policies which are in place or should be introduced to help women claim their rights. Cultural background, obstacles, structures, resources, agencies and training that impact all these are also looked into,” she adds.

Together with all the NGOs, advocates and activists, the Women’s Tribunal Malaysia has helped spur the passing of laws such as the Anti-Stalking Bill, she says.

“I hope that these stories, analyses and recommendations will continue to be used by NGOs as part of their reports to lobby and push for policy change and law reforms, to make the world a safer place for women,” she concludes.

More info: womenstribunalmalaysia.com/en

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family , lifestyle , women , Women's Tribunal , Ivy Josiah


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