In conjunction with National Women’s Day on Aug 25, StarTwo looks at the struggles and success of women’s groups in pushing for equality and advancement.
CHANGE #1: Polygamy used to be legal for non-Muslim men in Malaysia – until 1981 when the Government outlawed the practice.
Change #2: From 1991, married, working women can file for separate annual tax assessments and enjoy the same benefits as their husbands.
It took the National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO) years of hard work and persistence to push for these changes.
The NCWO was officially established on Aug 25, 1963, as a consultative and advisory body for women’s organisations.
That was also the year it began pushing for marriage law reforms for non-Muslims. However, it was only 18 years later, in 1981, that the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976 was enforced, prohibiting polygamy among non-Muslim men.
After March 1, 1981, all non-Muslim marriages solemnised in Malaysia were monogamous and must be registered. All marriages before that date were deemed to be registered.
In 1972, NCWO sent a memorandum to the Government, seeking separate taxation of married working women’s income and the same tax-free allowances as their husbands.
Six years later, the Income Tax (Amendment) Act 1978 allowed a married woman assessment in her name but only where the income was derived from a profession the practice of which required registration.
Then, nearly 20 years later in 1991, the Government finally allowed the separate assessment of a wife’s income from all sources (including rentals, dividends and interest) and entitled her to full tax relief on her contributions to the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) and insurance premiums.
“The woman was recognised as an individual and thus, NCWO was able to redress a discriminatory practice against women and remove the disadvantages women faced due to that practice,” said NCWO deputy president Datuk Ramani Gurusamy.
“It takes much time, effort and years of advocacy to raise the awareness and consciousness of the authorities, and obtain their commitment to take the necessary action.”
Another significant milestone for women was when the Domestic Violence Act (DVA) was passed in 1994. Implemented only in 1996, the Act, however, took a decade to be enacted.
The Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) was instrumental in advocating for the Act, together with other women’s groups under JAG, a coalition then called the Joint Action Group Against Violence Against Women.
Formed in 1985, JAG consisted of WAO, All Women’s Action Society (Awam), Women’s Development Collective (WDC) and Sisters in Islam (SIS). Now called the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality, JAG is currently made up of WAO, SIS, Women’s Centre for Change (WCC), Awam and Empower.
When weaknesses in the DVA were detected, JAG pushed for amendments in 1999.
“Ideally, domestic violence should be integrated into the Penal Code as an offence by itself rather than reading the Penal Code in conjunction with the DVA. For the past five years, we have been asking for the DVA to include pyschological violence but so far, nothing has been done,” said WAO president Meera Samanther.
WAO was established in 1982 when it opened the country’s first shelter for battered women and children.
In 1989, its research group initiated the first national survey on domestic violence with Survey Research Malaysia. The survey found that 40% of women above the age of 15 had experienced some form of domestic violence. However, since then, there has been no new national survey.
In recent years, the police have also stopped giving out statistics on rape, incest, domestic violence, child abuse and abuse of domestic workers on its website.
“That is something which we are concerned about,” said Meera.
Notably one of the women’s groups’ biggest achievements was an amendment made to Article 8(2) of the Federal Constitution in 2002, prohibiting discrimination of women on the grounds of gender.
“This amendment was a big milestone but we need to put in place the mechanisms that will ensure zero discrimination,’’ said Ramani.
“We urge for amendments to be made where necessary to all laws, regulations, policies and practices so that women have the opportunity to participate in the social, economic and political development of our country,” she said.
Meanwhile, the fight for legislation on sexual harassment, spearheaded by WCC, is still ongoing.
In 2001, JAG drafted an entire proposed bill on sexual harassment which was handed over to the Government.
Recently, it was announced that sexual harassment would come under one of several proposed amendments to the Employment (Amendment) Act.
However, this met with much disappointment among women’s groups, which stressed that sexual harassment should be taken up as a separate legislation.
Placing it under the Employment Act means it only applies to workers who earn RM1,500 and below a month. In addition, it will only cover employer-employee and employee-employee relationships and excludes women who deal with customers, clients and vendors.
“We are not happy with the amendments. It’s a token and only considers women within a certain income bracket,” said Meera, adding that sexual harassment is not even defined under the Employment Act.
Without a doubt, various factors form major hurdles in the work of women’s groups.
“The Government, corporate sector, political parties and some individuals are reluctant to take on international best practices to fast-track women’s participation at decision-making levels by introducing Temporary Special Measures. There are various types of policies practised globally and I urge the authorities to seriously consider a suitable practice for adoption,” said Ramani.
(Temporary special measures include positive action, preferential treatment or quota systems to advance women’s integration into education, the economy, politics and employment.)
Meera said that a few years ago, Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil agreed to call for legislation against sexual harassment. However, the Malaysian Employers’ Federation, a very strong lobby group, lobbied against it and the proposed bill was dropped.
“These are the challenges. It’s not just the Ministry or Cabinet but the lobby groups outside and whose interests they choose to serve,” said Meera.
Ramani said that, currently, very few men or women MPs take the trouble to study women’s issues or support women’s groups.
“They have to be more proactive and reach out to the NGOs.”
Meera said admittedly, the portfolio of the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry is too wide.
“We feel that there should be separate portfolios for women and children or else it is difficult to be focused.”
Lack of volunteers who really understand women’s issues also hamper WAO’s objectives.
“Volunteers don’t realise that women’s issues belong to all of them. They think that issues like violence only happens to other groups of women and are not willing to internalise that it could happen to them or their friends. The commitment to be involved and to want to know the issues has to come from them,” said Meera, adding that discrimination and lack of equal rights happen every day in different forms.
For SIS, obstacles and resistance to its advocacy work come from all angles.
“It’s in the society, the state, among politicians and within religious establishments and authorities. It is a serious problem,” said Professor Norani Othman, one of the founding members and current board member of SIS.
Officially established in 1993, SIS is one of the main advocates of justice and equality in Islam in Malaysia.
“The biggest challenge for SIS is political, where conservative ethnic political forces all want to raise the status of the Malays using religion,” said Norani.
SIS submitted its first memorandum on law reform to the Government in 1993, arguing against the proposed Kelantan Syariah Criminal Code, the Hudud law.
In 1994, it submitted another memorandum to the Government on the DVA, arguing on religious and legal grounds that Muslims should not be excluded from the jurisdiction of the law.
Packing more punch
Regardless of all the barriers, women’s groups continue to push for change.
Ramani said there was an urgent need for women’s groups to collaborate with and support one another to advocate women’s rights.
“This will speed up the whole process to ensure that women have equitable access and are both equal agents and beneficiaries of development. They can also work more effectively to reform laws, including Syariah laws, to eliminate discrimination against women.”
Meera shared the same view.
“There are so many other women’s groups outside of JAG and we strongly believe we should expand the JAG movement by asking other groups to join us. Right now, we are trying to do that.”
Ensuring the continuity of women’s groups is also vital.
“Women NGOs must endeavour to identify and bring in a large number of women to hold office as the second and third echelon of leaders with the same purpose and vision as the current leaders to sustain their organisations,” said Ramani.
“These young leaders will bring with them some fresh excitement and vitality to continue the mission of the organisation.”
When asked if SIS needs to be more aggressive in its advocacy and efforts to be more effective, Norani said the contrary was true.
“To be more aggressive in our approach will be counter-productive and there will be a backlash,” said Norani.
It would seem more effective to continue reaching out to people and getting grassroots support,
“We have to do more of the same work but find more creative ways of reaching out to young people and using the new media.
“We also need to push for educational reforms. We have to find a way of persuading our politicians and current leaders to introduce really effective and constructive educational reforms, particularly in religious schools, on things like governance and civic issues. They must understand that to be democratic, modern and to accept people of other faiths equally is not being un-Islamic.
“Grassroots support is very important in our work. We should not only reach out to university students. We must make working class women imbibe and support what we are doing and understand that ultimately, (our work) is good for the nation, for them and for their future children,” said Norani.