MALAYSIA’S third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is taking place today in Geneva. The UPR is a United Nations’ mechanism wherein states review the human rights situation of other states and make recommendations.
In anticipation of the review, several countries have posed advanced written questions to Malaysia. The United Kingdom has asked the Malaysian government when it plans to consider legislation to promote and protect gender rights, including a Gender Equality Act, and legislation to address sexual harassment and stalking. Our government must demonstrate its commitment to fulfilling its obligations to end violence and discrimination against women and accept and follow through on the relevant recommendations received during the UPR process.
On Aug 16, the government had announced its plan to establish a Parliamentary Select Committee to examine gender equality issues and simultaneously announced that a Gender Equality Act was being drafted with input from NGOs and other stakeholders.
It is imperative that this act not only defines gender discrimination and prohibits acts of direct and indirect discrimination in both the public and private sector but also creates specialised institutions to investigate and consider complaints of gender equality.
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Liew Vui Keong had announced that the Gender Equality Bill is one of the bills the government is looking to introduce. We applaud the government’s recognition of the need for a Gender Equality Act and urge it to share with the public the timeline for its adoption.
The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) Committee has also advised the government to provide a concrete timeline for the adoption of a Gender Equality Act pursuant to its 2018 review of Malaysia.
Currently, the legal protections against sexual harassment are limited to the employment context and only apply to Peninsular Malaysia. The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG), a coalition of 13 women’s human rights groups, has drafted a Sexual Harassment Act that applies throughout Malaysia, affords protection to individuals harassed in various contexts, requires both public and private sector actors to formulate a proactive policy on sexual harassment, and includes provisions for an independent tribunal to hear complaints as well as an Interim Protection Order for victims.
Along with legislation on gender equality, Liew also announced that the government plans to introduce a bill on sexual harassment. A timeline for the adoption of such an act should also be set.
The legal framework in Malaysia currently affords little protection for victims of stalking, which can happen in isolation in addition to often being an extension of domestic violence or sexual harassment. We must pass a comprehensive law to criminalise stalking and provide protection for the victims, such as through a restraining order.
Although the UPR process is one of peer review and therefore not binding in the same way as the UN conventions, the mechanism is based on the work of the treaty bodies and can be used to follow up on concluding observations or recommendations.
When a country is reviewed under the UPR every four and a half years, other states make recommendations which are then accepted or noted by the country under review. As with all of the international human rights mechanisms, the UPR process should be one of progressive realisation rather than remaining stagnant or moving backwards.
For Malaysia to meaningfully engage in the UPR process and continue to improve the state of women’s human rights in the country, it must be willing to accept any recommendations made on issues of gender equality and violence and discrimination against women, and to diligently work to implement these recommendations until the next review cycle.
The question posed by the United Kingdom to Malaysia echoes the concerns of the Cedaw Committee as articulated in their 2018 Concluding Observations to Malaysia.
The Cedaw Committee called on the Malaysian government to adopt a concrete timeline for the adoption of the Gender Equality Act, as well as to adopt a comprehensive law on sexual harassment to enable complainants to seek redress without the time, cost, and public nature of going to court.
The Committee also recommended the adoption of concrete measures to combat gender-based violence against women and girls, of which stalking is one form.
We hope the new Malaysian government will take a proactive approach during this UPR review and commit to taking concrete measures to end violence and discrimination against women and promote gender equality.
WOMEN’S AID ORGANISATION