Beginning on the eight day, the month of March is now celebrated globally, nationally and locally as International Women’s Day. It is both joyous and sombre as a day symbolic of the historic journey women all over have taken to better and take control of their lives.
It is also a reminder that while there have been achievements, the struggle is a long and often lonely one, and more needs to be done by society and the state to realise gender equality and women’s empowerment today. This years’ thematic campaign, #ChooseToChallenge, reminds us that it is time to say that “This is not just a celebration of what women have achieved but also a time to take stock of what still has to be done.”
But how does one know what has been achieved? How does one measure the gender and other socio-economic gaps faced by half the world’s population? Goal Five of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) speaks about the need to realise gender equality and women’s empowerment by 2030. In fact, gender is a cross-cutting agenda in all the 17 goals, strengthening the global commitment of “leaving no one behind”. Is this goal achievable? (The SDGs are a collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all” set in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly.)
How does one collect the relevant data and do the analysis to feed to governments so that policies and programmes can be effectively delivered to close, if not eliminate, these gaps? This is where the critical role of Women’s and Gender Studies come in – to conduct proper research and to provide the evidential basis to not only create new knowledge but also to raise awareness of gender realities today.
For example, it is so important to examine the impact of the current pandemic on men and women, boys and girls, so that they can receive the various aid programmes of the state in an equitable manner. According to the Global Gender Gap Index 2020, Malaysia ranks 104 out of 153 countries measured in the following dimensions: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.
Another case in point is that the latest data by the Inter-Parliamentary Union reveal that Malaysia currently ranks a dismal 145 out of 190 countries with regards to proportion of women in national Parliament. Why is this so and what can be done to accelerate women’s position in decision-making?
Such data and knowledge are then fed to the government so that good and concrete policies and projects can emerge. Research and practice have to go together. This means the academe and civil society need to work together to form strong coalitions and networks to lobby for a better place for women.
What is the state of such studies in Malaysia?
Gender studies programmes have been in existence in Malaysia since the 1970s, several of which have been institutionalised in the premier universities in Malaysia. These programmes are recognised as part of the university’s structural setup as centres, programmes, units, majors or part of existing research centres. Teaching, research, advocacy and community engagement form the core activities of these establishments.
One such important Centre is Kanita – the Centre for Research on Women and Gender at Universiti Sains Malaysia.
Kanita (representing the combined Malay words for women and children, “wanita” and “kanak-kanak”) is a pioneering centre for research on women’s and gender studies. It was established in its current structure (as a centre of excellence) since 2001 but has been in existence in different forms since 1978, when it embarked on a Unicef-funded research on women, children and poverty in rural Kedah. One of the centre’s plus points is its multidisciplined approach in research where inquiries are made of multiple issues but with a common use of the gender analytical framework. It has consistently conducted studies on violence against women, women in politics, gender and health, gender and migration and more recently it has contextualised its inquiries towards the achievements of the “global goals” particularly SDGs five, eight and 10.
The research projects that Kanita undertakes also often have action and advocacy perspectives; for example, its past prevalence study on intimate partner violence, which included knowledge dissemination and consultation involving multiple stakeholders. Its current international collaborative project on the sexual and reproductive health (SRH) of female migrant workers sees Kanita working with the industry in implementing a toolkit to improve SRH knowledge and interventions for migrant workers.
Kanita has worked with government (the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry and Health Ministry are two examples) and non-government and intergovernmental agencies in its pursuit of theoretical and applied knowledge on gender issues to bring about change towards gender equality and social justice.
Kanita also engages with local and international communities to offer lifelong and non-conventional education and training. This includes the offerings of a MOOC (massive open online course) on gender studies in the Asean context and another one that focuses on building entrepreneurial capacity and improving the social wellbeing of women in marginalised communities, particularly single mothers. Every year Kanita collaborates with the Harpswell Foundation to train women from the 10 Asean countries in a leadership programme.
On the conventional education front, Kanita continues to train local and international postgraduate students in gender research for wide-ranging issues such as violence against women, women and economic empowerment, gender and politics, women in the technical field, and gender and the new media. It continues to organise its biennial International Conference on Gender Studies that brings together gender studies scholars from all over the world.
DR CECILIA NG