Still far from equal

The UN is willing to help Malaysia draft a gender equality law to give women here a step up.

IT took Alice Lim* almost 11 years of hard work to climb up the corporate ladder into a managerial position. When she gave birth to her twins two years ago, she had no choice but to quit her job.

“What else could I do? After weighing the pros and cons, the best thing to do was to give up my career and stay home for my kids. I love being a full-time mum, but when I think of the sweat and tears I shed over work, I feel a bit sad. Not to mention, the years I spent slogging at university,” Lim sighs. Malhotra: ‘Muslim women had more rights in the country two decades ago’

Malaysia has made good progress in providing opportunities for its women to attain education and work, says Kamal Malhotra, United Nations Resident Coordinator Malaysia.

However, there is a lot of room for improvement, he says.

“When it comes to women’s participation in the labour force, Malaysia has stagnated at 47% for over the decade or more.”

A big issue, he highlights, is the lack of an alternative childcare system which allows women to fulfill their double or triple burden of responsibilities – at home and outside home.

Like Lim, many working women are forced to leave the workforce because there is no adequate support system to deal with that.

On Tuesday, Malaysia will join the rest of the world in celebrating International Women’s Day which carries the theme “Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women.”

It is the 100th global celebration of women and to be fair, Malaysia has made progress in empowering women in education and work.

According to Malhotra, one area that Malaysia has made most progress in is providing equal access to education at all levels – primary, secondary and tertiary – to girls.

“In tertiary education, for one, there is a higher number of female students enrolled in higher education institutions compared to male students,” he highlights.

The quality of education received, however, is a point to consider, he opines.

Malaysia still lags behind countries in the region like South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan in creating a critical mass of highly-skilled science and technology graduates, while the number of women in those areas remain insignificant.

More importantly, he points out, when you contrast women’s participation in the workforce with men, “it is the opposite picture.”

This has a lot of social and economic consequences in the terms of equity, he adds.

Contrary to common belief, this has nothing to do with culture. Says Malhotra, it may be a factor for the older generation but not so much for the young. Although child rearing and other responsibilities inside the home are still seen as primarily the responsibility of women, it is changing, he says.

He shares that there is also anecdotal evidence that women of a certain (child-rearing) age – or those who have taken long maternity leave have been discriminated against by their employers.

Another scope for improvement, says Malhotra, is the parity of equity in terms of pay: “Women get paid 20% less in certain professions.”

Women’s participation in high-level-and-political decision making also leaves much to be desired, he adds.

In parliament and state assembly, or in the public and corporate sector, the number is still low, he notes.

“In 2009, only 14% of women were at the high level of decision-making.”

He draws attention to the commitment the Malaysian government has made: “Here, a plan of action at a Beijing Conference in the early 1990s established a target of 30%, and Malaysia itself established that target in its Ninth Malaysia Plan but the achievement remains way below the target.”

Malhotra, who is also the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Representative for Malaysia, shares that this is a particular interest for the agency.

“We were asked by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry to come up with a national action plan in 2008. But we have been waiting patiently for it to go to Cabinet for approval and subsequent implementation. It’s now 2011 and it has not even gone to Cabinet.”

He says this is an issue that he has raised a number of times with its minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil.

“I will raise it again when I meet the minister next week. It is an issue that comes up every time we meet. We are hoping that at least now that it’s 2011, it will go to Cabinet soon. We stand ready at UNDP to help with the implementation once there is a Cabinet decision.”

According to a source from the ministry, they are preparing the groundwork to ensure that the plan will be accepted by all before it is presented to the Cabinet.

Having a gender equality law and commission may be a useful step, says Malhotra.

“There is a lot Malaysia can learn from Scandinavian countries which have implemented a wide range of enabling and supportive as well as complementary measures (like the gender equality law and gender equality commission) to give their women a step up. The percentage of women’s participation in the boardroom and parliament of Norway and Sweden is at a high 40%.”

This is an area that UN is willing to provide assistance to Malaysia, he adds, especially to draft the gender equality law and establish the gender equality commission here.

However, he says, to achieve real gender equality, Malaysia has to first remove its reservations on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw), which it ratified in 1995.

A stumbling block is that most of the reservations impinge on gender and the interpretation of syariah law, concedes Malhotra.

He believes that it is time to review the reservations as they affect the rights of Muslim women – particularly in issues to do with the age of marriage, division of property and many other aspects.

“Malaysia needs to synchronise the two systems of law in the country (Syariah and Civil law) and ensure consistency between the two because now it appears that non-Muslim women have better rights than Muslim women. In fact, according to some commentators, Muslim women had more rights in the country two decades ago,” he says.

The main UN organisation that has a lead in this is the newly established UN Women, he adds, and we would encourage it to remove all the reservations, especially Article 16 (see chart).

Acknowledging the sensitivity of the issue which impinges on gender and Islamic law, Malhotra believes that Cedaw is not inconsistent with Islamic law.

“We are also willing to provide evidence that many Muslim majority countries have signed Cedaw without reservation, including countries in the Middle-East and this region such as, I believe, Indonesia.

“We do know that it is down to the interpretation of the Syariah Law and what the Quran says. It is not for us to judge, but we know that Cedaw has been signed by Muslim majority countries without reservation such as Tunisia and Morocco, and we know that in Tunisia, it was fully implemented even under the old regime.”

Stressing that the push should not be seen as an interference in Syariah law, Malhotra informs that UN has a mandate to encourage signatories to remove their reservations, so it is not specific to Malaysia.

“We believe that if it is accepted by some Muslim majority countries, then it should not be inconsistent.”

Check out StarTwo for its special coverage of the International Women’s Day tomorrow and on Tuesday.

* Not her real name