Gender bias still prevails throughout the world, despite the emancipation of women dating back to the 19th century through the women’s rights movement and feminist movement.
We don’t have to look far, because Malaysian women are no exception. They share common ground with their counterparts in other parts of the world in their struggle for gender equality (equality of men and women), women’s empowerment, female representation in Parliament, economic participation, education and health care for women, non-violence against women and safety of women and girls.
While we proudly acknowledge that we have achieved some headway in repealing laws that were discriminatory to women since the formation of Malaysia in 1963, we cannot ignore the continuing cries of Malaysian women against gender discrimination from the perspectives of recruitment, employment, inequality in the workplace (or workplace discrimination), promotion opportunities, wrongful dismissal, termination of service, or even in terms of election candidacies.
We don’t deny that Malaysia has successfully implemented the government’s policy of a 30 per cent target for women’s participation in decision-making in the public sector.
However, the same cannot be said of the situation in the male-dominated political arena, where women are grossly under-represented in Parliament and state legislatures.
Hopefully, the ‘Break The Bias’ theme will awaken the conscience of male planners, policy and decision-makers, legislators, law enforcers and employers as well as political masters as to why bias against women persists after six decades of independence.
Women’s rights groups say that Malaysian women are left behind (to a certain extent). In some instances, they do not enjoy equal status to that of men; they are under-represented in many spheres of endeavour; and there are many violations of women’s rights.
Yes, no one can dispute that Malaysian women are empowered with rights through government policies, affirmative action plans and legislation.
But why is gender bias yet to become a thing of the past? Perhaps the implementation or enforcement part is weak, likely due to lack of political will.
The Malaysian government and other governments around the world should revisit some of the fundamental documents that enshrine gender equality and non-discrimination against women.
It’s all there in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was proclaimed by the United Nations as far back as 1948.
The Right to Equality is in Article 1, Freedom from Discrimination is in Article 2, and so on and so forth.
Malaysia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1995.
The United Nations Third Millennium Development Goal (MDG 3) seeks to promote gender equality and empower women with a target to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education and at all levels of education no later than 2015 (Eight Millennium Development Goals were established for the year 2015, following the adoption of the United Nations Millennium Declaration in 2000).
On the Malaysian front, there is no dearth of documents and laws that aim to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment.
To begin with, we have the Federal Constitution which states that everyone is equal before the law, and entitled to the equal protection of the law.
Then we had the National Policy on Women in 1989, which aims to ensure equitable sharing of resources, opportunities and benefits of development for men and women in the country.
A major breakthrough came about in 2001 when Article 8 (2) of the Federal Constitution was amended to prohibit discrimination against women in Malaysia.
In other words, it provides that there shall be no discrimination on the basis of gender (meaning equality of boys and girls, and of men and women).
Additionally, the federal government in 2004 introduced the policy of having 30 per cent women’s involvement in decision-making roles in the public sector.
This followed the formation of the Cabinet Committee on Gender Equality at Federal level that year.
Based on media reports, the Putrajaya Declaration and Programme of Action on the Advancement of Women in Member Countries of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) 2005 made a commitment to adopt affirmative action policies to increase the proportion of women at the decision-making level, at least a minimum 30 per cent in both public and private sector bodies, including the legislatures.
So, why do women continue to clamour for political empowerment and to claim that discriminatory practices are still happening?
In fact, Malaysia was told last year to speed up reforms for gender equality in the World Bank’s 2021 Women, Business and Law Report.
Just imagine: we are behind Singapore, Indonesia and Myanmar in the realm of gender equality.
According to the World Bank’s Report, Malaysia has a score of 50 for its Women, Business and the Law index whereas Singapore scored 82.5, Indonesia 64.4 and Myanmar 58.8.
The “Break The Bias” theme should make the Malaysian government sit up and take stock of the phenomenon in the hope of reversing this “lagging behind” trend.
We urge the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development to pursue the enactment of a gender equality law to improve Malaysia’s performance in the Global Gender Gap Index.
For Malaysia, the Gender Equality Bill was mooted in 2017 to achieve gender equality by prohibiting gender discrimination and establishing a gender equality tribunal.
It was proposed in line with the nation’s commitment to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
It is also demoralising to learn that last year, Malaysia was placed ninth out of 10 countries, despite efforts by the government to reduce or close the gender gap (example, gender wage gap) for the past two decades.
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Report 2021, it would take the East Asia and Pacific Region at least 163 years to completely close the gender gap.
That being the case, it won’t happen in my lifetime, and that of my contemporaries. Nevertheless, we implore the government to take a serious view of this matter and come up with new initiatives or action plans to reduce the gender gap in Malaysia.
With all the laws in place to protect women against gender discrimination, pregnant women should no longer be discriminated against by any authority or employer in the public or private sector.
In this respect, there was a landmark gender discrimination case in 2014 in which a woman, who fought for her rights for five years, was awarded RM300,000 by the Shah Alam High Court.
The Court had decided in the woman’s favour for breach of Article 8 (2) of the Federal Constitution that prohibits gender discrimination.
According to the facts of the case, the woman, who was dismissed as a temporary teacher due to her pregnancy, was earlier told pregnant women could not be hired and that she could reapply for the job after giving birth.
Until September 2021, there was a law discriminatory to women whereby children born overseas to Malaysian women and foreign fathers are not automatically Malaysian citizens upon registration (unlike children born overseas to Malaysian men with foreign spouses).
Last September, the High Court made a landmark ruling that children born abroad to Malaysian mothers with foreign spouses should automatically receive Malaysian citizenship.
At this juncture, the federal government should withdraw its appeal against the High Court decision. A hearing has been set before the Court of Appeal on March 23.
Christina Liew is the Member of Parliament for Tawau and assemblywoman for Api-Api.
- This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Ova.