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Harapan Women’s Manifesto Fails To Address Child Marriage, Unintended Pregnancies

Political parties should pledge to provide non-judgmental sexual and reproductive health care, including contraceptive and safe abortion services, say NGOs and an O&G doc.

Pakatan Harapan chairman Anwar Ibrahim launches PH Wanita’s GE15 manifesto on October 15, 2022, at Dewan Raja Muda Musa in Shah Alam. Photo from Wanita Pakatan Harapan Facebook page.

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 26 – Pakatan Harapan (PH) Wanita has released a generic and uninspiring election manifesto for women, omitting proposals for crucial issues like unintended pregnancies and child marriage.

Unlike its previous comprehensive manifesto for the watershed 2018 poll that saw Barisan Nasional (BN) lose federal power for the first time in history, PH Wanita’s manifesto for the 15th general election lacks specifics when it comes to implementation.

PH Wanita’s GE15 manifesto is also not as cohesive and systematic as the previous one in presenting a plan that empowers women across the board and provides access to opportunities for them.

The GE15 manifesto for women by PH – which comprises PKR, DAP, Amanah, and Upko – lists a total of 30 pledges under six categories that it will commit to if it forms the next government after the upcoming general elections.  

The six categories of the PH Wanita manifesto are women, children, senior citizens, people with disabilities, social development and climate change impact, and women’s economic care initiatives.

Even the categorisation is somewhat simplistic compared to the 2018 manifesto, which used the more promising term “commitments” for its categories. The commitments were also very specific and targeted in PH’s previous GE14 manifesto, for example, “Commitment 4: Ensure the legal system protects women’s rights and dignity” and “Commitment 5: Democratise the political system to create more female leaders”.

Instead, PH Wanita’s GE15 manifesto this year contained no pledges whatsoever on increasing women leadership, whether in government, at the corporate level, or through initiatives and programmes that encourage and enhance female leadership.

The pledge to ensure at least 30 per cent of policymakers are women from the last manifesto was also jarringly missing from the GE15 manifesto, especially in light of the emphasis on it by DAP national women’s leader, Chong Eng, during her rousing speech at the launch of the manifesto last October 15.

In fact, under the “women” category, PH’s pledges sorely lack any initiative that focuses on empowerment, with most of the pledges targeted towards certain groups of women, like mothers, and few that advance the interests of women as a whole in Malaysia.  

Access To Sexual And Reproductive Health Care Services

Obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr John Teo. Picture from Dr John Teo’s Facebook page.

Aside from addressing period poverty, there is only one other pledge related to sexual and reproductive health in PH Wanita’s entire manifesto. Under the “social development and climate change impact” category, PH pledges to empower children and teenagers through reproductive health education and by mandating the inclusion of a comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) syllabus at all levels of education.

However, in a statement to Ova, the Reproductive Rights Advocacy Alliance Malaysia (RRAAM) said that education and health policies should be planned and implemented hand-in-hand.

“With comprehensive sexuality education, we should also provide comprehensive and non-judgemental sexual and reproductive health care services,” said RRAAM.

“The contraceptive prevalence rate in the country has been stagnant while fertility rates have reduced, this suggests that women are using other methods to terminate their pregnancies. This means that we should provide better contraceptive and safe abortion services for women irrespective of their marital status and age.”

When Ova asked during the launch about PH’s position on access to contraceptives and abortion services for all women, PH chairman Anwar Ibrahim said: “If you talk about access to abortion, of course it will be limited because it is an issue even in America. But I think it’s very dangerous for me to give a general answer.”

He said a team would need to study the health aspects and other implications of providing access to abortion. 

Consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr John Teo said it was imperative for election manifestos to include initiatives to tackle unintended pregnancies.

Unintended pregnancies is a women’s health issue as it can negatively affect maternal and infant health, causing irreversible or permanent damage and, in worst-case scenarios, lead to death, he told Ova.

He pointed out that it is also about a woman’s right to bodily autonomy with far reaching implications on her education, career, and future life prospects.

The Sabahan doctor added that unintended pregnancy is also an economic issue. “When women have unintended pregnancies, they may not be able to work and contribute to the nation’s economy. Her dependency multiplies and her productivity may decline.”

Dr Teo maintained that it is for all these reasons that “all political parties must commit to empowering women through access to sexual and reproductive health care by ensuring at least a significant percentage of the health care budget is allocated for this, so that the rate of unintended pregnancies can be decreased.”

Child Marriage Missing From PH Wanita Manifesto

Muslim women’s group Sisters in Islam (SIS) told Ova it was interesting to note that PH’s women’s manifesto did not address the issue of child marriage. In its GE14 manifesto, PH pledged to introduce a law that sets 18 as the minimum age of marriage under Commitment 4.

To date, only two states, Selangor and Kedah, have increased the minimum age of marriage to 18 years old. However, there are still loopholes that allow children to be married with the permission of the Kedah shariah court, SIS said.

“Children who are married off at a young age usually have limited access to education which traps them into a cycle of poverty,” the non-governmental organisation (NGO) told Ova in a statement.

SIS added that child brides are also at risk of developing health complications and have a higher risk of maternal and infant mortality.

“Taking into account the negative effects of child marriage, parties must make a strong commitment to end child marriage immediately through law reforms, awareness-raising, education, strengthening of the family institution and providing community socioeconomic support.”

Female genital mutilation/ circumcision (FGM/C) is another issue that political parties’ election manifestos should address, said SIS. 

“This type of violation against baby girls, especially Muslim baby girls where they are sent to be circumcised by medical practitioners or ‘mat bidan’ (midwives) must be stopped immediately as FGM/C has no religious or medical basis.

“Political parties must take into account that Malaysia has ratified Cedaw (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) in 1995. Hence, upholding the rights of women by making a strong commitment to end this practice.”

Additionally, political parties should not turn a blind eye on cases of sexual harassment, violations, and bullying, such as period spot checks in educational institutions that were reported in social media in April last year.

“While there were student perpetrators such as prefects and senior students, especially for period spot checks, these violations were openly sanctioned and enforced by teachers,” SIS said.

“Therefore, political parties must pledge to better address this vile practice to safeguard our students in their manifestos.”

Needed Reforms In Shariah Courts

The only mention of empowerment under the “women” category of PH Wanita’s manifesto is to “empower the shariah judicial institutions, especially with regards to administrative management”. 

PH also pledged to provide special funds and access to legal aid to ensure justice for women and children.

While the administration of shariah courts is an issue that needs to be addressed, SIS said other challenges faced by women include complications in shariah court procedures when it comes to obtaining maintenance for wife and children, and dissolution of marriage, among others.

PH’s previous GE14 manifesto addressed this more specifically under Commitment 4, where the coalition pledged to “establish a Family Law Improvement Committee with the aim of amending the law on divorce, maintenance and child custody, to ensure a more efficient and fairer solution to women.”

Ambitious Pledge To Address Period Poverty

Photo by A B from Pexels.

The lack of particulars in some of the pledges in the current manifesto also raises the question of how the pledges will be fulfilled, especially if they are too general and broad in scope.

For example, one of the pledges under the “women” category is to address the issue of period poverty and dignified menstrual management by providing menstrual kits for free at all school levels, particularly for women and girls from the bottom 40 per cent (B40) and middle 40 per cent (M40) categories of income earners.

How will such an ambitious pledge involving 80 per cent of the menstruating female adolescent population throughout the country be fully subsidised throughout their entire school life?

“We did say in the manifesto that we will provide these kits, or rather free sanitary napkins, in primary schools and secondary schools. Because this is a manifesto document, the mechanism is not written there,” said incumbent Batu Kawan MP Kasthuri Patto, who heads the PH Wanita manifesto committee, when asked about this.

“And of course the mechanism is something we need to look into, there will be budget allocations for it,” she told Ova.

“We do have some data, if not all, but we know there is definitely a need for children who come from B40 and M40, particularly in schools, to have access to sanitary pads.

I guess the principle is if you can have toilet rolls in toilets, then you should be able to have sanitary pads as well, and access to it in schools.”

Kasthuri said while she cannot provide more information on the mechanism for executing the pledge as yet, she maintained that the pledge was written to take into account aspects of its implementation.

“Rest assured, it will be something that we will pursue and find a way to realise. We have NGOs that we have been talking to who have data and working papers and those are the ones we are looking at as well.”

Increased Subsidies, Training Incentives And Senior Citizens

Other pledges under the “women” category similarly veer more towards provision of aid, such as increasing subsidies to parents, nursery operators or child care centres, to ensure that children can be sent to affordable centres for both working parents from the B40 and M40 groups.

It is puzzling that introducing course and training incentives for early childhood education to all entrepreneurs, carers, and nursery educators to improve the quality of the early childhood education industry is included as a pledge in the women category, especially since there is a category designated for children.

There are also categories for senior citizens and people with disabilities in PH Wanita’s GE15 women’s manifesto. 

In its GE14 manifesto, special commitments outlined for senior citizens were separate from the special commitments for women. 

The inclusion of senior citizens in this year’s manifesto seems to suggest that only women are affected by issues facing the elderly and that the responsibility of care falls solely on women.

Barisan Nasional and Perikatan Nasional have not yet released their manifestos for the upcoming elections.

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