Stepping up equality on Int’l Women’s Day 2015
This year marks 20 years since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, as well as the 20th anniversary of Malaysia’s ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw).
Today, while Malaysia has done an admirable job at addressing a number of critical concerns outlined in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, political developments in the country over the last decade continue to throw up barriers to the overall goal of gender equality.
Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor’s (Empower) core work is in the area of women’s participation at all levels of governance and political processes. We have trained over 800 women across political divides and from diverse communities, and saw successes in several women elected to Parliament and state assemblies as well as appointed to local councils.
The low number of women among elected representatives is fairly well-known: in the 13th general election, only 10 percent of Members of Parliament elected and 11 percent of state assemblypersons are women. What has received relatively less attention is the effect Malaysia’s political culture and rising economic inequalities on the stagnation of women’s progress.
UN Women executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka’s IWD 2015 message noted that “not one single country has achieved equality” today. This critical and timely reminder should not be twisted into an excuse not to do better.
Malaysia needs to reflect on why it is that only last year, sexist jibes were publicly aired at a political party assembly, a woman candidate at a by-election faced misogynistic attitudes even from supporters of her political party, and menstruation was used as justification to bar women from top decision-making posts. This is not an environment that enables progressive lawmakers, least of all women.
It would be a mistake to assume that the erosion of civil liberties is not part of ‘women’s issues’. Crackdowns under the Sedition Act and other repressive laws do not only silence political dissenters, in the long term they also smother the voices of women human rights defenders fighting for indigenous land rights, single mothers, and the eradication of domestic violence.
The crackdowns foster a culture of fear among the people and a perception of impunity among the authorities, where questioning problematic actions by the government are met with accusations of treason and sedition.
It would be wrong, as well, to assume that gender inequality has no impact on the strength of democracy in this country. Women make up about half of all voters, and research on political attitudes and electoral behaviour among Malaysian women indicate that their voting choices are strongly informed by practical considerations such as money and hand-outs.
Choices reflect this reality
At a recent presentation, this fact was greeted with laughter by a mostly-male crowd. However, Empower puts forward the suggestion that women, especially among the middle to low income group, are well aware of the precariousness of their lives. Their choices reflect this reality.
Middle to low income women are at the frontlines of economic depression due their relatively vulnerable financial situation. Even well-off women are not necessarily insulated. The UNDP’s Malaysia Human Development Report 2013 showed how gender discrimination affects women workers, from hiring disparity to labour practices to inadequate measures to tackle sexual harassment.
Women consistently earn less than men across all formal jobs. Even in jobs where women dominate, such as clerical positions, men are paid more for doing the same work. A woman’s purchasing power is at least 33 percent lower than a man of the same social characteristics. Violence against women and cultural expectations of care-giving and child-rearing also have significant financial implications for women, and thus impact their social and political priorities.
Those seeking a more robust and participatory form of democracy in Malaysia must, by sheer necessity, also support gender equality. Anything less threatens to leave us mired in a situation where the country is ruled by political elites, for the elites.
Political participation in Malaysia must reflect its diverse and amazing people: the voice of a woman living in a low-income rural community should carry the same weight as a wealthy man in the city. Malaysia’s survival depends on it.
JANARTHANI ARUMUGAM is president, Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower).