25 May 2006
Malaysia Needs New Laws Aimed Specifically at Ending Discrimination on Basis of Sex, Gender, Say Committee's Expert Members
Delegation Chief Tells of Action Plan to Formulate Advocacy Measures
NEW YORK, 24 May (UN Headquarters) -- Malaysia needed new laws directed specifically at eliminating sex and gender discrimination because current laws did not sufficiently protect women's rights, members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women stressed today as they considered Malaysia's combined initial and second periodic report.
In their day-long dialogue with the 21-member delegation, the experts said that any new laws should include provisions for temporary special measures to hasten de facto equality between men and women at the highest level of Government and industry. They praised Malaysia for promoting the right of women to health care and education, but also indicated areas where women could still fall through the cracks. One expert member cited a federal court case, Beatriz Fernandez v. Malaysia Airlines, in which the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was invoked without success. The complainant had been forced to resign as a stewardess after becoming pregnant and the court had deemed it a case of contract law rather than a matter of women's rights.
The Committee also pressed the delegation to explain how Malaysia would reconcile provisions under sharia (Islamic code of law) that were inconsistent with the Convention. Under that system, men enjoyed certain privileges over women in relation to divorce, the distribution of property and inheritance since they were mandated by Islam as "providers". Questions also arose over the definition of marital rape under Malaysian law and whether it adequately criminalized that act.
Expert members learned that Malaysia operated two parallel legal systems -- the Civil Code and sharia -- with the federal courts functioning as an overall check and balance. A consultative process was currently under way in Malaysia to better formulate existing sharia law, but negotiations were protracted because states tended to, in the words of one delegate, "jealously guard their territory".
Today's discussions led the Committee to recommend the creation of a State-wide legal mechanism to ensure harmony in the country's laws, policies and programmes, and to guarantee fully that the rights of Malaysian women were upheld.
Heading the country's delegation was Faizah Mohd Tahir, Secretary-General of the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, who acknowledged in her introductory remarks that women's participation in the economy was low, with only 47.3 per cent of all working-age women opting to join the workforce in 2004. Similarly, their participation in political and public life had not reached the minimum desirable level of 30 per cent, a target set by the Government in the same year. An action plan developed jointly by the Ministry of Women and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) would analyse the role of Malaysian women in Government, as well as in the private sector, and formulate advocacy measures.
Other members of the delegation included officials from the Ministry of Education, the Economic Planning Unit, the Attorney-General's Chambers, the Departments of Immigration and Labour, the Royal Malaysian Police and Malaysia's Permanent Mission to the United Nations.
The Committee will meet again on 10 a.m. Thursday, 25 May, to consider the report of Cyprus.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women had before it Malaysia's combined initial and second periodic report (document CEDAW/C/MYS/1-2) on the country's progress in implementing the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to which it acceded in 1995. The report was prepared by a committee comprised of officials from ministries, Government agencies and the National Council of Women's Organisations, which is an umbrella body of non-governmental women's organizations in Malaysia. The Committee is chaired by the Secretary-General of the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development.
According to the report, Malaysia's Constitution "clearly embodies the spirit" of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was amended in August 2001 to prohibit discrimination in any law on the basis of gender. A National Policy on Women, formulated by the Government in 1989, has helped bring about gender awareness in administrative policies while a Ministry of Women and Family Development (later renamed Women, Family and Community Development) was established in 2001 to create further awareness on women's rights, and monitor and formulate relevant policies. It is assisted by inter-Ministerial and state-level committees. An independent Human Rights Commission has existed since 1999 to inquire into complaints of human rights infringement more generally, and to procure and receive evidence relating to such cases.
The report notes that Malaysia ratified the Convention with a number of reservations because some articles were deemed contradictory to the country's laws. For instance, Islamic sharia law, which is upheld by State courts in each of Malaysia's 13 states, give men certain privileges over women in relation to divorce, the distribution of property and inheritance since they are mandated as "providers". Reservations also remain in relation to the issue of citizenship in cases of marriage between a Malaysian woman and a foreigner, where foreign husbands of Malaysian women enjoyed fewer rights than foreign wives of Malaysian men.
The report admits that custom and tradition make a distinction between the role of men and women in the exercise of their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, though measures had been taken by the Government to reduce discrimination by providing equal access to education, economic resources, political participation and employment. Laws, too, have been reformed to eliminate stereotypical perceptions. For example, the Distribution Act of 1958, which was premised on the understanding that "women would not have the capacity to administer property on the death of the husband", was amended so that surviving spouses of both sexes automatically receive half of the deceased's estate (a wife used to receive only one third of her late husband's estate if there were no children). The Domestic Violence Act 1994 was enacted to protect both women and men from spousal abused, where 98 per cent of reported victims were women.
Other laws help to minimize the exploitation of women by criminalizing: the import, export, buying, selling or disposal of any person as a slave; living on the earnings of prostitution; the management or assisting in the management of a brothel; and the bringing into Malaysia any women for the purpose of prostitution. To protect rape victims, the Evidence Act of 1950 was amended in 1989 to prohibit questions being posed in court on their sexual history.
Regarding women's participation in political and public life, the report says that the number of female candidates elected to Parliament, though low, has increased at a moderate rate from 2.9 per cent in 1959 to 10.4 per cent in 2000. The same is true of elected officials at the state level. However, there have only been two women ministers in the Cabinet throughout this period, increasing to three in 2001 with the establishment of the Ministry of Women and Development.
The report also discusses advancing the role of women in the workforce, including in trade unions; women's participation in international forums; rates of education and literacy among women and girls; equal access to health care; and the role of women in development planning in rural areas.
Introduction of Reports
Introducing her country's report to the Committee, FAIZAH MOHD TAHIR, Secretary-General, Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development of Malaysia, spoke on Malaysia's education, health and labour policies affecting women; and touched on women's political participation and legislation that protected their rights.
She said that, of the population of 23.3 million, 49.1 per cent of the total population were women. Literacy rates among women stood at 88.1 per cent in 2004, rising from 85.4 per cent in 2000 due to an improved education system. The enrolment of girls and women in schools reflected the country's gender ratio; affordable education had also enabled the achievement of Malaysia's Millennium Development Goals in bridging gender disparities in secondary and primary education. At the tertiary level, the enrolment of females outnumbered males, although enrolment in PhD programmes was lower for females. They tended to display a higher inclination than males for arts, science and technology subjects, but fewer women than men had opted for technical and vocational training. In terms of their employment, she said there were still "significant gaps" concerning women in top management positions, as well as in the legislature.
Turning to women's health, she said the maternal mortality rate was low due to improved antenatal and postnatal health care, as well as the effectiveness of the "Safe Motherhood Initiative", launched in 1987 as part of global effort to reduce global maternal morbidity. However, women were indeed in the high-risk category for HIV infection, with the number of infections rising from 7.9 per cent in 2000 to 11.6 per cent in 2005. Currently, voluntary testing for pregnant mothers was being offered through public health programmes where treatment was given to them and their newborn babies if found positive in the form of free antiretroviral treatment. Preventive health services also existed, such as the "Nur Sejahtera" programme, where family planning, reproductive health screening and counselling were provided. Information could also be found online on non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
Speaking on the economy, she said that women's participation in the workforce, though low, had increased from 44.7 per cent in 1995 to 47.3 per cent in 2004. Notably, the percentage of employed women with tertiary education had risen higher than that of men, but men stayed in the workforce longer than women. Interestingly, efforts to quantify unpaid work had found that women carried out a larger portion of "care work" (75 per cent of women compared to 24 per cent of men), amounting to nearly 76 billion Malaysian ringgit, or 12 per cent of Malaysia's gross domestic product (GDP). Poverty among female-headed households had declined due to income generating programmes for poor and single mothers and the provision of basic and safe living quarters to targeted poor groups.
Addressing the subject of women's participation in public life, she said that women representatives in Parliament stood at 21 out of 219 in the lower house, but that 12 out of 17 women from the ruling party had been given high-level posts such as Minister, Deputy Minister and Parliamentary Secretary. In August 2004, the Government had initiated a policy of having women in at least 30 per cent of decision-making posts, and an action plan developed jointly with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) would analyse the role of Malaysian women in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of Government, as well as in the private sector and formulate advocacy measures to ensure buy-in from the public.
Since its accession to the Convention, laws in Malaysia had constantly been reviewed to ensure compliance, for example, by including the word "gender" in the Constitution. Other amendments to laws, policies and procedures included changes to the Pensions Act so that widows did not lose their pensions even if they were to remarry; amendments to the Land Group Settlement Acts to allow former wives who acted jointly to develop an estate to become property owners; and amendments to the Penal and Criminal Code to provide a wider definition of rape and provision of stiffer penalties for that crime. The Domestic Violence Act was being reviewed by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, relevant agencies and non-governmental organizations to include emotional, mental and psychological forms of domestic violence in the definition of domestic violence, as well as the use of drugs on the victims without their consent. At the workplace, laws had been enacted to deal with sexual harassment.
Recent controversies had arisen with regard to Islamic family law, she said. Such law fell under state jurisdiction and was monitored by the federal Government. Upon the introduction of a new model law, women voiced concerns that it would deprive them of their dignity, money and property. For instance, it was thought that under that law a man had the right to claim joint property to include a wife's personal property such as gifts and inheritance. A sharia committee, to include scholars, non-governmental organizations, the Bar Council, the Association of Women Lawyers, and others, had been tasked with the review of that model law. So far, it was agreed that the Act needed to redefine "joint property".
The Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development was responsible for addressing women's issues in the country and strengthening the national machinery for the advancement of women, she said. The Ministry's budget had been increased from RM 1.8 million in 2001 to RM 30.5 million, demonstrating the country's serious commitment to the cause. Future challenges to be considered included: addressing the continued poverty among female-headed households; combating violence against women; raising the effectiveness of gender mainstreaming strategies; reducing women's risk of contracting HIV; removing attitudinal challenges that impacted capacity-building; and raising the level of women's participation in the labour force and in business. She stressed that work on lifting Malaysia's reservations to the Convention was ongoing and expressed confidence that the "rights and interests of women were being safeguarded in the spirit of CEDAW."
Accompanying Ms. MOHD TAHIR were (from the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development): Margaret Ho Poh Yeok, Under-Secretary, Policy Division; Meme Zainal Rashid, Deputy Director-General, Department of Social Welfare; Sharifah Zarah Syed Ahmad, Director-General, Department of Women's Development; and Ahmad Razif Mohd Sidek, Legal Adviser.
Also present were Lai Swee Sien, Assistant Secretary, Department of International Relations; Rosnah Hj Ismail, State Director, State Health Department; Negeri Sembilan, Ministry of Health; Siti Hajjar Adnin, Principle Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Habibah Haji Baba, Director, Division of Visa, Pass and Permit, Department of Immigration; Nooryah Mohd Anvar, Senior Assistant Commissioner (II) of Police, Chief of Traffic, Department of Internal Security and Public Order, Royal Malaysia Police; Haili Dolhan, Deputy Director, Educational Planning and Research Division, Ministry of Education; and Aminuddin Ab. Rahman, Industrial Relation Officer, Department of Labour.
Other members of the delegation included Haji Anan C. Mohd, Director, Research Division, Department of Islamic Development of Malaysia; Haji Mohamad Asri Haji Abdullah, Syariah Appeal Court Judge, Department of Syariah Judiciary Malaysia; Shamsiah Dahaban, Senior Director, Social Services Department, Economic Planning Unit; Azailiza Mohd. Ahad, Head of International Affairs Division, Attorney-General's Chamber; Azian Mohd. Aziz, Head of Constitutional Affairs Unit, Advisory Division, Attorney-General's Chamber; Mohd Radzi Harun, Head of the Human Rights and International Organization Unit, International Affairs Division, Attorney-General's Chamber; Haji Walid Abu Hassan, Head of Muamalat and Family Unit, Syariah Section, Advisory Division, Attorney-General Chamber; and Nizam Zakaria, Senior Federal Counsel, Civil and Criminal Unit, Syariah Section, Advisory Division, Attorney-General Chamber. Also in attendance was Radzi Rahman, Alternate Permanent Representative of Malaysia to the United Nations; and Westmoreland Palon, First Secretary of the Malaysian Permanent Mission to the United Nations.
Experts' Questions and Comments
SALMA KHAN, expert from Bangladesh, citing non-government organization sources, said polygamy had been made easier for men in Malaysia, and asked how the Government would respond to the non-fulfilment of its treaty obligations under article 2? Why had such a narrow interpretation of sharia law been accepted? With reform of Islamic family law occurring in many countries, why had Malaysia chosen such a backward law in that regard? Did Malaysia truly want to harmonize Islamic law, considering that it had 14 different variations of sharia law and a federal law as well? Did Malaysia intend to review that?
PRAMILA PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, asked for details on the consultations and nature of discussions among various agencies regarding the reservations made to articles of the Convention. Was one committee discussing all the reservations or were there various discussions in different committees for each article? What time frame had the Ministry of Women set for discussion? Could the Committee have more details regarding the various reservations to article 16? The decision in the case of Beatriz Fernandez vs. Malaysia Airlines showed that standards provided in the Convention were not being honoured by Malaysia's courts. How was the Government responding to that judgement and what steps were being taken to ensure that a legal definition of discrimination was covered? How was the Government ensuring harmonization of article 8? Could the delegation elaborate on the dual system whereby international laws were not included in national law? Was the Government considering the domestication of the Convention?
CEES FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, said that, in the case of Beatriz Fernandez v. Malaysian Airlines, Ms. Fernandez, the stewardess, had invoked the Convention's provisions but the Court of Appeals had not respected that. While respecting the fact that Malaysia had a dualist system, the courts were required to take judicial notice of international obligations. Was there any intention to domesticate or incorporate the Convention and gender equality into national law? What was being done to familiarize the judiciary with women's rights treaties and the Convention? Any classification based on sex was suspect, and lawful discrimination was a contradiction in terms.
One delegate said Islamic family law fell within the jurisdiction of the states, but the Government wished to ensure the harmony of the Islamic community. The sole purpose of the Model Law was to harmonize all 14 sharia laws, especially as they concerned polygamy, joint property ownership and the improvement of sharia court administration. The Government had initiated steps to look into the Model Law in order to make its provisions clearer.
She said the sharia law committee had begun to look into controversial provisions of the Islamic Family Law Act, and representatives of various Government agencies, academia and non-governmental organizations had studied the proposals. It had been proposed to redefine the definition of joint property, whereby neither property acquired by a wife through her sole efforts nor that acquired by the husband or wife before marriage was considered joint property.
Regarding the incorporation of domestic legislation to give effect to the Convention, another delegate said the Government needed to internalize the process of domestic law. The process of ensuring that all subsequent laws were not discriminatory in nature was ongoing. Some laws had been amended and others needed to be studied for possible amendment. On the Beatriz Fernandez case, officials had looked at how the judgement would affect international obligations given that the courts had given a narrow interpretation of gender equality under the Convention. The Attorney-General's office was taking the necessary action to ensure that the case would not affect Malaysia's treaty obligations.
With respect to an explicit definition of discrimination, he said the Government aimed to incorporate such a definition into the Constitution, which would require more time. On sensitizing the judiciary to women's rights issues and the Convention, it was necessary to be clear so that domestic courts could interpret domestic law in full compliance with it. That process was under way and would take effect in the future.
Concerning plans to withdraw reservations to the Convention, another delegate said an Inter-Ministry Committee had been set up to review reservations to article 5A and article 7B. The reservations were still under review through consultations with different Government departments and agencies.
Experts' Questions and Comments
HANNA BEATE SCHÖPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, sought clarification on the revision of reservations, asking whether the reservation to article 5A concerning property ownership was still a general reservation? What was the nature of the reservation? Classifications made on the basis of anything relating to men and women amounted to discrimination, and classifications seemed to run counter to the concept of gender equality. Was there a permanent government mechanism to ensure the consistency of sharia laws, policies and programmes with regard to the substantive equality of women in the country as a whole? How did it function, and what issues was it taking up at present? What would it take up in the future?
SILVIA PIMENTEL, expert from Brazil, asked how the Government proposed to ensure practical application of the Domestic Violence Act. How were sexual harassment and marital rape being addressed?
FRANÇOISE GASPARD, expert from France, asked why Malaysia had taken so long to submit its first report to the Committee. What difficulties had the Government encountered? Had the report been submitted to Parliament? Having ratified the Convention in 1995 and entered reservations to some of its articles in 1998, Malaysia had later withdrawn reservations to article 2, but it was difficult to understand the reasons for its reservations to article 5. Could the delegation provide information on developments in that regard?
A delegate said the Government was considering withdrawing the reservations to article 5A and article 7B, but officials had not looked at other articles to which reservations had been made. On the practical application of the Domestic Violence Act, the Government was of reviewing the Act to expand its scope and introduce new provisions to protect victims. The issue of sexual harassment had not been considered in amendments to the Act and would only be considered in terms of amendments to the Employment Act and the Industrial Relations Act.
With respect to delays in submitting the country report to the Committee, another delegate said the Government had begun preparing it upon its ratification of the Convention, but it had been a long process. Only with the creation of the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development in 2004 had serious efforts been made to complete the report, and it had been submitted through the normal government process. It had gone to the Cabinet for approval, but had not been sent to Parliament. The Cabinet had set up a Committee on Gender Equality, chaired by the Prime Minister, to address women's issues as they concerned the media, legislation and the workplace.
Regarding marital rape and other forms of violence, another delegate said Parliament had set up a select committee to take up that issue. The committee responsible for amendments to the Domestic Violence Act had already taken it up and it had been discussed among non-governmental organizations throughout the country for a year and a half. The parliamentary committee had already submitted a report for Parliament's consideration.
Another delegate said that non-governmental organizations had submitted a proposed sexual harassment bill for consideration by the Government and it had been sent to the Cabinet. In October 2004, the Cabinet had decided that sexual harassment should be included in the Employment Act, the Industrial Relations Act and in an expanded Occupational Health Act. The necessary revisions were being examined.
Experts' Questions and Comments
DUBRAVKA ŠIMONOVIĆ, expert from Croatia, asked how the Government was disseminating the Convention and information on reservations to specific articles. She noted the importance of withdrawing the reservation to article 2F, saying Malaysia had equality before the law but not equal rights for men and women.
A delegate said information on the Convention was disseminated through different Government departments and agencies. The Government was publishing a children's textbook on the Convention for distribution in schools.
Another delegate said she agreed with the need to improve conditions for gender equality. The Ministry of Women had appointed focal points to monitor consistency and compliance and the Government was looking at the possible withdrawal of existing reservations.
Experts' Questions and Comments
ROSARIO MANALO, expert from the Philippines and Chairperson of the Committee, asked for more information regarding the proposal to criminalize marital rape.
A delegate said non-governmental organizations had asked the Government to consider including provisions on marital rape in the Penal Code. The issue was being considered by a select committee of Parliament, which would make the decision.
Experts' Questions and Comments
Ms. MANALO, expert from the Philippines, asked for details about the proposal that the select committee had sent to Parliament.
The delegate said that the select committee had proposed criminalizing a husband's rape of his wife, so that he would be penalized if found guilty.
Experts' Questions and Comments
Ms. MANALO, expert from the Philippines, stressed the need for a gender equality law over and above reforms under way to protect and uphold the rights of women.
Mr. FLINTERMAN, expert from the Netherlands, asked if there was any intention to create a gender equality law, noting that provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child had already been incorporated into a domestic Child Protection Act. What progress had been made among the different ethnic groups, given that the report contained no data? Also, would the Government consider developing laws to protect refugees and asylum-seekers, since Malaysia had large numbers of them, especially women and girls, but lacked specific legislation to protect them?
The head of delegation replied that they did not have at hand any data broken down by ethnicity, but promised to provide it in future reports. The Government did have a Department of Indigenous Affairs that ensured that the indigenous population had access to basic amenities, utilities and education. In fact, the number of indigenous students enrolled in schools had doubled between 2001 and 2005.
Another delegate, addressing the question on refugees and asylum-seekers, admitted that Malaysia was not party to existing conventions. However, throughout its history, the country had taken various measures to protect the rights of refugees from Viet Nam and Thailand, including women. In fact, Thais commonly sought refuge in Malaysia, where they were placed in camps in which they felt safe. Many remained there at present and the Government was committed to giving them court rights on humanitarian grounds.
Experts' Comments and Questions
Ms. SCHÖPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, urged the development of an anti-discrimination law focused specifically on sex and gender because, as the Beatriz Fernandez v. Malaysia Airlines case had shown, constitutional provisions had not been sufficient to protect the claimant's rights because they did not regulate the behaviour of businesses vis-à-vis individuals. An anti-discrimination law should also include provisions for temporary special measures. What the report referred to as temporary special measures were, in fact, general policies.
She urged the Government to accept the Committee's suggestion that it lift the reservation to article 16 (on marriage and family life) without delay, and asked whether Malaysia intended to create a permanent federal structure to ensure consistency in laws, policies and programmes on the rights of women.
The head of the delegation admitted that there were no temporary special measures for women but stressed the existence of numerous programmes dedicated to them, including special windows allowing women to obtain loans, and a policy to provide discounts to single mothers purchasing low-cost houses. Such policies were not what the Committee had in mind, but the delegation was willing to hear more suggestions. On the withdrawal of reservations, there was no time frame regarding that question but discussions were continuing.
On the development of a permanent federal structure on women's rights, another representative stressed that personal law, particularly family law, lay with the states. On occasion, the federal Government proposed recommendations (model legislations) for the states to consider, but it would consider the Committee's suggestion that it create a federal structure.
Experts' Comments and Question
MARIA REGINA TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, addressing the report's description of the "inferior self-image of women", expressed concern over the lack of urgency in changing "cultural structural attitudes", noting that, while women had full access to, and knowledge of, family planning methods, the rate of contraceptive use remained low. Were women subject to the control of men in that area?
GLENDA SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, asked whether the Government planned to develop a law against trafficking, since women were trafficked, whether for sexual reasons or for domestic work, precisely because they were devalued by society. With respect to sex education in schools, did it go beyond biology to include concepts such as the subjugation of female sexuality?
MAGALYS AROCHA DOMINGUEZ, expert from Cuba, said Malaysia enjoyed a greater distribution of income and wealth among social groups compared to other countries, but pointed out that an improved economic, political and social environment did not resolve cultural stereotypes and patterns. What integrated strategies were in place to change that?
The head of the delegation, conceding the urgent need to remove sex-role stereotypes, said the Government had created guidelines to promote a positive portrayal of women in textbooks. The Communications and Multimedia Content Forum of Malaysia had helped to develop a content code for television and radio programmes whereby any portrayal of explicit sexual activity was prohibited, as was advertising portraying men, women or children as sex objects.
She said the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development had prepared, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, guidelines on sexual education to promote responsible and safe lifestyles and to encourage parents and teachers to participate. The guidelines touched on interpersonal skills, community, culture and health rather than just biological development. A guidebook called Smart Start had been produced for newlyweds and those intending to get married, to encourage the equitable sharing of tasks between husbands and wives. Gender sensitization programmes had been instituted at all levels to change stereotypical attitudes and 29 gender focal points had been appointed in all Ministries and Government departments. Training programmes on gender mainstreaming had been held for Government officers and politicians, while non-governmental organizations were encouraged to help the Ministry to implement gender mainstreaming strategies.
Another representative, responding to the question on trafficking, said that current legislation was thought to be inadequate.
The head of the delegation added that the Ministry had begun dialogues with the Ministry of Internal Security on building women-friendly shelters, as well as the training of police and immigration officers to identify victims. In a joint effort with the Home Affairs Ministry, they would soon develop a matrix for distinguishing real victims from those voluntarily involved in vice.
Experts' Comments and Questions
ZOU XIAOQIAO, expert from China, addressing the question of women's participation in politics and decision-making, asked for more details on the Government's joint activities with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Had the 30 per cent target announced by the Government become state policy? What about the condition of ethnic-minority women?
MERIEM BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, commended the delegation for having among its members as many men as women and lauded the fact that 32 per cent of Senators in Malaysia's Parliament were women.
Ms. AROCHA DOMINGUEZ, expert from Cuba, following up on an earlier question by her colleague from France, remarked that progress was not equal among all elected bodies, noting that between 2002 and 2005, there had, in fact, been a slight reduction in the number of women serving in the lower house of Parliament. Might that not indicate discrimination among political officials? In the local councils, too, only 11.5 per cent of members were women. What was the ethnic breakdown of local councillors?
Ms. GASPARD, expert from France, asked what types of public posts were held by women, noting that few held positions in large administrative bodies or high-profile agencies like the Foreign Affairs Ministry. How did the Government intend to realize the 30 per cent target? She reminded delegates that 30 per cent was only the required minimum and stressed that perfect parity should be the ultimate goal.
Regarding the 30 per cent policy, one representative said that an action plan called "Towards achieving 30 per cent of women at decision-making level in Malaysia for both the public and private sectors" had been developed in conjunction with the UNDP. The programme would assess the status of women in decision-making posts in all three branches of government, as well as in the private sector. The Government would examine best practices from other countries in order to turn policy into reality, and develop buy-in measures to ensure support for the policy.
She added that the Ninth Malaysia Plan had also announced that local authority councils must achieve the 30 per cent target by 2010 and apologized for not having any data on ethnic distribution. However, it would be incorporated in the next country report or sent to experts directly after the meeting.
Regarding reservations to article 7B (on the right to hold public office and perform all public functions at all levels of government), she explained that some posts in the sharia court could not be held by women. As "religious posts", they were different from other public posts. The holder of such a post may have to lead people in prayers, which, according to the rules of Islam, women were not always in a position to do.
Another representative added that political parties had begun establishing "women's youth wings" to groom women for politics.
Ms. MANALO, expert from the Philippines, asked if there was enough political will to carry out the 30 per cent policy. What had the Ministry done to foster a strong sense of political will?
The head of the delegation replied that the Ministry had itself proposed the 30 per cent policy.
Experts' Questions and Comments
Ms. BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, took issue with the reservation to paragraph 2 of article 9, saying that the most flagrant example of discrimination was to prohibit a woman married to a foreigner from transferring her nationality to her own children, even when there was no religious obstacle to doing so under Muslim law.
A delegation member agreed that there was a need to examine procedural differences that were not a matter of religion and said the Government would need to review those differences to ensure equal treatment.
Experts' Questions and Comments
ANAMAH TAN, expert from Singapore, requested an update on literacy rates among rural women and, turning to gender stereotyping in textbooks, asked the delegation to provide examples of changes made. Why did the Fifth Forum on Moral Education in Textbooks seem to reinforce the notion that a woman's place was in the home? Had an impact assessment of initiatives in education and the media sector been done? Were school and university teachers trained in gender-equality relations? What plans and timelines did the Government have to do that?
A delegation member said the guidelines required that textbooks avoid discriminatory images based on gender and ethnicity. They did not suggest that a woman's place be portrayed exclusively as the home. As for teachers, they were being trained in gender equality matters.
The Ministry of Women planned to introduce gender sensitization programmes for teachers, another delegate said. The Government had not conducted any impact assessments, but they were a good idea. The delegation had no data on the literacy rates of rural women but statistics could be provided at a later date.
Experts' Questions and Comments
Ms. KHAN, expert from Bangladesh, addressing issues under article 11 of the Convention, asked about monitoring mechanisms to track wage differentials between men and women. Did the delegation have data on such differentials in the private sector? How many foreign domestics were working in Malaysia, and were they covered under the Employment Act? What actions had been taken to prevent abuse and afford them protection? Did they have access to medical care, and were they covered under the Social Security Act? Was sexual abuse of domestic workers covered under the Code of Prevention of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?
Ms. PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, asked about the Ministry's time frame for completing research on discrimination against women in employment, and the extent to which the Government would make good use of it. What agreement did the Ministry have with the Ministry of Human Resources? How was the matter of employers refusing to employ women being addressed pending implementation of the Employment Act, and what measures was the Government taking to penalize non-compliance? Had any business licences been revoked in that regard? To what extent were women aware of their legal rights? Could the delegation give a time frame for the enactment of sexual harassment legislation?
Ms. SCHÖPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, said the delegation's prior answers to questions under article 11 were incomplete and asked about the results of employers being encouraged to apply special benefits. Did the Government impose stronger measures on businesses? Had there been a real review of labour law? What were the Government's policies on maternity benefits, and did all women receive them?
Ms. MANALO, expert from the Philippines, asked if the Government planned to set up policies and/or programmes to protect migrant women guest workers.
The head of the delegation, responding to questions about discrimination in employment, admitted that the rate of women's participation in the work force was low compared to that of men, especially in the managerial and professional categories. The recent Ninth Malaysia Plan contained strategies for developing a more conducive environment for women, by providing workplace childcare facilities, for instance. Under that Plan, up to RM 50,000 in grants would be awarded to Government agencies to build such facilities and participating private-sector firms would be given a 10 per cent income tax exemption. The Ministry also saw a need for community childcare centres for low-income families and, in fact, 10 such centres would be built by the end of 2006, following the Cabinet's approval of the Ministry's proposal on the matter.
She said a recent study on the mismatch between academic qualifications and job opportunities in the labour market showed that more men than women were hired, even when women had better qualifications, because men were perceived to have better communication skills, greater discipline and ability to work independently. Efforts would be undertaken to correct that perception.
Another representative said with respect to migrant domestic workers that a Malaysia-Indonesia Memorandum of Understanding had been concluded after two years of bilateral negotiations. It gave those workers the right to participate in the determination of wages, the setting of rest hours and access to medical care and workman's compensation. Regarding abuse of domestic workers, all forms of abuse would, and had been, dealt with under the Penal Code.
Turning to unfair labour practice, another representative explained that immigrant workers were protected by various laws. For instance, every employer was required to cover injured workers through a compensation scheme. Routine inspections and investigations ensured that employers complied with those laws. Although there were no statistics at hand on the number of complaints, they would be included in the next report.
On maternity benefits, the head of the delegation explained that pension benefits for public sector employees were calculated on the basis of the length of service. Women could receive less in benefits if they accrued a large number of unpaid leave days, which could very well be the case around the time of pregnancy and childbirth. In cases where women were paid daily wages, a daily maternity allowance of not less than RM 6 was given. No incentives were given to small businesses to share the burden of maternity benefits, but Malaysia was willing to learn from other countries in that regard.
Experts' Questions and Comments
FUMIKO SAIGA, expert from Japan, asked whether, under the new Memorandum of Understanding, a female migrant domestic worker could switch employers after filing a complaint of sexual harassment, rape or other abuse against her previous employer. Who would monitor the new employer's behaviour? Could the employee work for another employer while the trial continued? Could she get government help in emergencies?
Ms. MANALO, expert from the Philippines, asked what programmes and policies protected migrant female workers.
A delegate said there was currently no formal Memorandum of Understanding between Governments regarding female migrant domestic workers. An employee who filed a complaint against her employer could not work for another since her work permit was valid only for employment with the original employer. With proper contracts between employers and employees, immigration officials hoped to monitor employer behaviour. In emergencies, there were contact numbers that migrant workers could call, and there was a link in that regard between the Governments of Malaysia and Indonesia.
Experts' Questions and Comments
Ms. TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, asked whether sex education was effective and mandatory in schools or if it was left to the discretion of teachers. Were there any cultural constraints against giving women access to sex education? Was there not an imbalance of power between women and men?
DORCAS COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, asked what steps the Government was taking to ensure fair and standardized employment contracts for foreign workers in terms of access to health care and regular work hours, among other things. What steps were being taken to ensure that vulnerable people would not be jeopardized if their health-care system was privatized?
Ms. PIMENTEL, expert from Brazil, asked what was being done to improve access to family planning services and to information. What steps were being taken to reduce the number of deaths due to unsafe abortions and to make safe abortions more widely accessible? What was being done to investigate the high incidence of maternal deaths among certain vulnerable groups? How would the Government expand existing policies on adolescent health and access for adolescents to family planning?
A delegate said the delegation did not have much data on adolescent health needs, but Malaysia had expanded primary services in health-care clinics throughout the country that would provide information on nutrition, risky sexual behaviour and counselling. Regarding the importance of sex education, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Women were encouraging sex education in order to reduce risky sexual behaviour among adolescents.
As for the imbalance of power between women and men regarding vulnerability to HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, she said Government programmes covered the needs of both men and women, including prevention of mother-to-child transmission of sexually transmitted diseases. Mothers were counselled on HIV/AIDS awareness and one of the annual "Healthy Lifestyles" campaigns was dedicated to HIV/AIDS and women.
Noting the need for improved collection of data on adolescents, she said the Government's health management information system collected data in a systematic manner. Gender-disaggregated data was collected and analysed before being put forward to be made available at the state level.
She said foreign workers would be given emergency medical treatment on humanitarian grounds. Health-care costs for migrant workers were high and Malaysia needed to screen them upon entry into the country and if found to be HIV-positive and unhealthy, they would be sent back home.
Malaysia had earmarked a large percentage of funding for health care, she said, adding that the Ministry of Health was the third largest. If the national health-care system was ever privatized, Malaysia would ensure that the health-care needs of vulnerable groups were protected. Its health-care system was highly subsidized and the expectations of the population were high. Health-care financing schemes were needed to ensure that their needs were met.
She said deaths from illegal abortions were not a widespread problem. The Ministry of Women encouraged sex education in schools and it was also available in health centres and adult health clinics.
Another delegate said the National Population and Family Development Board had 50 clinics nationwide and planned to introduce national guidelines on sexuality and sex education in schools.
Experts' Comments and Questions
Ms. ZOU, expert from China, expressed disappointment that the report contained outdated data on rural women, noting that, according to 2001 data, one tenth of rural families lived below the poverty line, many of which were headed by women. What measures had the Government taken to eradicate poverty, and how did women and men benefit from them? While it was understood that the poor must be registered on a Government list in order to qualify for special loans and other means of production, were there any other conditions? How easy was it for the rural population to gain access to health care, including contraception and HIV/AIDS testing? Did victims of domestic violence have access to legal aid?
Ms. TAN, expert from Singapore, noted that 38 per cent of Malaysia's population lived in the rural areas, of which 4 million were women, most of them working as unpaid family workers. What had the Government done to ensure that they were paid for their labour? Did they have any social security benefits? While rural women were generally represented at the village level, how were they represented at the national and global levels? Did the Government plan to help them form associations to tackle such mainstream issues as control of resources or economic development? Did one-stop crisis centres for rape victims and those of other forms of violence against women and children exist in rural areas?
HEISOO SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, asked what criteria were used to calculate the participation of rural women in the labour force, and whether it included housewives and unpaid family workers who raised their own vegetables or poultry. Could both husbands and wives, whether part-time or full-time farmers, be members of the National Farmers' Association? Regarding skills-training programmes for the rural population, how were the trainers themselves trained, and did they receive gender-perspective training?
The head of the delegation said there was currently a lack of data on rural women, but gender-disaggregated data on rural development was being collected. Many government agencies were involved in implementing poverty eradication programmes, including programmes on training in food processing, agriculture and handicraft. Participants were also provided with accounting and financial management skills, as well as lessons in environmental care, food cleanliness and cleanliness of house and surroundings.
Regarding special Government loans, she said the list was compiled by the Department of Rural and Regional Development. On unpaid family workers, no plans were in place to provide social security benefits. And the statistic on women's participation in the labour force did not include housewives or unpaid family workers. Regarding the Area Farmers' Organization, 26 per cent of its members were women, but the number serving on its Board of Directors was much lower. The Women and Family Development Council, an entity of the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, provided leadership training programmes to rural women in each parliamentary constituency.
Another representative, addressing the question of access to family planning in rural areas, said that the National Family Board, the Family Planning Association and the Ministry of Health worked jointly to provide those services and coverage was high. One-stop crisis centres could also be found in district hospitals.
Revisiting the issue of maternal mortality, she said the "Safe Motherhood Initiative" had built alternative birthing centres for rural women living too far from hospitals. Women should not die in childbirth and in such cases, confidential inquiries were undertaken in view of their seriousness. Obstetric care was provided at the state and district levels by trained and skilled personnel.
Experts' Questions and Comments
HUGUETTE BOKPE GNACADJA, expert from Benin, addressing the issue of Islamic law with respect to polygamy, asked what happened to the non-tangible, non-measurable wealth that a wife brought to joint matrimonial assets. Why did women not have the reciprocal right to take several husbands? What was the motivation for changing the polygamy law that made it easier for men to engage in the practice? What was the status in sharia court of the first marriage of a couple in cases where two non-Muslims married and then the husband converted to Islam and his second wife was a Muslim?
Ms. TAN, expert from Singapore, asked if societal attitudes towards marriage had changed as a result of programmes like Smart Start and family development training conducted by the National Population and Family Development Training Board. The minimum age for marriage was 18, but girls as young as 16 could marry with the permission of sharia judges. Was the Government working to raise the minimum marriage age to 18 for both boys and girls?
A delegate said the scope of matrimonial joint property was based not on sharia law, but on Malay customary practice. Any property acquired by a wife through her sole efforts was not considered joint property regardless of her employment status. Proposals were being made to include a clear definition of justice in terms of polygamy.
Another delegation member, acknowledging that the differences in the minimum marriage age for men and women were not consistent with the Convention, said that issue would be studied further. Issues arising from the dissolution of a marriage on religious grounds were also being studied.
Ms. MANALO, expert from the Philippines, stepped in to request further clarification on matrimonial conjugal property.
The delegate said in response that property acquired by a wife through her own efforts would not be regarded as jointly acquired during the marriage. Even if the wife did not work alongside her husband to improve the property, her efforts in taking care of her family would be taken into consideration towards the calculation of her share of matrimonial property in the event that it became necessary to divide that property. Any effort by the husband to take care of the children, for example, was excluded from any consideration of a matrimonial joint property claim. Any property belonging to the husband or the wife before their marriage that had been given as a gift would not be considered matrimonial joint property.
Experts' Comments and Questions
Ms. SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, asked why the man's contribution in helping out with family matters was not recognized, since that would constitute discrimination against men. What matrimonial property was there in families where the women were poor? And on school dropouts, what happened to boys who caused girls to drop out due to pregnancy?
Ms. SCHÖPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, asked for statistics on the percentage of women marrying and on the age at which they married. Did women who married young continue their education or training, and were statistics available on that?
Ms. TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, asked whether judges had been sensitized to understand the revised marriage and family law and if there was a risk that they had been misled.
Ms. GNACADJA, expert from Benin, said the delegation had not answered her question about the legal status of first marriages where, in his second marriage, a non-Muslim married a Muslim woman and converted to Islam. What was the legal status of the first marriage, and what would happen if his first wife filed for custody of their children?
Ms. COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, asked whether a non-Muslim's rights would be taken away if her marriage partner converted to Islam later, and if they and all their property would then be subject to sharia law.
Ms. TAN, expert from Singapore, asked why only four Malaysian states had adopted the Guardianship Rights Act. What about the other nine states?
A delegate said consultations had revealed that family laws were so entrenched in Malaysia that the belief was that sharia law actually afforded women greater protections than non-Islamic law. The issue was not that Malaysia had taken a step back, but rather that there were certain ambiguities, which was why the Government had undertaken a review. It was necessary to educate judges in terms of how to interpret the relevant provisions because there was too much openness in interpretation. The Government had moved forward with that, but judges would be able to interpret cases independently.
She said she had no answers on the legal status of the first marriage between people who converted to Islam in subsequent marriages. The Government was trying to find realistic solutions in those cases and to engage all states in consultation. However, those were territorial issues that were jealously guarded by the states.
Another delegate said the Government was indeed concerned that girls as young as 10 years old were getting married, an issue that had been raised in Parliament. On average, women and men entered into their first marriage at an age that was much higher than that. Regarding school dropout rates, girls dropped out probably due to pregnancy, a situation that could best be remedied through sex education and improvements in the socio-economic status of the families concerned.
Experts' Questions and Comments
Ms. ZOU, expert from China, asked for statistics on the average age at which people got married in relation to their level of education. Could a woman join the National Farmers Association if she was only a part-time producer? Could a gender perspective be incorporated into training for rural women?
Ms. PIMENTEL, expert from Brazil, sought clarification regarding the relationship between marital rape and the proposal to be inserted into the Penal Code concerning a husband who harmed or threatened to kill his wife if she did not have sexual intercourse with him. Did the Government have the political will to improve issues relating to the restrictions imposed by abortion laws?
Ms. TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, asked whether the parliamentary select committee would criminalize a husband who used force or the act of marital rape.
A delegate said she did not know offhand if women could join the National Farmers Association and she would check on it. Regarding employers and childcare centres, about 70 per cent of businesses in Malaysia were small and medium-sized enterprises that lacked the "deep pockets" to build them. Community childcare centres were open to everyone, not just low-income families, but the Government subsidized the cost for low-income families.
Responding the questions about marital rape, another delegate said it could not be made an offence because that would be inconsistent with sharia law and other religions practised in Malaysia. It had been proposed to make it an offence for a man to threaten his wife with harm or death so as to force her to have sexual intercourse, but a compromise had been reached in that regard.
Another delegate said abortion was illegal except in cases where the mother's life was in danger. The rate of death from botched abortions had declined from 19.9 per cent in 2000 to 4 per cent in 2006.
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