KEYNOTE ADDRESS BY
YB DATO’ SRI SHAHRIZAT ABDUL JALIL
MINISTER OF WOMEN, FAMILY AND
COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT AT
THE 14th MALAYSIAN LAW CONFERENCE ON
“GENDER EQUALITY – CURRENT ACHIEVEMENTS
AND FUTURE CHALLENGES”
30 OCTOBER 2007, KUALA LUMPUR
Assalamualaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh and a very good
1. It gives me great pleasure to join you today. When Mr. Roger Tan asked me to speak at this conference, I could hardly resist the invitation. I can still vividly remember getting excited as a young lawyer to be able to attend law conferences. It is good to be back for I have very fond memories of my time as a trained lawyer attending such a prestigious event.
2. An event like this inevitably invites personal reflection on the good old days. In my growing-up years, men of the bench and bar generally held the unyielding conviction that women and lawyering, no less judging, do not mix. But as ancient texts reveal, it is not necessarily so.
3. In Greek mythology, Pallas Athena was celebrated as the goddess of reason and justice. To end the cycle of violence that began with Agamenon’s sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia, Athena created a court of justice to try Orestes, thereby installing the rule of law in lieu of the reign of vengeance.
4. As late as 1968, law remained largely a male preserve. For instance, a widely adopted first year property casebook published in 1968 made this comment: “[F]or, after all, land, like woman, was meant to be possessed…”
5. The few women who braved law school in the 1950s and 1960s, were generally supposed to be of no real challenge or competition for the men. When colleagues expressed misgivings about the rising enrolment of women that coincided with the call up of men for Vietnam War service, a distinguished law professor commented at a 1971 Association of American Law Schools meeting: “Not to worry”, he said. “What were women law students after all, only soft men.” The same sentiment was demonstrated by the president of Harvard who was reportedly asked how the law school was faring during the War. He replied, “It was not as bad as we thought. We have 75 students, and we haven’t had to admit any women.”
6. Alhamdulillah, today we have an almost equal number of male and female lawyers in Malaysia with 45.7% of registered female lawyers in the country. However, the number of female judges is still lagging behind. Only three out of 21 judges of the Court of Appeal are women and none of the women judges are appointed as Judges of the Federal Court or above. At the High Court level, 13 out of 48 judges and five out of 16 judicial commissioners are women.
7. As the Minister of Women, Family and Community Development of Malaysia, permit me to share with you what gender equality is all about. The notion of gender equality is ever evolving, and its evolution continues to take place as we speak. However, the basic concept of gender equality refers to an equal sharing of power, opportunities and access to as well as control over resources that will lead to the equal sharing of results between men and women, boys and girls. Gender equality implies that the interest, needs and priorities of both sexes are taken into consideration. Gender equality is not women’s issues, but should concern and fully engage men as well as women.
8. The notion of gender equality is enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, 1945 where all member nations pledge to take joint and separate actions to promote universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms without discrimination. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), 1979 took international human rights law to another level. CEDAW is distinguished for its objective to engage both government and its people in ensuring equality between women and men. Malaysia ratified CEDAW in 1995 and it is highly regarded by the CEDAW Committee in the effort of promoting the advancement of women in the country.
9. The strive for gender equality has been a common goal of the international community. Scandinavian countries such as Norway and Sweden are the leading nations with laws that create an enabling environment for women to progress. Similarly, developing countries are making tremendous efforts to integrate gender mainstreaming initiatives in their development policies and plans. In the private sector, many large business enterprises have a diversity unit to look into their corporate social responsibilities with emphasis on gender issues.
The Path Towards Gender Equality
10. The Malaysian road towards gender equality bends in more ways than one. At the onset of independence, Malaysian women struggled for the basic essentials of life such as freedom and economic stability.
11. As Malaysia evolved from a subsistence agricultural economy to an import substitution economy followed by a manufacturing-based economy and today, progressing towards a knowledge-based economy, women are a significant force influencing the national development agenda. With a total population size of 26.6 million and the female population accounting for 49.1 per cent of the total population, women are an important asset to the development of the country.
12. The female labour force participation rate continued to increase from 30.8 per cent in 1957 to 47.8 percent in 1991. Since then to 2006, the female labour force participation rate fluctuated between 44 per cent to 47 per cent. The number of women in the labour market is about 3.7 million in 2006, which made up for 36 per cent of the total labour force.
13. We must do better in the political arena. In nine general elections until 1999, women contesting as state assembly candidates have never exceeded five per cent and for Parliament, not more than 7.3 per cent. In fact, in 1974, only eight women contested for Parliament compared to 282 men. The election that saw the most women Members of Parliament (MPs) was in 2004, with 21 MPs.
14. In education, for 43 years, the proportion of enrolment of females at primary schools lagged behind their male counterparts. The proportion of female enrolment into secondary schools was below the males right until 1990 where it accounted for 50.5 per cent of enrolment. Since then, female enrolment at the tertiary level of education outnumbered male students with a ratio of 60:40 in favour of females.
Achievements in Gender Mainstreaming Efforts
15. Moving into the new millennium, the Government accorded greater priority towards the achievement of gender equality. The 2001 cabinet reshuffle marked a new beginning for the Government. As the nation moves towards Vision 2020, and reaffirming the importance of gender and development, the Ministry of Women and Family Development was established. A new Ministry it might be, but with an exciting task to raise the status of Malaysian women. The Ministry took a bold decision with the support of Members of Parliament to incorporate the word “gender” into Article 8(2) of the Federal Constitution, which clearly stated that there shall be no discrimination against women.
16. This amendment has a profound impact on all existing legislation and Government regulations. The Government has been actively drafting and reviewing policies, legislation and regulations to ensure that they are not gender discriminating, either directly or indirectly. Allow me to mention some of the laws that have been amended and formulated as a result of the amendments of the Federal Constitution:
(a) Pensions Act 1980
• The Pensions Act was amended in 2002 to allow widows to
continue receiving pensions even after they remarried. The purpose of this new
ruling is to protect and ensure the well-being of widows and their children.
Before this new ruling, widows who remarry experience hardship in taking care of
their families and bringing up their children due to the loss of their husbands’
(b) Land (Group Settlement Areas) Act 1960 (Revised 1994)
• This Act, which was amended by the Parliament in 2002,
provides wives of settlers a joint stake in the land awarded to their husbands.
Before that, only husbands were recognised as sole owners of the settlement.
(c) Penal Code
• The Penal Code was amended in 2006 where the new section of
375A was inserted making an offence for husband causing hurt in order to have
sexual intercourse while section 376 was also amended to reflect aggravated
rape. The new amendment introduces tougher sentences for sexual offences such as
by increasing the penalty for rape offences to a maximum of 30 years
imprisonment and death sentence for rape cases that caused the death of the
(d) Immigration Regulations
• Effective 15 March 2007, the Immigration Regulation was
amended to allow foreign men married to Malaysian women to renew their social
visit pass every five year as opposed to annually. Likewise, foreign women who
are divorced or separated from their Malaysian husbands can apply for social
visit pass on an annual basis beginning 1 September 2001 in which previously,
they would lose their rights to apply for a social visit pass.
(e) Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, 2007
• Signalling its seriousness in tackling human trafficking,
the Act not only gives clout to law enforcers but protects victims and
informants. The law is a major change for the better because it provides tough
penalty for offenders and is very comprehensive in its reach. At the national
level, Malaysia is of the view that the issue of trafficking in women and
children should be viewed from a holistic perspective, not be isolated from
violence against women or abuse of children, or be confined solely to migrant
17. Gender mainstreaming initiatives have also been actively carried out. For example, a pilot project on gender responsive budget (GRB) that involved five ministries i.e. Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Human Resources, Ministry of Rural and Regional Development and Ministry of Higher Education, has been introduced since 2003. The objective of the project was to integrate a gender perspective in the national budget by addressing the needs and interests of different groups of people - women, men, boys and girls.
18. The national machinery for the advancement of women was further strengthened with the establishment of the Cabinet Committee on Gender Equality and the Honourable Prime Minister is the Chairman of the Committee. At its first meeting, the Cabinet Committee agreed to the appointment of gender focal points in all ministries and relevant agencies, including the Attorney General’s Chamber, to ensure the integration of gender perspectives in the formulation and implementation of policies, programmes and legislation.
19. The policy of at least 30 per cent participation of women in decision-making positions at all levels was agreed by the Cabinet on 4 August 2004 on the proposal made by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development. The 30 per cent level has been agreed upon internationally, in the Beijing Platform for Action, as the level where women’s contribution can have a significant impact. Since the announcement of the policy, more women are holding important positions. For example, three women have been appointed as vice-chancellors of universities, a woman judge as Chief Judge of the High Courts of Malaya and a policewoman with the rank of Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police (SAC II) was appointed head of the traffic division for the first time in the history of the country. My dream is that very soon, a woman will be a Chief Justice of the Federal Court.
20. The Government has also called upon the private sector to adopt this policy. Nonetheless, few inroads have been made to convince political parties to have at least 30 per cent of women contesting in elections. It is for this reason that the Ministry has embarked on a project to formulate a plan of action towards at least 30 per cent participation of women in decision-making levels. The focus of the action plan is in the area of judiciary, the political arena and the private sector where affirmative measures are required.
21. Achievements in the area of gender mainstreaming is best highlighted by Malaysia’s Gender Gap Index (MGGI). It is a composite index to measure gender equality in the four dimensions of health, education, economic and empowerment of women for the years 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2004. The time series data showed overall improvements in gender equality. The MGGI index declined sharply from 0.340 in 1980 to 0.243 in 2004. Health is one dimension where women fare better than men as their life expectancy at birth is much longer. Women’s life expectancy at birth is 76.3 years compared to 71.8 years for men. The education dimension showed the biggest improvement as enrolment into institutions of higher learning continues to rise in favour of females. Today, there are more females than males in our institutions of higher learning with 61.2 per cent female enrolment in the government-assisted universities. In economic activity, a slight improvement was registered as women’s labour force participation rate rose from 42.2% in 1980 to 46.2% in 2006.
22. In 2006, the Human Development Index produced by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) placed Malaysia among countries that have achieved a high human development for the first time. In its Gender-related Development Index (GDI), Malaysia ranked 51 behind Singapore (23) and Brunei (31) in the region of Southeast Asia.
Factors Affecting Gender Equality
23. There are many factors that affect and influence gender equality in Malaysia. One of the most influential factor is cultural and traditional social construct. Women are often portrayed as followers and supporters and not as leaders or equal partners at home or outside the home. Gender and role differences are learnt from as early as infancy and further perpetuated by cultural beliefs that are maintained and adhered to in social institutions and organisations over time. Thus, more often than not, women will give priority to domestic concerns above her career.
24. Secondly, the multiple roles of women as wives, mothers, workers and healthcare givers, which affect women’s advancement in almost every aspect especially economic activities including advancement in the workplace and political participation. The increased workload, especially on working women can affect their health, work productivity and family harmony.
25. Thirdly, institutional factors like segmentation and stratification form barriers to gender equality. Wages offered to female workers are sometimes much lower than their male colleagues. Elements of gender discrimination at work right from recruitment through posting and promotion still exists in both the private and the public sectors. This glass ceiling is subtle most of the time. Women very often have to wait longer than men for promotions.
26. A paradigm shift, that is, a total change of the mind-set to accept gender equality is difficult to achieve overnight. Cultural and traditional social construct takes time to change. Hence, we need to think out of the box and sometimes adopt a totally new line of vision. Only then will we see an increased participation, particularly of men, in gender sensitisation programmes.
27. Commitment from every stakeholder at all levels of society, i.e, the Government, private sector, non-governmental organisations and civil society, particularly the men is vital in order to achieve gender equality. If the old adage is “since nothing is broken, so why fix it”, then gender equality requires a new perception, “fix it before it is too late”. One needs to realise that women’s rights are human rights. Since women make up almost half of Malaysia’s population, they are crucial contributors to the nation’s development.
28. So far, efforts in gender equality have been mainly focused in the Government sector. The challenge now is to ensure that the private sector could play a greater role. Thus, I would like to urge the private sector to be at the forefront in this initiative as the bulk of the women workers in their different capacities are in this sector.
29. The female labour force participation rate can be expected to increase in the future since Malaysian women seeking first-time employment are more educated and skilled than in the past. Increased efforts to meet at least 30 per cent of women in decision-making positions will undoubtedly contribute towards women's empowerment.
30. As you are all fully aware, our family legal system is based on a dual system of civil law and syariah law. In a dual legal system, we are not free from inconsistencies in application and interpretation of the laws. Therefore, we need to look into how to harmonise both systems to ensure that issue of women’s rights to equality and non-discrimination is properly addressed in accordance with civil law and syariah law.
31. Malaysian women have made significant progress since the nation achieved independence. In fact, the nation owes much of its success to women in all their glory. Continuous efforts for the advancement of women and the attainment of gender equality is vital towards the development of the nation. Women have proven to be as capable as men. Thus, failing to tap into their full potential is a waste of human resources.
32. How best can we move forward in terms of gender equality? Laws can certainly be passed while policies can definitely be made. However, empowering women and achieving gender equality demands more than just legal provisions and policy formulations. Thus, efforts have to be taken to ensure both de jure and de facto equality. More importantly, positive social change must come from within. In Malaysia, we aspire to achieve gender equality without sacrificing our values and religious beliefs. Any transformation should take place within our own mould.
33. Remembering the past, I am heartened by the progress we have made in striving towards gender equality. However, we must take it from the realm of rhetoric to the practice of reality. One stark finding is that there is no one magic solution. All countries, including developed countries have grappled with this issue. None of them have cracked it, though some have made more progress than others. Gender equality is a responsibility that is borne by us all. With all of us working in our various roles and capacities using different strategies for a common purpose, I truly believe that we could soon achieve gender equality in Malaysia, in which women and men, girls and boys alike enjoy full and true equality.