Push for elimination of child marriages, FGM, UN rep tells Malaysia

By Jonathan Edward

KUALA LUMPUR, March 8 — Malaysia has made strides in empowering and raising the status of women but more needs to be done when it comes to key issues including healthcare, protection against harmful practices and greater equality.

Speaking at the International Women’s Day forum at the Park Royal hotel here, United Nations Development Programme head Stefan Priesner said the country needed to do more to eradicate harmful practices such as early marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM).

The country faced a barrage of criticism on its failure to act against such practices during the recent 69th session of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in Geneva, Switzerland.

“Malaysia has done well on many fronts in relation to women’s empowerment as evidenced by the prominence, confidence and stature of its women in public life and businesses.

“However, Malaysia’s recent review by CEDAW Committee highlights certain difficult challenges that need to be addressed,” he said.

United Nations Development Programme chief Stefan Priesner at the International Women's Day 2018 forum in Kuala Lumpur March 8, 2018. ― Picture by Zuraneeza Zulkifli

Priesner added that bridging cultural beliefs and universal norms was not an easy task but that it was possible to end such practices.

“It is not easy but it is possible as it has been demonstrated by a number of countries in similar contexts,” he said.

Priesner also commended the government’s designation of 2018 as “Women’s Empowerment Year” and said the UN would continue to work closely with the country.

The programme aims for a mandatory 30 per cent women participation on the boards of directors in government-linked corporations, to increase maternity leave, to provide training and entrepreneurship options and to encourage women to return to the workforce.

“We also hope to see, in conjunction with the Empowerment of Women Year, the passing of the Gender Equality Act.”

The Act, mulled since 2016, includes amendments to existing laws such as the Employment Act, the Pensions Act, the Penal Code, and the Domestic Violence Act to accommodate the proposed gender equality law.

Commissioner of Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Prof. Datuk Dr Aishah Bidin speaks at the International Women's Day 2018 forum in Kuala Lumpur March 8, 2018. ― Picture by Zuraneeza Zulkifli

The opening remarks were followed by a panel comprising of Eminent Global Health Physician Dr Flavia Bustreo, Universiti Sains Malaysia Interdisciplinary Health Science Unit Prof Dr Siti Hawa Ali and Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) commissioner Prof Datuk Dr Aishah Bidin.

Dr Flavia said child marriage and adolescent pregnancies were especially detrimental to a woman’s ability to fully participate in society.

“Young children, adolescents are neither physically nor mentally prepared for pregnancy and it can severely impede her involvement in career development, political participation and other aspects.

“It is also a potential health risk, with underaged pregnancies leading to higher incidences of mortality both to the mother and child besides leading to a higher risk of mental health problems,” she said.

Attendees at the International Women's Day 2018 forum in Kuala Lumpur March 8, 2018. ― Picture by Zuraneeza Zulkifli

Aishah said more needed to be done to protect the rights of women in detention.

“Suhakam has repeatedly raised the problems surrounding detention facilities in the country.

“It is difficult for women in such centres, especially migrant women, who have limited access to health care considering their specific needs,” she said.

“We have recommended that separate centres be used to house women and young children, both for their safety and health. It is the duty of the state to do so.”

Dr Siti Hawa said more needed to be done to protect women facing Intimate Partner Violence, including collaboration between non-governmental organisations and the authorities.

“Clearly-defined partnership between NGOs and health staff can be very powerful for influencing the legal and policy environment in which health care services for intimate partner violence are developed,” she said.

“It is critical to gain high level support from the Ministry of Health in order to institutionalise the violence-response across the entire health care system.”