Prema Devaraj warns that gender mainstreaming alone will not bring about gender equality as oppression manifests itself in many ways. Gender equality has to be in the larger context of justice for all.
Gender mainstreaming is a phrase which has been around for about 20 years. It basically refers to integrating gender perspectives at every stage of a policy and in the decision-making process and is heralded as an important tool towards achieving gender equality. While acknowledging the gender disparity in society and the serious need to address it as well as the role of gender mainstream-ing, a number of questions come to mind: who or what is the mainstream? what are the rules for the mainstream? who sets these rules? We really have to ask, what are we gender mainstreaming into?
What do we do if the mainstream is a patriarchal one with conservative cultural/religious interpretations of policies and laws? How do we proceed should the mainstream be one which pushes aggressive neo liberal policies, placing profits before people? How do we work in a mainstream which is driven by the so-called free market economy? Let’s look at three examples:
Example 1: Social policies relating to reproductive health
The Eighth Malaysia Plan of Action for the Advancement of Women focused on reducing maternal and infant mortality and morbidity, improving prenatal and antenatal health care, providing health and nutrition education, promoting education and awareness of HIV/Aids, implementing wellness programmes, promoting prevention, screening and early intervention for specific diseases such as cancer. The phrasing of the Eighth Malaysia Plan set out the religious and cultural parameters within which advancement of women can take place….”the government will continue to ensure that strategies and programmes implemented are consistent with Malaysian values, religious beliefs and cultural norms”.
Given these parameters which set the mainstream for policies on reproductive health, it becomes difficult to discuss or plan programmes relating to a woman’s sexual autonomy, a woman’s right to obtain information on contraceptives (more so if she is single) or to decide freely on matters relating to her reproduction. In what context are unwanted pregnancies, baby dumping and unwed mothers being discussed? Do we engage with mainstream policies which support punitive punishments of women who have had premarital sex or who have borne children out of wedlock or who have abandoned their babies in desperation?
Example 2: Social policies on health
With the growing privatisation of health care over the last 10-15 years, it is clear to see how this has affected the quality, effectiveness and efficacy of delivery of services to people who seek medical attention in the public hospitals. It has been estimated that only 30 per cent of the total number of specialist doctors in the country are in government hospitals and yet they are looking after 70 per cent of patients being admitted in the country.
Given that women currently still bear the responsibility of caring for children, the elderly, the sick and the disabled, the impact of the privatisation of the health care (i.e., poor quality health care in government hospitals) are borne mainly by them, especially those from the lower income groups.
And now, with the push for health tourism – we must ask what is the impact of such profit-driven policies on the health of people, when resources and expertise are reserved (or siphoned off) for the elite few who can afford such services? Do we want to engage with a mainstream whose health care policies place profit margins above people’s health needs?
Example 3: Employment policy
The Tenth Malaysia Plan specifically encourages more women to take up employment. While we may be in agreement with the concept of financial independence of women, one must ask what is the economic system into which men and women are being integrated? Are both women and men getting decent jobs, working humane hours and earning adequate living wages? Are they subject to decent working conditions? In some factories and even shopping malls, workers are not provided seats and have to stand throughout their working hours, presumably to increase productivity.
Is this the type of employment we want our society to endorse? What type of care support would be given to workers, especially women, to help them with the care of their children, the elderly, the sick or the disabled – the unrecognised and undervalued care economy, the responsibility of which still currently lies with women? What type of leave would women be entitled to with regard to the care economy? How are we addressing these issues when we ask women to enter into the workforce? Would the plan to get more women to take up employment also look at how to decrease the double-day burden which many women face?
Recent data from the Human Resources Ministry shows a gender pay gap between men’s and women’s wages in Malaysia (see table below). While it is important to make sure that this gap is removed so that there is no discrimination between the wages of men and women, it is crucial to ask whether we want to integrate people into a system which does not provide decent living wages for its workers, be they men or women. A recent study by the same Ministry involving 1.3 million workers reveals that 34 per cent of these workers earn wages below the poverty line (i.e., less than RM720 each month). Is this present economic system the one we want to mainstream into?
Gender mainstreaming alone will not bring about gender equality. Nor will gender equality bring about justice for all. We know that men and women are not homogenous groups. We know that oppression in society manifests itself in other ways apart from gender inequality. These include discriminatory and unjust practices which exist in our society based on ethnicity, class, religious interpretations, inequitable social systems and institutions. We cannot just insist on gender equality and then merrily go along in acceptance of a mainstream which commits grave injustices towards people, both women and men. We need to be aware of whose interests the mainstream serves and who controls this agenda.
Proponents of gender justice need to go beyond gender mainstream-ing and consider changing or determining the mainstream so that gender equality is seen in the larger context of justice for all. This in no way denies the importance of recognising and addressing the huge gender disparity which exists in society. But if we want a more humane and just society for both women and men, then we must actively promote a mainstream agenda which uses a framework which has the core principles of social justice and a more inclusive rights based-approach.
1. Hillary Charlesworth Not Waving but Drowning: Gender Mainstreaming and Human Rights in the United Nations. Harvard Human Rights Journal Vol (18) 2005
2. Aruna Rao and David Kelleher Is there life after gender mainstreaming? Gender and Development Vol (13) 2005
3. European Commission Manual for Gender Mainstreaming, Social Inclusion and Social Protection Policies 2007
4. Commonwealth Secretariat Discussion Paper 3 Gender and Social Protection 2009
Prema Devaraj, an Aliran exco member, is a programme director with the Women’s Centre for Change and the Secretary of 3Gs.