Act to prevent further erosion of gender equality during emergency

The government must ensure that the actions it takes during the state of emergency minimise any disproportionate adverse impacts on women and girls

JUAN PABLO SERRANO ARENAS/ PEXELS

The state of emergency declared by the government recently is a serious measure that raises far-reaching implications for our human rights and democracy.

Furthermore, the emergency may disproportionately affect women and set Malaysia even further back in terms of gender equality.

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus, the gendered impact of the pandemic has been starkly felt with the rise of gender-based violence, hindered access to critical protection and support services during the multiple movement control orders, the rise in the unpaid care burden, and the disproportionate flux of women out of the workforce.

With the declared state of emergency, further erosions of gender equality may take place if proactive measures are not taken.

The following are key areas of concern:

Response to gender-based violence

As part of the powers under the emergency, the government issued an ordinance giving the military police powers. As such, it is likely that military personnel may come into contact with survivors of gender-based violence, whether supplementing police presence at checkpoints, or elsewhere.

When it comes to gender-based violence response, military personnel are not likely to have the same level of training and sensitisation to survivors as the police. It is therefore critical that military personnel are subject to the same standard operating procedures as the police in acting as frontline responders to gender-based violence, so that they are aware of their own responsibilities and survivors’ rights to obtain protection and support services, including during the movement control order.

Furthermore, ensuring all survivors – regardless of nationality and immigration status – receive the protection and support to which they are entitled must be the government’s foremost priority.

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Resources for gender-based violence response

Even with the declaration of the emergency and throughout its duration, it is critical that public resources – including essential services for domestic violence – do in fact continue to function as promised by the government, and that resources are not diverted away from gender-based violence response.

Particularly during the current movement control order and any subsequent orders, the ability to file police reports, access protection orders, and be referred to government crisis shelters is critical for survivors who are isolated at home with their abusers. Even as the government focuses resources on fighting the coronavirus pandemic, it must not disregard gender-based violence, which is a pandemic within the pandemic.

Law and policy reform

With the introduction of the emergency and the suspension of parliamentary and state assembly sittings, the unfortunate reality is that no new laws or amendments to laws relating to gender-based violence and discrimination are likely to be enacted. This includes the anti-stalking law, the Sexual Harassment Act and the amendments to the Employment Act which, among other things, would prohibit gender-based discrimination.

Without a parliamentary sitting, these legislative changes cannot be adopted; however, the government can stand by its commitment to further gender equality through law and policy by continuing on the path to finalising the draft bills and amendments – including through consultations with civil society – so that they may be tabled without further delay during the next sitting of Parliament.

Impact on civic freedoms

With the additional powers granted to the government during the emergency and the vulnerability of constitutional protections to suspension or being overridden by emergency law, it is imperative that the government not curtail civic freedoms more than is absolutely necessary or warranted in the interest of public health.

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Without elections, parliamentary and state assembly sittings, the people must be able to continue to express their concerns and critical feedback of the government through other avenues without restraint.

Ultimately, the government must ensure that the actions it takes during the state of emergency adopt a gender lens and minimise any disproportionate adverse impacts on women and girls – including exacerbating gender-based violence and discrimination – and do not undermine the will of the people. – Women’s Aid Organisation

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