Malaysia’s commitment to Cedaw: Addressing gender discrimination challenges

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On 22 May, during the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) convened in Geneva, Switzerland, the Malaysian government delegation engaged in a constructive dialogue session with the committee.

Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979, Cedaw is an international treaty dedicated to eradicating discrimination and advancing equal rights for women globally.

Malaysia ratified this pivotal treaty in 1995, affirming its commitment to implement measures aimed at terminating discrimination against women. As part of this commitment, signatory countries are obliged to report every four years on progress made towards these goals.

NGOs play a crucial role in this process by submitting shadow reports and making oral statements before the Cedaw committee. Sisters in Islam (SIS), along with other women’s rights groups, contributed significantly to this shadow report and presented oral statements to the committee.

In these submissions, SIS highlighted several profound challenges Muslim women face in obtaining justice within the family, particularly in the Sharia legal system:

Lengthy divorce process if initiated by Muslim women

While mutual divorce agreements between Muslim men and women and unilateral divorce by Muslim men can be concluded swiftly, Muslim women who initiate a fasakh divorce continue to endure a long and arduous process for approval in Sharia courts.

Challenges in securing financial rights for Muslim women and their children

Muslim women initiating fasakh divorce, despite being entitled to file for ancillary matters, often do not pursue these rights due to the exhaustive demands of the divorce process.

The existing Sharia legal system does not facilitate women in claiming their rights but instead forces them to forgo these rights.

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Women from lower-income families may view these efforts as futile, while those from middle and upper-income families face similar pressures, especially when they receive less than 30% of joint matrimonial property.

The inconsistency in the division of matrimonial assets further deters divorced women from pursuing their rightful claims.

Resistance towards implementation of legal provisions

Despite legal provisions allowing Muslim women to add conditions (takliq tambahan) to their marriage contracts, these conditions are not recognised or upheld in practice.

The struggles faced by Muslim women in Malaysia’s Sharia legal system result in systemic inequalities that erode their fundamental rights enshrined in the Federal Constitution. The Sharia legal framework, in certain aspects, remains biased against women.

Female circumcision

Despite the outcry for change, 93% of young girls are still subjected to the practice of female genital mutilation or cutting , which has no medical benefit and leaves lifelong scars on their bodies.

Child marriage

Child marriage remains an issue in Malaysia. In 2020, 441 out of 445 students who dropped out of school to get married in Perak were girls. This statistic highlights the tragic reality of lost childhoods and shattered dreams under a system failing to protect its most vulnerable.

Polygamy

The practice of polygamy, while permitted under Islamic law, often results in unequal treatment and significant emotional and financial strain on women.

Legal loopholes and inconsistent enforcement allow men to manipulate the system, further eroding the rights of wives.

Women in polygamous marriages frequently face challenges in securing their financial rights and the wellbeing of their children, exacerbating gender inequalities within the family structure.

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Call for action

The pressing issues affecting Muslim women must remain at the forefront, and the government must do more than pay lip service.

Rozana Isa, SIS executive director, emphasised the dire need for comprehensive data collection by the government and robust legal procedures to secure women’s financial rights and child maintenance in Sharia courts. She called for immediate, tangible actions to protect women’s rights and end discrimination.

The obstacles Muslim women face are immense but not insurmountable. With unwavering political will and structural reforms, change is possible.

Key areas for reform include:

  • Raising the legal age for child marriage: Ensuring a consistent legal age for marriage across all states to protect young girls from early and forced marriages
  • Eradicating female genital mutilation: Taking bold steps to eliminate such mutilation and raising awareness about its devastating effects
  • Guardianship rights: Establishing clear guidelines to safeguard women’s autonomy and ensure fair decision-making in family matters.
  • Standardising Sharia law nationwide: Creating a just and uniform legal landscape by standardising Sharia law across all states
  • Equitable law enforcement in Sharia courts: Ensuring women receive fair and equal treatment in Sharia courts
  • Regulating polygamy: Implementing stringent measures to prevent abuse and protect the rights of women and children
  • Preventing gender-based injustices: Amending laws to address gender-based discrimination, encompassing issues related to inheritance, property rights and domestic violence
  • Simplifying divorce procedures: Streamlining divorce processes to alleviate the burden on women seeking separation

Malaysia’s commitment to addressing these challenges will define its path toward true gender equality. The government must heed the Cedaw committee’s recommendations and reignite the spirit of progress that once defined our nation.

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The journey to equality demands unwavering dedication to fair laws that uphold the principles enshrined in the Federal Constitution. Muslim women, united in their faith, transcend national, racial and creedal boundaries. It is crucial to confront the disparities in legal treatment they face across various states.

Malaysia, once a beacon of progressive Islam, stands at a pivotal crossroads. The world watches as the nation grapples with its commitment to the women who form its backbone.

The government must act with resolve, ensuring that the principles of equality and justice for all women are not just ideals but lived realities.

We demand that meaningful steps are taken to create a more just and equitable society for all its people. – SIS

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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Aishah Ali
Aishah Ali
12 Jun 2024 12.44pm

Well done Sisters in Islam for bringing up these concerns in a thorough and detailed manner. We hope they will gain traction