With 22 panelists and speakers, the second Malaysia Women & Girls Forum (MWGF) concluded with six key resolutions centring on protecting, ensuring and normalising the right to bodily autonomy across all levels of Malaysian society.
Themed “Bodily Autonomy: Ensuring Rights and Choices for Malaysia’s Women and Girls”, the MWGF is funded and supported by the UN in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Malaysia. The forum was created to collectively identify, amplify, track and provide proactive recommendations and solutions on the progress of advancing the rights and wellbeing of Malaysia’s women and girls.
Launched by Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin and featuring addresses from both UN resident coordinator for Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Karima El Korri as well as Dr Asa Torkelsson, the UNFPA Malaysia Representative, the forum examined bodily autonomy as a pillar of human rights, highlighting the challenges of achieving and embedding bodily autonomy, discussed the media’s role in promoting gender equality and celebrated the important role of youths in calling for change.
In the opening plenary session – featuring Kuantan MP Fuziah Salleh; Dr Senutha Poopale Ratthinan, the deputy undersecretary of the policy and strategic planning unit of the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development; Dr Narimah Awin, former chairperson of the National Population and Family Development Board; Ong Bee Leng, CEO of the Penang Women’s Development Corporation; and Zarizana Abdul Aziz, human rights lawyer and co-founder of Due Diligence – key issues and progress were brought to light.
Fuziah emphasised the importance of gender-responsive budgeting and pointed out that effective implementation in Malaysia requires such budgeting to be developed on evidence-based planning, rather than the current outcome-based application. She highlighted that after 15 years of having a gender budgeting manual, Malaysia’s issues with data management have finally been recognised. “I’m thankful to say that the Ministry of Finance has allocated a budget of RM15m in next year’s budget for data management. To collect data in a better way and to make sure that our planning is evidence-based”.
Dr Senutha highlighted the recent first tabling of the long-awaited Anti-Sexual Harassment bill in Parliament on 15 December. She spoke about how the bill provides for an “anti-sexual harassment tribunal”, the jurisdiction to hear and determine sexual harassment complaints of any individual regardless of age, gender or nationality in any situation. She acknowledged it as an important recognition of sexual harassment as a human rights violation.
In keynote Session 2, Aishah Hasri, founder of Spot Community Programme, an organisation which delivers comprehensive sexuality education to schools nationwide, stated: “Just like mental health, CSE is considered as a soft issue to our society – as a society we need to work hard on helping our children, as there is currently a lack of high quality, age and developmentally appropriate sexuality and relationship education – that may lead children to harmful behaviour and exploitation.”
Student activist Ain Husniza then moderated a short discussion with Aishah, focusing on the current prevalence of rape jokes and the issue of rape culture in educational institutions.
Plenary Session 2 – moderated by Permatang Pauh MP Nurul Izzah Anwar, along with speakers Nisha Sabanayagam, executive director of the All Women’s Action Society Malaysia (Awam); Sumitra Visvanathan, executive director of the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), Karen Lai, programme director at the Women’s Centre for Change; along with Dr Lai Suat Yan, senior lecturer in the gender studies programme at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya – garnered enthusiastic attention.
Discussing a recent attitude survey released by the WAO, Sumitra Visvanathan said that only half of Malaysians were likely to oppose violence-endorsing attitudes and support gender equality. “There is a disconnect between knowledge and practice. We excuse perpetrators. On the one hand, we are able to recognise this is violence, this is domestic violence, this is sexual harassment, this is abuse against a child. We are able to recognise it, but then we excuse, we provide justification, we accept, we normalise.”
Awam executive director Nisha Sabanayagam also discussed the period spot check “subculture” at national schools and how it only came to light when women took to social media to share their experiences. “This is when social media becomes a tool that we can use for advocacy and also to get people to open up and talk about their issues.”
In the third keynote session, Dr Melissa Yoong, assistant professor in sociolinguistics and discourse analysis at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, examined the wider social context surrounding language use in efforts to improve gender equality in media. “The media’s appraisal of women does not occur in a neutral context. We live in a society that is gender-unequal. Ideals of femininity are still linked to deference to men and men are still often regarded as sexual subjects and women as sexual objects.”
The MWGF’s final plenary session, “Bodily Autonomy: The Youth and Social narrative” brought together Firzana Redzuan, founder of Monsters Among Us (MAU); Kimberley Tan, a committee member of the Sarawak Women for Women Society (SWWS); Hadi Azmi, independent journalist; and Nadira Ilana, an independent filmmaker. The session was moderated by Dr Fatimah Al-Attas, senior lecturer at Department of Sociology and Anthropology, the Islamic International University Malaysia.
Firzana focused on MAU’s reporting chatbot “lapor-predator” created to remedy the difficulties Malaysians face when trying to report sexual abuse – which derives from a lack of information, access to justice, fear of victim-blaming and fear of judgement. “We see our children increasingly utilising the internet but they are not taught to protect themselves against dangerous activities online. We need to remind them that they get to decide, they have a say to live in a safer place.”
Speaking about victim-blaming and overcoming social boundaries when it comes to the protection of women and girls, Kimberley spoke about SWWS’s campaign, BukanSalahKamek, which translates to “It’s not my fault” in Bahasa Sarawak. The campaign arose from a need for safe spaces for women and girls to speak about their lived experiences of harassment and abuse – without any social and public repercussions.
Speaking on the role of new media, Hadi Azmi raised the need for news media in Malaysia to educate themselves on properly addressing existing gaps regarding gender norms, journalism ethics and gender-sensitive reporting.
Lastly, Nadira Ilana spoke about the stereotypical and misogynistic depiction of women on Malaysian TV shows and movies. “When we watch these mainstream films, in terms of the representation of women, we often see women as plot devices or rape culture – women only appear as somebody to be sexualised or to further the plot of the male main character.” She noted that women in entertainment media need empowerment to refuse roles with gratuitous rape scenes and violence and to stand up against stereotypical narratives about minorities and minority women in Malaysia.
The MWGF concluded with the drafting of six resolutions, read out by MWGF head of secretariat and independent broadcast journalist Tehmina Kaoosji:
- Align government programmes and strategies in line with sustainable development goal 5 on gender equality by 2030
- Ensure the successful roll-out of the anti-sexual harassment bill, followed by the drafting and tabling of a gender equality bill and other laws to ensure bodily autonomy and integrity
- Adopt a whole-of-society approach in normalising and upholding bodily autonomy and integrity, including more institutional pushback against rape culture
- Strengthen and normalise comprehensive sexuality education in schools to better equip girls with knowledge of their rights to bodily autonomy
- Create targeted economic recovery efforts aimed at strengthening the position and involvement of women and girls in society, including policymaking and political participation
- Engage with and uplift the media to encourage ethical journalism that disrupts the status quo and offers societal counter-discourses.
The resolutions will be compiled as a report and presented to relevant Malaysian ministries and parliamentary select committees along with recommendations. – UNFPA Malaysia