International Women’s Day 2019: Fight for substantial equality must continue

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Women marching in Chiang Mai, Thailand to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day - Photo courtesy of Mizzima

Tomorrow, 8 March, is International Women’s Day. It is a day when many around the world will celebrate women’s achievements and mark the ongoing struggle for women’s rights.

This year’s theme, #BalanceforBetter, refers to better participation and representation of women, not just in the work place but in all spheres of life.

In Malaysia, we have seen the many achievements of women and the progress made on many fronts for women’s empowerment and equality over the years. And we truly applaud these.

We laud the right of women to vote and note that in exercising that right, women took part in an election which brought about a change of government.

And yet we note the continued struggle and resistance to women’s political representation and political empowerment. Many excuses have been given for not fulfilling a minimum 30% quota of women in the political arena, including local government. We also know the uphill climb many women leaders face in commanding the respect, cooperation and support of those around them.

We support the right of women to work and earn, to be economically empowered, financially stable and independent. And yet we know this is not the reality for many women. Certain jobs are valued over others and in this hierarchy, discrimination and disadvantage is in-built, especially for menial work and work related to the care economy, which is very often unrecognised and unpaid or lowly paid.

We know of job insecurities and exploitation experienced by workers employed through a contract system eg cleaners and security guards both in the private and public sector. It is clear there needs to be a re-conceptualisation of what work is, how it is measured and how it is valued for there to be true economic empowerment for women.

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We praise the increase in the female labour force participation rate yet we know that the issue of decent wages for decent work is not being addressed. The minimum wage does not match the rising costs of living in the country.

Are we questioning and addressing the issue of domestic work and care of children, the elderly and the sick in the family being placed squarely on mostly women’s shoulders? We note the reluctance in creating and pushing for a norm of shared responsibility within families. We note the lack of accessible, affordable and quality childcare facilities for the majority of working families, be they in the private, public or informal work sector.

We proudly state we have legislation to protect women against violence and to allow for redress. Yet we note the lack of due diligence by and complacency of state agencies involved in ensuring women can access necessary protection, support and legal redress.

Furthermore we continue to see women being blamed for the violence through their dressing or alleged behaviour or for being on their own when assaulted. And more recently we have witnessed state sanctioned violence against women in the form of caning in syariah court.

We commend and support the push for women and girls to excel in all spheres. Yet we know that women and girls continue to experience subtle (and sometimes blatant) messaging. Such messaging is often found in schools, in advertisements, in commentary and discussion across social media or through cultural and religious interpretations which push an ideology of submission and subservience. This not only impedes women’s progress but also seeks to fit women into a particular mould.

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We cherish our children and promise we will work in their best interests. Yet we continue to see the exploitation of children especially the girl child, when she is married off at an early age, when she is too young to fully understand or fulfil the responsibilities of being in a relationship or of starting a family. Being too young to understand and assert her rights, independence and autonomy in a relationship will only increase her vulnerability to abuse. What future will she have?

Malaysia, in comparison to a number of countries around the world, has seen progress for women – for instance, increased standards of health and educational attainment. On the surface, women in Malaysia seem to have a range of freedoms including the freedom to vote, to drive, to apply for jobs, to own property, to inherit, to be able to work outside the home and to travel freely.

But if we only take the time to really delve a little deeper into the lives of the different women around us – single mothers, unwed mothers, elderly women, disabled women, indigenous women, refugee women, female migrant workers, foreign wives, women outside the binary notions of gender, socio-economically deprived women and even some of the affluent women, we would know that the struggle for women’s rights as well as women’s autonomy and agency is far from over.

The lived realities of many women tell a different story, often of multiple or layered levels of discrimination. Many of these levels of discrimination arise from a combination of factors including patriarchy, sexism, xenophobia, racism, religious extremism and a global economic system which places profits before people and sustainable development. We need to acknowledge the existence of these factors and that women in comparison to men are disproportionately affected by these.

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The 2019 International Women’s Day theme #BalanceforBetter needs to come with a lens which sees clearly the layered levels of discrimination which women face and not just be limited to gender parity (ie equality in terms of numbers). There must be sustained targeting and efforts to dismantle the factors including systemic structures, which continue to give rise to these layered levels of discrimination. It is an ongoing battle.

And so, on 8 March, we indeed celebrate International Women’s Day, marking the progress which has taken place for many women.

But let’s not forget, that to change the reality which is faced by the majority of women in Malaysia and around the world, the fight for substantive equality must carry on. It must be with a vision of change which involves everyone.

Keep the faith for a world capable of transformation.

Happy International Women’s Day.

Prema Devaraj
Aliran president
7 March 2019

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