Wednesday, October 10, 2012

What's the Big Fuss about Women's Rights Movement?

When I was complaining about our Women's Minister's remark of "no need for women's rights movement" to my sisters and some of my lady friends, many gave me a puzzled look and asked "I thought we have equal rights already? Why do we need more women's movement?"

First of all, I am not a feminist. This article is not to promote female superiority nor is this to fight for special rights for women. Two years of working in the upstream male-dominated area of oil and gas industry, I know fully well what it means to be competing on even ground with men and that only hard-work, intelligence and good leadership can earn respect, and not special rights.

So, what is the big fuss about women's rights movement? My point can be summarized here: 

We need women's rights movement so that women can enjoy equal rights with men (not special rights) on the basis of human rights for life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. And gender equality is not only a matter of doing the right thing from the social perspective, it is necessary so that Malaysia can reach our full potential in economic growth and development

If you have time, read on the details below.

The Importance of Gender Equality 

Women accounts for one-half of the potential workforce of a country and the productivity of workforce determines a country's competitiveness. Therefore, closing  gender gaps is not only a matter of human rights and equity, it is also one of efficient use of resources. 

Figures below shows the plot of the Global Gender Gap Index scores against the Global Competitiveness Index, GDP per capita and the Human Development Index, indicating a correlation between gender equality and the level of competitiveness, GDP per capita and human development.  

While correlation is not a causality, the trend is consistent with increasing evidence that empowering women leads to more efficient use of a country's human capital and that reducing gender gap enhances economic growth and development. 

(The Global Gender Gap Report 2011, World Economic Forum - read full report here)

Note: The Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and income indices to rank countries into four tiers of human development. 

For example, in Norway, because of the reform in family and gender policies in term of maternal and paternal leaves as well as childcare center policy, they are able to overcome the curse of a developed nation (aging population) and add total available workforce by 200,000 women in a few years, sustaining their economic growth. Not only in Norway, India also found that increasing women's involvement in decision-making in political arena leads to less corruption and better policy-making. A study of the US Fortune 500 by Catalyst has also shown that having three or more women as the board of directors correlate strongly with above-average return on shareholder equity, sales and invested capital. Look at the students in the schools; talents are equally distributed regardless of gender. Employing all available talents is not counter-intuitive, it is just good for business! 

Therefore, let me re-emphasize, women's rights movement is not about women superiority nor special rights but it is about true equity and it is for the universal benefit of the society.  

Women's rights movement is needed: - 
1. Socially - to ensure women enjoy equal human rights for life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. 
2. Economically - to improve gender equality and women's participation in the society for the benefits of the overall economic development as a nation. 

Now, let's look at how Malaysia has been doing in our women's rights development in these two areas. 

Women's Rights - Life, Freedom and the Pursuit of Happiness

Women's rights are human rights; it is about life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Therefore, it is not only about equal access to education, healthcare and being able to vote and stand for office. Because of the way we are made, women are more susceptible to violence and sexual assault, gender-based protection is therefore important to ensure women have true equity with men in life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. 

In Malaysia, we have been making progress throughout the years in legal reform to ensure sufficient women protection by the law. Nevertheless, there are still many parts in the law that is worth considering for revisions as suggested in the report on Malaysia progress in implementing United Nation (UN) Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), 2011, including domestic violence, sexual harassment, martial rape and rape with an object.  You can find the complete report here

Table below shows the statistics on violence against women compiled in the report. Over the past decade, the case of violence against women has been increasing. The most serious one is rape, with the number of rape cases increasing about 200% from 1217 (2000) to 3595 (2010). A friend of mine, unfortunately, is a victim of gang rape. 

Worse still, it was reported in the same report that NGOs are having difficulties in obtaining statistics since 2010 (as you can see from the 'unavailable' in the table) from the Royal Malaysian Police and Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development. What is there to hide?

Sexual assault, unlike other physical assault, does not only hurt the body, but also the spirit and soul; it does not only leave stain in the victim's life, but many indirect implications to her current and future family. Concealing the truth will only lead to more occurrence of similar cases. A responsible society as a whole need to find ways to tackle the problems either by law revision and enforcement or awareness programs. 

For all these to happen, we need continuous pressure from the NGOs, political parties or the media. No need for women's rights movement? There is still a long way to go for Malaysia. 

Gender Equality

As I've shown earlier, closing the gender gap and empowering women would lead to better policy-making and enhances economic growth.  Let's now have a look at how well we do in gender equality.

Malaysia rank very low in the World Economic Forums 2011 Global Gender Gap Index that takes into account 4 areas: economic participation, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment. Out of 134 countries, our overall ranking is 97. Although we do quite well in education attainment (65th) and health and survival (78th), our economic participation and political empowerment is at a dismal low of 95th and 115th. 

Political Participation

As of now, political involvement of women in Malaysia is a below: -
- Cabinet Ministers: 3.3% (1 out of 30)
- Deputy Ministers: 17.9% (7 out of 39)
- Members of Parliament: 10.4% (23 out of 222)
- Member of State Assembly: 8% (46 out of 576)
- Chair of Village Committees: 1% (161 out of 15,460)
- Ambassadors and High Commissioners (international representation): 13.6%

Women made up of half Malaysia population, however, as of now we only have 10% of voice in policy making (% women members of parliament).  Having such a small voice for half of the population is just counter-intuitive, even before we look at the success stories of more female in policy-making in Norway, India and France (which now boast 50% female participation in law-making). No wonder over the past 20 years our federal government spent more on football (RM 569 million) than grants to establish childcare centers (RM 22.4 million). 

Economic Participation

Although female secondary and tertiary enrollment is 71% and 41%, which is higher than that of male at 66% and 32% respectively, women labour force participation rate stagnated at between 44.4% and 47.7% over the past decade whereas men hovered between 79.5% and 84.3%. 

There is a gap between the level of education for Malaysian women and their achievements in the economic and political fields. 

As I've mentioned earlier, gender equality in the economy is that of efficiency. Encouraging higher female participation in the labour force will lead to a more competitive labour market and therefore a more competitive economy. This is especially true as Malaysian women are well educated. Not only so, on personal basis, capable women get to achieve their personal aspirations. (After all, not many girls grow up dreaming to be housewives.) At the same time, working mothers can improve household income.  To make working as a viable option for married women, a reform in policies such as maternity leaves, childcare centers and others are very much needed for a healthy family and community development.  

Contrary to what was claimed by our Women's Minister that Malaysia does not need women's rights movement, I believe that our society as a whole should do more to increase women participation in the society, either in politics or economy, for the universal benefits of the nation. 

No need for women's rights movement? There is still a long way to go for Malaysia. 

Pakatan Rakyat Women’s Agenda

Pakatan Rakyat has been moving forward in our women agenda. For example, in Selangor state government, women made up of 40% of Selangor Executive Councillors (EXCO) and 10% of the local Councillors, both of which set precedence in Malaysia history. In addition, Selangor government is also the first to give female civil servants 90 days of maternity leave and male 14 days paternity leave.  It also help women in Selangor to get free mammogram checkups, which 20,000 have benefited to date.  In addition, Selangor was also the first to establish Anti Human Traficking Council (MAPMAS), monitoring human trafficking activities through hotlines, one stop centers and legal actions. 

Moving forward,  Wanita Pakatan Rakyat has formed Women Council of Leadership to jointly determine Pakatan Rakyat's policy for women when we come into power - The Malaysian Agenda for Women.  It covers education, healthcare, women-related laws reform, young women agenda as well as economic, social and political empowerment. (See more details here). 

Yes, we may not have the most perfect women's policy now,  however there is a strong political will in Pakatan Rakyat for women's agenda. Little by little, we'll make Malaysia a better place for women, to enjoy her life, freedom and her pursuit of happiness, and with that, enhances economic growth and social development for the nation. 

Some extra notes for the ladies...

To me, as women, our willingness to be submissive and serve in the family should not be out of inferiority or social pressure, it should be out of love and commitment to build a harmonious family.  

Gender equality and women's empowerment do not make us less of a women at home, but add to our contribution in the family, the pursuit of our own identity and purpose in the workplace and our contribution to nation-building.