A Call to end gender based violence against Malaysian women and ensure equitable access to justice

In conjunction with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women #IDEVAW 2022 and 16 Days of Activism, with the global theme of “UNITE! Activism to End Violence against Women & Girls” – United Nations Malaysia & UNFPA Malaysia hosted Road To Justice, a special presentation on overcoming barriers to justice for women impacted by Gender-based Violence (GBV) and Economic Violence.

The Road to Justice panel session moderated by Tehmina Kaoosji, brought together Dato Sri Hajah Rohani Abdul Karim, former Women, Family and Community Development Minister, Charlene Murray, Services Director, Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) Malaysia, Dr. Vilashini Somiah, Senior Lecturer, Gender Studies Program, Universiti Malaya and Goh Siu Lin, Family and Child Rights Lawyer to discuss the role of progressive legislation in ending and preventing Gender-based Violence against women, while delving into how Economic Violence underscores GBV.

Dato Sri Hajah Rohani Abdul Karim noted GBV in the form of Economic Violence is ubiquitous, with most victims acknowledging they were made vulnerable to abuse due to economic factors. She stated that “research has shown 99% of Domestic Violence cases actually come under Economic Violence”

While she highlighted that during her tenure as Women, Family and Community Development Minister in 2017, Malaysia widened the scope of the Domestic Violence Act 521 to include ‘dishonestly misappropriating the victim’s property which causes the victim to suffer distress due to financial losses’, she emphasised that we cannot claim to know enough about the true situation of Economic Violence and Domestic Violence, as the majority of cases go unreported.

Dato Sri Rohani also commended Gender Responsive Budgeting (GRB) in Parliament focusing on allocations for women’s economic empowerment and participation, especially B40 women, single mothers and also victims of domestic violence.

Meanwhile, in her capacity as former Chairperson of the All Party Parliamentary Group Malaysia on Sustainable Development Goals (APPGM-SDG) she acknowledged Malaysia’s policymaking strides in 2022, including the 3 decade long wait for the tabling of the Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill. This bill, together with the tabling of the Anti-Stalking Bill, offer greater protection to women who are disproportionately affected by such instances of GBV.

Charlene Murray stated that progress of both bills was naturally stalled due to the recent General Elections – and as the Anti Sexual Harassment Bill requires gazetting, women haven’t been able to benefit from the Bill for now. From WAO and women’s rights advocates perspective, the Anti Stalking Bill also requires tabling once more in Parliament and they hope this is prioritised by the new government. This will help ensure survivors have recourse as stalking is not an act which can be criminalised under the current Penal Code.

She said that amendments to the Employment Act also require gazetting. Meanwhile, encouraging points to note are fairer wages hours that women could utilise and “most importantly reducing discrimination against pregnancy in the workplace is an immense win for women who are formally employed.” WAO would like to see further amendments to ensure that job seekers and informally employed women are also protected against pregnancy discrimination.

Charlene noted that “more women than men land in informal work settings not due to choice, but the need to find employment which is flexible in order to arrange childcare needs, elderly care duties and arrange for time to care for their households’ “. She hoped that more incentives would be provided for women in the informal labour force especially for small business owners so they can formalise their businesses, leading to Malaysia increasing the female labour force participation rate (LFPR)

Regarding the Housewives Social Security Bill, Charlene maintained that “while it is a good start in serving women who have no form of savings or protection for their health and safety primarily from a medical lens, it’s important to also have additions to the Bill for mental healthcare, to make it more substantial” She pointed out that a major weakness in the Bill is registration being voluntary and can only be done by husbands. Giving agency to housewives to register themselves should be fundamental, in addition to more explicit terms regarding when contributions cease upon divorce.

Dr.Vilashini Somiah emphasised upon “recognising the role of the patriarchy in GBV prevalence, and that patriarchy is best described as an instilled sense of social hierarchy which marginalises women and subordinates them to men, thus ensuring internalised discrimination in our structures, including the legal system. 

She further noted that in unpacking different lived realities for underprivileged communities, Economic Violence and financial abuse is an incredibly crucial component for understanding Domestic Violence at its core.

Dr. Vilashini related the impacts of pandemic related unemployment in Sabah, in particular, which has increased alcoholism among men, with women forced after years of being homemakers- to work at irregular, low paid jobs to ensure their families’ survival and to pay for the monster of alcoholism. Women may also turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism- which left unaddressed extends into intergenerational trauma and a survivalist narrative for themselves and their families, rather than being able to achieve life cycle potential. She underlined that such increasing disparity between income demographics leads to overall reduction in pandemic recovery and indeed, overall national development.

Siu Lin stated that mindsets must change when it comes to educating citizens about joint family assets as women are also breadwinners today. Affidavits and trials prove the myriad ways in which men limit wives access to bank accounts, credit cards, terminating telephone lines and gas accounts. She cautioned about the traumas of financial control and the resulting social isolation experienced by women, particularly those with fewer protections due to intersecting identities such as being poor, for foreign spouses, as well as women coming from high net worth families.

She elaborated that when women aren’t given their fair share of matrimonial assets and abusive husbands minimise the amount of maintenance, children also suffer. Encouragingly, the Law Reform Act in 2018 has allowed for maintenance to be paid beyond a child’s tertiary education at 18 years. Unfortunately, the speed at which cases are heard in court means that currently trial dates are being fixed in Family Courts in the Klang Valley for 2024-2025. An interval of 2 to 3 years before hearings begin clearly impacts children’s basic needs including food, as well as safety and access to education.

To remedy this lacuna, Siu Lin recommends “a dedicated, specialised family justice system with specialised judges, staff, mental health professionals and financial professionals to help families think in terms of healing, therapeutic justice while actually mending societal tears so we can all contribute to this Malaysia Terbaru”

IDEVAW 2022 and the 16 Days of Activism co-incidentally marks exactly three years since the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Malaysia’s women and girls have suffered Gender-based Violence due to deeply rooted harmful practices brought to the fore by the pandemic’s continuing impacts on economic constraints. 

Road to Justice has discussed policy making progress as well as barriers preventing women’s access to justice- with key insights for overcoming them and achieving Gender Equality in Malaysia.

Addressing violence against women must continue in earnest throughout the 16 Days  of Activism as well as year round. Centring our most vulnerable women and girls is  essential for Malaysia’s pandemic recovery and national development, in line with the  2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

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