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CEDAW in Malaysia

Dr Muzaffar Syah Mallow, Senior Lecturer, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM)

CEDAW workshop and an overview over the current reservation on the implementation of the “Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women” (CEDAW) in Malaysia.

On 2 and 3 March 2013, the Faculty of Syariah & Laws (FSU), Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM) had successfully organized a workshop on “CEDAW & Leadership” which focusing primarily for students from institute of higher learning throughout Malaysia. This CEDAW workshop is the result of collaboration between All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) one of the Malaysian independent feminist organisation committed to improving the lives of women within the country in Malaysia with the support of the United Nations Gender Theme Group.

According to Betty Yeoh, the Programmes Manager for All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), these CEDAW & Leadership workshops were organised specifically for the students in an Institute of Higher Learning in the country, because of concerns that there was a lack of women’s participation in leadership in universities, despite the fact that women make up more than half the student population. In fact, only 61% of women who graduate enter the workforce, and this number further declines once they reach 25 years and above. There is a need to gender sensitise and raise awareness about discrimination against women from among students in higher learning, as a strategy to prepare them for the future. These workshops therefore aim to amongst others is to bring awareness of Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to students in the institute of higher learning; to assist students’ council/union to include CEDAW principles in their plans and activities for student population in their universities; and to encourage women students to take on leadership roles in the students’ council/union of the institution of higher learning.

The expectation from this workshop is to achieve a better understanding on the rights of women and of discrimination against women. It is hoped that this will lead to greater opportunities for the participation of women in leadership positions in institutes of higher learning. This in turn, we hope, will equip women after their graduation and empower them in their role in society. It is also hoped that it will also address the issue of the high percentage of women who drop out of the formal workforce in Malaysia. The primary discussion for this workshop is on the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). This convention is more popularly known as the Women’s Convention which was adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly which is often described as an international bill of rights for women. Consisting of a preamble and 30 articles, it defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination. The Convention defines discrimination against women as “...any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field”.

By accepting the Convention, States commit themselves to undertake a series of measures to end discrimination against women in all forms, including to incorporate the principle of equality of men and women in their legal system, abolish all discriminatory laws and adopt appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women, to establish tribunals and other public institutions to ensure the effective protection of women against discrimination and to ensure elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organizations or enterprises.

In 1995, Malaysia has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) with reservations to some of its provisions. The original reservations read as follows “The Government of Malaysia declares that Malaysia’s accession is subject to the understanding that the provisions of the Convention do not conflict with the provisions of the Islamic Shariah law and the Federal Constitution of Malaysia. With regards thereto, further, the Government of Malaysia does not consider itself bound by the provisions of articles 2 (f), 5 (a), 7 (b), 9 and 16 of the aforesaid Convention. In relation to article 11, Malaysia interprets the provisions of this article as a reference to the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of equality between men and women only. On 6 February 1998, the Government of Malaysia notified the Secretary-General of a partial withdrawal as follows “The Government of Malaysia withdraws its reservation in respect of article 2(f), 9(1), 16(b), 16(d), 16(e) and 16(h)”. Due to some reservation still made by the government over CEDAW many women’s human rights groups in Malaysia have since the CEDAW review in 2006 several memorandum to the government, attended numerous meetings with the Malaysian Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development and issued many press statements calling for the full and effective implementation of the CEDAW Convention. Notably, in July 2010 the government removed its reservations to CEDAW Articles 5(a), 7(b) and 16(2).

However reservations still remain on five CEDAW Articles 9(2) on states parties shall grant women equal rights with men with respect to the nationality of their children,16(1)(a) where states parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations and in particular shall ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women for the same right to enter into marriage; 16(1)© on the same rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution, 16(1)(f) on the same rights and responsibilities with regard to guardianship, wardship, trusteeship and adoption of children, or similar institutions where these concepts exist in national legislation; in all cases the interests of the children shall be paramount and 16(1)(g) on the same personal rights as husband and wife, including the right to choose a family name, a profession and an occupation.

According to Dr. Muzaffar Syah Mallow, the Senior Lecturer from the Faculty of Syariah & Laws, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM) and the advisor for the workshop, it is important to highlight that the CEDAW convention provides the basis for realizing equality between women and men through ensuring women’s equal access to, and equal opportunities in, political and public life. States parties agree to take all appropriate measures, including legislation and temporary special measures, so that women can enjoy all their human rights and fundamental freedoms. Countries which have ratified or acceded to the CEDAW convention like Malaysia are legally bound to put its provisions into practice. They are also committed to submit national reports, at least every four years, on measures they have taken to comply with their treaty obligations. However, full implementation of the any international convention including CEDAW should have its limitation. For Malaysia which have a very complex society which include society from different religious and cultural background some reservations is needed. However, having such says it shouldn’t go against the basic or the fundamental principle or idea of CEDAW convention in the first place which is the protection and equal opportunity given to women.