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Gender Discrimination & The Federal Constitution


WAO refers to the news report “Women Appointed on Merit” (The Sun on Sunday, 27 May 2001) where Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Abdullah Badawi said that there is no need for any ammendment in the Federal Constitution to include the word “sex” as a ground against discrimination. He stated that the government had always appointed women on merit. He also stated that the government does not “promote women just to prove to the world that we don’t discriminate against them.”

With all due respect to the government’s recognition on the ability of women in the public sphere of employment and appointments in governmental positions, there are still substantial inequalities between men and women in a plethora of legislations and social aspects of a woman’s life in Malaysia. By dismissing the urgent need of ammending Article 8(2) of the Federal Constitution on the mere basis of the ostensible equality of women and men in the employment market, the government is displaying a lack of comprehension of the real issues at hand in terms of discrimination and inequalities between women and men.

Although women make up more than 50% of the workforce in Malaysia, only a small percentage of these women are in decision making positions. Within the public service itself, only 15% of decision making posts are filled by women. Such disparity is reflected similarly in other employment sectors of Malaysia. This is despite the fact that there are more women enrolled for higher education than men. At diploma level, the number of female students are at 55.9% in comparison to male students. This figure is 59.8% at degree stage. Evidently, there is a flaw in the statement of equality through recognition of merits.

Aside from employment, women in Malaysia face legal discrimination in many areas of importance in their lives. This discrimination begins with the rights to citizenship, where a Malaysian woman married to a foreigner can only confer her Malaysian nationality to her child if the child is born in Malaysia (Part III of the Federal Constitution). On the other hand, a Malaysian man in the same situation can confer his nationality to his child whether or not his child is born within Malaysia. Also, under Malaysian law, Permanent Residence (PR) status is not eligible to foreign husbands of Malaysian women, whereas foreign wives are eligible to apply for this status (Article 15(1) of the Federal Constitution). Under the Law Reform (Marriage & Divorce) Act 1976, a person under 21 years of age needs the consent of his/her father to register his/her marriage. The consent of the mother is not valid consideration at all. The Women and Girl Protection Act 1973 was drawn up to protect women but more often than not, is used as a tool to control women. No such corresponding legislation exists for men. Aside from these examples cited, there are many more laws that discriminates against women, whether by intent or effect.

How then, can one say that there is no need to include “sex” as a valid and fundamental ground against discrimination within the central law of our Federal Constitution?

This is not about the promotion of women, but about the statement of equality.

At policy level, the Malaysian government is officially committed to equality between men and women as articulated in the National Policy, Plans and the ratification of the UN Conventions on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and accession to the Beijing Declaration of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women and the Global Platform for Action and Beijing + 5.

Yet is is still glaringly obvious that there is no political will to recognise the basic flaw in our enshrined document of the Federal Constitution. The government has to be held accountable for the denial of our women’s human rights. How can women expect national laws and policies to reflect substantive equality when trivialising such issues, since the ammendment of the Constitution is not priority for the Government?

Meera Samanther – President
Jaclyn Kee – Communications Officer

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