Pushing the Women's Agenda Forward

The past decade has recorded consistent attempts to mainstream women's interests into policy-making, but the battle is far from won. The Women's Agenda for Change redirects energies to this, writes Padmaja Padman

Just when you thought they had piped down for good, women's voices are being raised again, articulating their concerns and claiming a fairer share of attention to constraints that hold back their potential.

The comparative silence since 1995 has not been without purpose. Women's groups have been regrouping to reconnoitre the way, this time uniting under the banner of "Women's Agenda for Change".

More than a statement of facts that could be easily dismissed, this will be a document for action for 65 non-governmental organisations (NG0s) that have endorsed it ahead of the launch [on 23 May] in Kuala Lumpur. .

That the move comes at a time of wider political and economic consolidation has some significance as indicated in their rallying call: "Malaysia is in the midst of change - push the Women's Agenda forward!"

Spearheaded by the Women's Development Co-operative (WDC), the document is the combined effort of SIS Forum Malaysia, Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor, All Women's Action Society and Wanita Pertubuhan Jamaah Islah.

The women's sections of the Malaysian Trade Union Congress and the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall are also in the organising committee.

WDC director Dr Chee Heng Leng says the comprehensive 38-page document collates input and recommendations from more than 30 NG0s that attended a national workshop in January.

"This in itself has been an achievement, for it has involved multi-sectoral consultation with a unique combination of NG0s pursuing widely-varying interests," she says.

Equally heartening has been the "qualitative leap" in endorsement as another WDC director, Dr Cecilia Ng, describes the unexpected response to the Women's Agenda in 11 areas of policy and procedural reform.

It seeks change in development strategies, participatory democracy, culture and religion, violence against women, land, health services, the law, employment, AIDS, the environment, and health and sexuality.

"When the WDC drew up the Women's Manifesto in 1990 to state concerns in 10 policy areas to coincide with the general election, we found only 11 endorsers," Ng says.

Explains Chee: "At the time, the conception of what constituted women's issues was narrower and focused on immediate concerns like rape and domestic violence.

"Some groups felt the manifesto went beyond the work they were mandated to do, although this was exactly the barrier we were trying to breach.

"Since then, there has since been a process of education. We have also learnt to recognise and respect one another's differences, and yet find a common platform for action."

The Women's Agenda is again timed to feed into party manifestos for the next general election, to be held by next April. It is designed to be a reference point for the Government, political parties and the public.

"This is partly motivated by the present situation. We want to state our demands as women, so that our concerns don't get lost among other issues during this period of change," Chee says.

Ng says women's groups have come some way from the "activist-oriented" approach of the 1980s, using their collective experience and maturity to move into policy advocacy, research and networking since 1990.

"We have become comfortable working with one another, gaining trust along the way. Now, women want to have a voice in all spheres of activity, including politics and governance, she notes.

"It is becoming increasingly critical for women to be represented in emerging issues like globalisation, development strategies, religious practices, and matters of their health and sexuality."

Chee says the women's perspective is better defined now, while the process of participation in writing the document has encouraged a sense of ownership among NG0s.

Endorsers will be expected to advocate change through their organisations as well as take on board gender issues, therefore turning the Women's Agenda into a "living document".

At the same time, a "Women's Agenda Watch" is being considered to monitor developments and move the document forward.

This may be done together with government agencies which have access to required data and information.

In effect, too, the document could serve as a checklist of progress on:

* the National Policy on Women, formulated by the Government in consultation with the National Council of Women's Organisations in 1989;

* the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), ratified by the Government in 1985; and,

* targets in the chapter on Women and Development in the Sixth and Seventh Malaysia Plans.

Ng says the Women's Agenda will be taken to the public through ongoing grassroots awareness and education programmes by several NG0s, religious institutions and possibly a roadshow to explain details in the document.

Also, says Chee, the organisers are discussing the formation of task forces on issues that have yet to come under any co-ordination to date.

"In reality, the work has only just begun, with the substantive portion being to mobilise attention on the document. We are in this for the long haul," Chee says.

"The current political momentum may assist us, but women must be prepared to make their stand find their direction."

The volunteer brigade in women's groups is ready to lead the way, adds Ng, relying on accumulated patience and knowledge of the battlefield to see its sorties through.



" WOMEN are important contributors to the country and its economy, accounting for 36% of the labour force (Seventh Malaysia Plan 1996-2000).

However, there are factors that impede their full participation in the labour force, or cause their work to be devalued or unrecognised.

Unequal career opportunities for women, gender stereotyping, refusal to classify work done by women outside the office, sexual harassment, lack of child-care facilities and inflexible working hours are examples.

Despite significant numbers in the manufacturing, agriculture, forestry, livestock, fishing, and professional and technical sectors, women still occupy the lower rungs of the workplace hierarchy.

In the private sector, they are often paid less than men. This indicates that women have a secondary status in the labour market , and that their participation is not valued as highly as that of men.

The effects of globalisation and economic liberalisation on the female labour force is another concern. When companies downsize to be more competitive, women workers often lose their jobs or shift to casual work.

Many firms have changed the way they work, maintaining a core of skilled workers and sub-contracting low-skilled or repetitive work mainly to women, rural and migrant workers who operate under unsatisfactory conditions.

There needs to be attention to poor and unsafe working conditions that affect women's health and reproductive capacities, and to non-ergonomic work stations in the workplace.

Women find it difficult to be active in trade unions because of their domestic responsibilities. Society, too, is unwilling to see women in leadership positions.

This has meant that trade unions continue to be male-dominated, which makes it difficult for women workers to define their own agenda and get their needs and issues addressed.

In view of traditional obstacles and limitations, women could explore alternative work models like teleworking to improve quality of life.

Government assistance would be needed to subsidise the cost of hardware and software, and to direct mindset change among employers to allow staff to work from home.

Telecentres could be set up at community level - especially low-income areas - by local authorities which could subsidise user charges and add crŠche facilities, skills training and job opportunities.

This would enable social and community interaction among teleworkers, and eliminate the isolation often felt by those working from home."

Action plan

* Create a national employment strategy for women to facilitate upward mobility, training and access to skills and technology upgrading.

* Develop comprehensive knowledge of women's work and employment including housework, with the value reflected in accounts consistent with core national accounts.

* Enact laws and policies to protect women from globalisation and enhance participation through best practices in the workplace, strategies against sexual harassment, and provision of child-care facilities.

* Improve the employment status of workers, including domestic and migrant workers, by amending the Employment Act, Occupational Health and Safety Act, Industrial Relations Act, Trade Unions Act and Social Security Act.

* Ratify global labour conventions like the UN Convention on Protection of Migrant Workers and Their Families; ILO Convention on Home Work; and ILO Convention 82 (right to organise) and 98 (right to collective bargaining).

Health Services

"SINCE, independence in 1957, the availability and affordability of public healthcare services nation-wide have been good. This has been achieved at a low cost amounting to less than two per cent of the gross national product.

It is due to this network that there is almost universal primary health care, encompassing ante-natal care, child-birth services, postnatal care, immunisation for children and primary medical care for all family members.

In urban areas, private medical care charges are still affordable because the public sector acts as a floor price control, providing a viable alternative if and when private charges are too high.

There are some shortcomings and gaps in relation to health services for women. The focus on married women and their reproductive health, for example, contributed to Malaysia's low maternal mortality rate.

However, it has also led to the neglect of women in other phases of the life cycle. Adolescents and young, single women often do not feel that they have ready access to available reproductive health services.

Women are not considered to be part of mainstream society -foreign migrants, dadah [drug] users, commercial sex workers - may also feel inhibited from using health services.

Poor women and rural women continue to rely heavily on public healthcare services, despite having to wait long hours to see the doctor.

Privatisation and corporatisation of government healthcare facilities will lead to higher costs and, eventually, higher user charges.

This, coupled with the unimpeded growth of private hospitals, will affect citizen's ready access to affordable and quality universal health care.

To deal with the rising cost of health care, the Government plans to set up a national health security fund to enable everyone to enjoy affordable access to the privatised and corporatised health care facilities.

But the absence of information and consultation on details of the scheme is causing alarm among the public and health practitioners.

Who will pay the premiums, and who will be covered? How will the amount of premium be determined, and will the premium payments be progressively structured?

What kinds of services will be covered? Will it cover primary care and high-tech services such as renal dialysis, heart bypass and magnetic resonance imaging.

Will the cost of health care rise so dramatically that one would need additional private health insurance for services not covered by the government scheme?

While change will be inevitable in the healthcare scenario, we should act to protect our rights to affordable services.

Action plan

* Stop privatisation of public health facilities and in crease allocations for the public health sector. The state has a responsibility to ensure adequate health care for all.

* Control the price of private healthcare services. Set up a regulatory body to include public interest participation, like consumer's and women's groups, to formulate a fee schedule and monitor quality of care and services.

* Formulate a national plan for generic drug production to control the supply and pricing of medicinal drugs.

* Lobby for release of national health financing scheme to ensure transparency and democratic participation in its development.

* Within any national health security fund, ensure universal coverage in primary health care and maintain minimal cost; premiums that are progressively structured; a health plan that includes ante-natal, childbirth and postnatal services, family planning services and reproductive health check-ups; and collective sharing for catastrophic illnesses.

* Improve accessibility and quality of healthcare services for all women. Institute a policy of gender-friendly services to women throughout the life cycle, from infancy to old age and regardless of marital status.

* Carry out a gender sensitisation programme for healthcare managers and personnel to ensure a positive outlook on providing service to women of all ages and from all walks of life.

* Formulate a health plan for foreign migrant women that adequately addresses all their health (including reproductive health) needs. Ensure that all employers provide this health plan to their foreign women workers.

* Carry out an awareness and education campaign among women and girls on taking care of their health and accessing healthcare services to cater to their needs.


" LAND provides the means to food, fodder, trees and shelter for rural and indigenous communities like the Orang Asal (Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia, Anak Negri of Sabah and Dayak and Orang Ulu of Sarawak).

A majority of them are highly dependent on subsistence agriculture, hunting and gathering for their livelihood, and have used the land and forest for generations.

Indigenous peoples have a spiritual relationship with their land - it is more than a habitat or a political boundary, it is the basis of their social organisation, economic system and cultural identification.

Access to land is also important to the urban settler's ability to shelter her family and the plantation worker's ability to earn wages.

With land, people can sustain life and obtain shelter, credit and protection from poverty. Without it, these benefit are severely curtailed.

Increased access to and ownership of land among women would lead to improvement in their lives and a more equitable society.

Women in marginalised communities suffer doubly when dispossessed of land. Apart from the trauma of eviction, their rights to land are erased by imposition of discriminatory thinking and practises by the authorities.

Loss of land is equivalent to loss of a resource base. The women's multiple role as guardians of culture, holders of communal knowledge, producers, care-givers and educators are also diminished.

Women access land through marriage, inheritance, joint family ownership, usufruct (right to use and profit form property which is not one's own, so long as there is no damage or waste) and rights to communal land.

However, such access can be affected when they cannot provide official documents to prove ownership.

Indigenous and rural communities were once egalitarian, ensuring equitable distribution and access to land and resources. Land was communally owned and all had equal rights to the land.

Where such land has been taken over for development, as in Sarawak since 1996, women lose out because titles are subsequently issued to men who are viewed as heads of household.

Women estate workers suffer the loss of subsistence, shelter and quality of family life when plantations are sold. Most are illiterate and have few skills for anything but the lowest form of manual labour.

As a consequence of loss of land, women face increased risk of poverty especially if they do not fall into conventional family units. Female heads of household, single mothers and unmarried women are most vulnerable.

A woman whose access to land and its benefits has been removed or restricted feels powerless because she now has to depend on others. This erodes self-esteem, self-reliance and control over her own life.

Without financial independence and a share of the decision-making power within the family, the woman may become vulnerable to domestic violence, neglect or disrespect from male breadwinners. "

Action plan

* Give full recognition and protection to customary land rights of the Orang Asal.

* Repeal or amend land and forestry laws that contradict the customary rights to the land of indigenous peoples.

* Repeal or amend laws that infringe on the rights of urban settlers and plantation workers including the Land Act 1990, Emergency Order 1969 and Public Order (Preservation) Ordinance.

* Monitor and regulate the activities of private and public agencies which encroach on the land, resources and housing rights of marginalised communities.

* Compensate communities fairly for damage to land, housing and the forest by the public and private sectors.

* Recognise the urgency of involving indigenous communities, especially landowners, in decision-making processes in land development projects.

* Stop eviction of urban settlers and destruction of houses and property. Ensure that they are given replacement land and housing near the original site.

* Introduce a "land sharing" concept for urban settlers and plantation workers.

Participatory Democracy

" PARTICIPATORY democracy involves public discussion of common problems and common good, not just a silent counting of individual hands in an election. Efforts must be made to encourage people's willingness and capacity to participate in different levels of democratic processes.

Malaysians come out of the complacency mode in times of economic uncertainty, but go back to being placid when prosperity returns. Grievances are forgiven, forgotten and left to fester until the next time.

A healthy democracy flourishes in an environment where freedoms of speech, association and expression are respected and upheld.

The independence of the judiciary, rule of law, freedom of the Press and upholding of all human rights are essential values in creating a vibrant, open, participatory and dynamic democratic system.

One way to encourage increased participatory democracy is to re-introduce local government elections. This will open up opportunities for citizens to have a say in how their lives and their communities are governed.

Local government politics can also be the starting point to encourage women to be more active in decision-making positions as issues have direct and immediate bearing on their quality of life.

Currently, the ability of women to influence decision-making in politics and governance is severely constrained by their dismally low numbers at the top flight of political party hierarchies and administration.

Tradition and custom regard women as inferior to men and demand that they remain the primary care-givers in spite of their changing role as wage earners outside the home. These remain impediments to their entry and rise in politics even though they form a substantial portion of membership in political parties, and their energies are crucial during election campaigns.

Although Malaysia is party to the 1995 Global Platform for Action which pledges at least 30 per cent participation of women in government, we still have a long way to go to achieve this.

Without a critical mass in key positions, women will continue to be ineffective in influencing the decision-making process and in shaping party and government agenda.

We ask that 30 per cent of nominations are reserved for women to party posts and in the State and parliamentary elections. Women should pressure party leaders as well, for fairer representation of their numbers.

If more women were elected, I believe there would be a different kind of politics - one that is consultative, consensual and compassionate. Priorities would also be better balanced in terms of governance.

If we can have an affirmative action policy on socio-economic grounds, 1 don't see any reason why there can't be one to assist women on the basis of the historical gender discrimination they have faced. "

Action plan

Political parties must adopt a women's platform that promotes women's participation in decision--making positions and addresses inequality between women and men in all sectors of society.

They must reserve at least 30 per cent of nominations for women to party positions, municipal council seats, and State and parliamentary elections.

The Government must reserve at least 30 per cent of decision-making positions for women in Federal, State and statutory bodies. It should also:

* repeal laws that infringe on citizens' rights - the Internal Security Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Universities and University Colleges Act;

* amend relevant clauses of the Societies Act, the Penal Code, the Trade Unions Act and the Police Act which restrict fundamental liberties;

* establish an independent Elections Commission that is answerable to Parliament;

* review the Constitution and amendments which infringe on basic freedoms;

* re-introduce municipal council elections to enable Malaysians to participate in local government;

* establish an independent Malaysian Human Rights Commission to monitor and redress violations;

* end ownership and control of the mainstream media by political parties to help create a vibrant, free and independent Press; and

* ensure the right not to be discriminated against if women do not conform to the stereotypical image of the Asian woman.

The above article appeared in the New Straits Times, a Malaysian daily newspaper dated 16 May 1999.