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Women’s Rights

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All my life, I always envisioned myself as a mum to daughters. But I’m now a proud mother of two young sons, and so I guess it is my fate to raise feminist boys.

It isn’t the easiest thing in the world, no matter how feminist or ‘woke’ I think I am. Since becoming a mother, I am more aware of my existing biases and previous bad behaviour. I am certainly afraid of making mistakes.

You also realise very quickly that teaching someone else, especially your child, inevitably involves teaching or revisiting tricky topics yourself.

All this makes this year’s International Women’s Day’s two themes extra special and meaningful to me. They are ‘Balance for Better’ and (the United Nations’ official theme),More Powerful Together.’

Both themes focus on the need for more men to get involved in the struggle for gender equality and the importance of not excluding men from the conversation about feminism. I love this and I know other mothers will probably feel as strongly about this as I do, because obviously there is no way I can view my boys, their father and my male family and friends as ‘the enemy’.

But how can mothers and fathers get involved and support this call-to-action?

A united front for gender equality

Getting more men to become allies will be crucial in the struggle for a gender-balanced world. In Malaysia, women activists been wary about male allies who have turned out to be disappointments to the cause. They are also wary about men in the public eye who may not clearly and deliberately identify as allies or feminists.

But here’s where mummies can play a part. We can remind and encourage our partners best – they are the fathers of our children, and they know our hearts, capabilities and strengths. “You know I’ve lost none of my ambitions even though I’m now a mum.”

They are in the best position to be loud and proud allies for gender equality in the country – they understand the importance of making things better for the future of their children. “Would our daughter be able to compete for that role, you think?

Our men can be allies and role models for other men, standing up and speaking out against sexism, harassment and gender inequalities at work.  “Why aren’t there any women on the panel of the conference you are speaking at?” 

But most men do not suddenly become ‘woke’ or enlightened overnight. We have to be mindful that men are less likely than women to recognise sexism, and most do not fully understand the social privilege conferred by their gender.

If we are to view our men as real partners and allies in our lives, it takes an understanding that they may have been brought up with a certain mindset about masculinity, or they have never really had to think about gender issues deeply.

I consider my husband a real keeper, but I did have to explain to him how women can be nervous walking a quiet lane alone, and that it’s a small and unexpressed fear internalised since our teens.  We don’t tell them these things sometimes because we don’t think about it – we’re too used to it. They don’t know because we don’t tell them and have that conversation.

Know the numbers

How can we convince our husbands and partners to help us in this battle? The beautiful thing about facts is that they speak for themselves. Women are half of the earth’s human population and we birth all its inhabitants, but we still have a long way to go for full gender equality.

In 1910, a feminist called Clara Zetkin tabled the idea of International Women’s Day to push for women’s demands. A whopping 109 years later and we are still here. Women are still not present in equal numbers in business or politics.

It is with a sense of pride that I see increasing numbers of Malaysian women flourishing in entrepreneurship and business. This is possibly the most exciting scene in our country now. It is probably the reason why many women are flushed with confidence, thinking the sky’s the limit for their gender these days.

Entrepreneur mothers at the Mompreneur Asia gathering last year.

But make no mistake. When it comes to the power to make decisions and policies that affect real change for Malaysian women, children and families, the numbers are still dire.

Out of 28 Malaysian cabinet members, we have only 5 women. “But there are many deputies to make up for that!” you may think. Are there? Out of 27 deputy ministers in the cabinet, we have only 4 women. A child could tell you whether that is equal or fair. It is simply not good enough.

The World Economic Forum has said the gender gap won’t close until 2186. That is a jaw-dropping 167 years away. But if “gender balance is essential for economies and communities to thrive,” as the IWD official website says, we simply must do better.

Malaysia – Not that bad?

In Malaysia, we continue to read disturbing reports about child abuse, the harassment of women, abandoned babies and child marriages, among others.

There’s no juice to the women’s movement if women themselves think everything is hunky dory.  In the Women’s Aid Organisation 2019 report ‘Status of Women’s Human Rights: 24 Years of CEDAW in Malaysia’, we see that there is clearly so much that needs to be done.

The report lists down these areas that still need our attention:

Political will and action are necessary for change. Let us call out for gender-balanced governments, boardrooms, groups and media coverage. Educate ourselves further about sexism and gender inequality. Let us pick areas of advocacy that we feel strongly about, and keep the public conversation about them alive. Keep our leaders accountable.

Check our Privilege, Consciously Fight Bias

“Women are just like that. Women are lousy bosses. They just like attacking other women. Women are emotional.”

How many times have we heard these refrains, let them slide, nod in agreement, or said them ourselves? And how does that impact what others think about trusting women in positions of authority, power and leadership?

Watching the LeanIn video series on Fighting Bias was extremely helpful for me, as I found that I also held some biases detailed in them.

When I was younger, I always felt I had to hit a higher bar or be ‘100% qualified’ before I requested or applied for any work opportunity, which is linked to attribution bias. If I’m honest I also probably had likeability bias – I felt that women leaders who were kind and maternal were probably not as effective as the firm and assertive male bosses I had. Gasp!

Obviously, that was youthful ignorance and completely unfair. As a leader now myself, I find that I’m traipsing between wanting to be firm and direct, but mindful that people may think me less likeable. It can be horribly challenging, and as the videos show, men do not face the same tightropes. They are rarely called bossy when they are assertive.

“We expect men to be assertive, so when they take the lead, it feels natural to us. In contrast, we expect women to be kind and communal. So when they assert themselves, we like them less. Women are more likely to be described as intimidating, too aggressive and bossy.”

The videos also highlight maternal bias, where people assume mothers are less interested or committed in their jobs because they have children. Within our makchic team of mothers, I am particularly sensitive to the possibility of triggering this bias because we want our clients to trust us. We are mothers, but we can still do the jobs as promised.

No one is immune

What is comforting about the videos above is they keep making it clear that no one is immune from bias.  “Which means we all have work to do.”  And awareness is simply not enough, they say. We need to internalise that gender biases are harmful. We need look for it, and take steps to counteract it.

I also find comfort in knowing that in the age of #MeToo and the exposes on personalities like R.Kelly and Michael Jackson, we are all finding out that we still have so much to learn together. As a society, we are still unpacking disturbing realities to do with child sexual abuse and the psychology of grooming. We are still digesting how toxic masculinity can cause such heartache and pain for women and men alike.

Everyone has a part to play – all the time, everywhere. Let’s continue talking, learning and sharing with humility and empathy. We can get there.

 

Happy International Women’s Day to all our wonderful readers!

The euphoria felt by many Malaysians post-elections is transforming into a spirit of rebuilding the nation. Here are some issues that parents, including me, want the Pakatan Harapan government to take action on.

Caring for the Next Generation

Urgently, the new government needs to reform laws and policies to better protect children living in Malaysia. The marriage of an 11-year-old girl to a 41-year-old man  have mobilised outraged Malaysians to demand for the minimum age for marriage to be 18 for both Muslims and non-Muslims in Malaysia. The issue of poverty, the real costs of child marriages and crucially, awareness on sex and sexuality also needs to be looked at on a macro level, away from the on-going religious debate.

Guidelines Credit with Permission: Katrina Jorene Maliamauv, 2018

Following the tragic death of five-month-old Adam Rayqal Mohd Sufi under the care of his babysitter, makchic readers have highlighted the need for tighter certification and regulation of childcare centers in Malaysia. In comments to makchic, parents said they want staff who are screened, trained (and routinely retrained) and certified. Makchic reader Satvinder Kaur said there is a need for these childcare centers to have flexible hours. This would better serve parents who hold shift jobs, such as those working in restaurants and hospitals.

Makchic readers also called for the government to holistically look at its policies to support families. Firstly, through increasing maternity and paternity leave and ensuring that the jobs are still available upon return. The government should also provide tax breaks for employers to provide crèches. It should also enact policies to ensure that employers subsidise their employees’ childcare. Reader Joanne Ko goes further. She calls for the close monitoring of employers to ensure they fulfil statutory obligations in supporting employees with families.

How we treat the marginalised in our everyday lives

The new government has done well in recognising housework as ‘work’ in their move to provide for housewives through the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF). However, the government should broaden its recognition of others who perform care work. Daughters, aunts and female cousins will benefit from tax breaks and/or subsidies and EPF.

M, a single mother of two, had to pull her two sons out of school to fulfill her filial duties. She would have benefited from some state support. Additionally, there should be mandatory EPF contribution by employers for the thousands of mostly foreign domestic workers performing this undervalued care work.

As a nation of migrants, we also need to start treating migrants with dignity. The current outsourcing system is rife for forced labour and human trafficking, with the powerless migrant workers vulnerable during immigration raids.  The government needs to also keep to its election promise to ratify the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol by the government towards upholding the rights of refugees and asylum seekers living in Malaysia.

A message from a public awareness campaign in 2012. How far have we gone? Image credit: www.thestar.com.my

“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members” – Mahatma Gandhi

Children With Special Needs

Another group of people that the government needs to pay additional attention to are those with special needs. Azian Mohd Hanafiah, a mother of two autistic sons is understandably concerned for her sons’ future. She calls for policies to improve the education and services for children with special needs, so they can be employable. She also demands for legislation to ensure that corporations employ people with special needs. The government should also provide additional tax breaks and allowable leave allocation for caregivers of children with special needs. Lastly, they should look into establishing an endowment fund together with these parents.

As a parent with a disabled child, I echo the call for the government to regulate this area. Just as the Malaysian Medical Council ensures the professionalism of doctors in the interest of protecting the public, there needs to be accreditation and regulation in the developing helping professions. We need to regulate fields such as psychology, speech therapy, occupational therapy and clinical psychology to prevent malpractice and negligence. The government also needs to urgently relook their conflicting role as a public healthcare provider, regulator and private healthcare investor. The Malaysian public that depends on the public healthcare system needs an increase in the current quality of care.

 “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” ― Audre Lorde

Education and Critical Thinking for Our Children

Teachers at SK Felda Pasoh 2 in Seremban held a mock election. This was an effort to expose the children to how democracy works.  Image credit: malaysiandigest.com

Our newly appointment Education Minister Dr Mazlee Malik is on the right track with his vision of nurturing children as critical thinkers. Most parents I spoke to agree that the public schools should also be a place to form the identity of a Malaysian, which includes understanding how democracy works.

The conversations on democracy, freedom and marginalisation need to flourish. Our historical GE14 has shown that critical thinking combined with action is crucial. The government needs to go further in repealing repressive laws such as the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 and the National Security Council’s Act.

Accountable Leadership

There were probably many conversations within families during the election about what makes a good leader. As a parent, I look to the government to demonstrate accountable leadership. The government is keeping its promise to repeal the Universities and Colleges Act and the repeal of the Anti-Fake News Bill. However, they have not fulfilled their pledge to ensure that at least 30 percent of policy makers are women at all levels of government. This is important because more women in decision making position has been proven to improve the efficiency of local governments and of corporations.

We are at the beginning of a long journey. With the energy fueled by a taste of democracy, together, we are going to get there.


Editor’s Notes: 

In light of the recent tragic and disturbing news in Malaysia involving children and women, makchic will be writing a letter to our new Women, Family & Community Development Minister with our hopes and wishes for this New Malaysia of ours.

We’d like to ask Malaysian mums: What would you say or wish for? How do you think women and children could be better protected and supported in our country? What do you think needs prioritising?

Write to us or message us, we would love to add your comments or suggestions.

With election fever still lingering on, have you been noticing more Malaysians talking about politics than ever before?

And against the backdrop of a Malaysia with a brand new government, why should more women get more political? What does it mean for Malaysian women if they get more involved in politics – do they necessarily have to join a political party, for example?

Women and Political Awakening

The very essence of politics is about challenging the concentration of power. Challenging  this power is through the  constant negotiation and action to redistribute that power. Trailblazing pre-Independence Malaysian women are no strangers to this concept and action, as the Sejarah Wanita Project haven shown.  

Shamsiah Fakeh (1924-2008) who fought for Malaysia’s independence with the political party Malay Nationalist Party (Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya). Image Credit: Sejarah Wanita

The Personal is Political

Politics and the lives of women are not separate. Until 30 years ago, domestic violence was a ‘personal family matter’ in  Malaysia. When a woman reported domestic violence to the authorities, there were no laws or protocol to help women who needed to get away from their abusive husbands. Some were even told to go back home.

It took the work of women, banding together with the late Minister of National Unity and Social Development, Napsiah Omar, to push for the enactment of the Domestic Violence Act 1994.  This historical feat was driven by women, and not men, because it is women who face the lived realities of gender based violence. It is thus also women who recognise the need for society to acknowledge and legislate against this heinous violation.

Politics Impact Our Lives

There are many more areas in which larger political events affect Malaysian women’s lives. One glaring area is the lack of childcare support that leaves the responsibility of care to women. This results in women exiting the labour force.   It is important that  national policies and legislations support women in order to provide ‘real’ choices of leaving the workforce. Countries such as Sweden and Australia that have laws and policies to support both parents have also shown an overall improvement in the well-being of the family.

The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality reminding parliamentarians to “keep to their promise” after the 2008 elections. Photo credit: TV Smith

No Woman or Man Is Ever Too Insignificant In Politics

Yes, we need to increase women’s representation in politics.  This is the best way to ensure women’s rights and welfare are better championed and protected. Nevertheless, taking political action need not be just about changing laws solely concerning women. It can also be about child-centred issues, such as education, or our shared environment such as protecting a park, planting more trees, or even producing zero waste. These political acts  can be done through awareness raising and/or changing the way our families live.

Have you ever voted, or signed a petition? Have you attended a rally, participated in a parent-teacher association? How about writing a letter to the editor to voice your opinion, handing out leaflets, or volunteering at the neighbourhood gotong royong? Well guess what? You are already taking charge and effecting change. You are already participating in power redistribution.

The point is that in a process where groups of people come together, there is no voice or act that is ever too insignificant. Even in a daunting sea of 13.3 million voters, your one vote, your conscious choice of what you want for your future in this country is an important act of asserting your significance.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
― Howard Zinn

The Crucial Ingredient for Married Women To “Do” Politics?

Throughout my differing levels of political participation,  I had one crucial ingredient – my partner. He understands that for me to be politically active, I need his support and encouragement. This was especially important when we started a family whilst both of us were holding demanding jobs.  He cooks and watches the kids when I had late nights, weekend meetings and workshops. He read my writings and provided clear feedback. Once we even organised a ‘day care’ with him in charge, to enable my friends with children to participate in a 48-hour national clean up.

I suppose then that for those who are able to choose to marry and choose their partner, this choice is also a political statement. It is a conscious action of finding a partner who believes in your values, just as you do in theirs. It is the coming together of values that will create a partnership that helps strive to make this world a little better for everyone.