Rights advocates worry conservatism hampering women’s sexual, reproductive health

National Population and Family Development Board chairman Datuk Narimah Awin speaks to reporters after the launch of the State of the World Population Report 2019 in Kuala Lumpur April 10, 2019. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
National Population and Family Development Board chairman Datuk Narimah Awin speaks to reporters after the launch of the State of the World Population Report 2019 in Kuala Lumpur April 10, 2019. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

KUALA LUMPUR, April 11 — Several women’s rights advocates have expressed their worry that the global rise of conservatism, including in Malaysia, is adversely affecting women’s rights to sexual and reproductive health.

Speaking at the regional launch of the United Nations Population Fund’s State of World Population (SWOP) 2019 report yesterday, the advocates pointed at still prevalent support for child marriages, female genital mutilation (FGM), and anti-vaccination as some examples.

“The negative impact of increasing conservatism is going to be a real problem,” warned Datuk Dr Narimah Awin, the chairman of the National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN), in her keynote speech during the launch yesterday.

She was referring to the death of a 25-month old boy from diphtheria infection in February, a result of not being immunised since birth, believed to be due to unfounded religious fear of vaccines.

Dr Narimah later in a press conference said that religious conservatism is also impeding the government’s effort to offer sex education and family planning, especially to the young and unmarried.

“Other areas would be of course the very, very dificult area of different sexual orientations. There’s a lot of constraint in trying to accept LGBTQ,” she said, referring to the queer community.

“Sex education is not teaching children to have sex. I’m teaching them why they must not have sex until they’re ready,” she added, relating her experience in trying to convince religious teachers in drafting a sex education module.

Executive Director Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) Sivananthi Thenenthiran speaks to reporters after the launch of the State of the World Population Report 2019 in Kuala Lumpur April 10, 2019. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Executive Director Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) Sivananthi Thenenthiran speaks to reporters after the launch of the State of the World Population Report 2019 in Kuala Lumpur April 10, 2019. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women’s (ARROW) Sivananthani Thanenthiran also admitted that the access to birth control for unmarried couples is contentious in many countries in the region.

She questioned whether lawmakers should take cultural context into consideration when drafting policies, noting that policies should be for pragmatic and realistic situations rather than idealised ones.

“If we are just programming for ideal behaviours, then the tendency is that our policy will have huge gaps,” said the ARROW executive director.

The SWOP report highlighted that just over half of Malaysian women aged 15 to 49 use contraceptives, at 53 per cent.

But the prevalence of modern method of contraceptives is much lower among women, with just 39 per cent using birth control such as oral contraceptives or intrauterine devices.

In comparison, 62 per cent of women in the Asia-Pacific region use modern contraceptives.

Additionally, 12 in 1,000 teenage girls between 15 and 19 got pregnant last year.

Last year, Deputy Women Family and Community Development Minister Hannah Yeoh said roughly 4,000 teenage girls get pregnant every year on average, citing Ministry of Health (MOH) data.

Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah (centre) is pictured during the launch of the State of the World Population Report 2019 in Kuala Lumpur April 10, 2019. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah (centre) is pictured during the launch of the State of the World Population Report 2019 in Kuala Lumpur April 10, 2019. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

“Even if it’s one child, one teenage pregnancy, is already a problem I think that must become a wake-up call for us to double our effort,” said Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, who had earlier launched the SWOP report.

Putting progress on hold?

Dr Narimah also expressed her frustration that child marriages and FGM were still present in Malaysia, but admitted that she would have to settle for solutions such as Putrajaya’s step to tighten requirements for allowing child marriages among Muslims.

“Many of these problems are socio-cultural, which include religion. Like you, I wish I can stop child marriage tomorrow. I wish I can stop female circumcision tomorrow.

“But I live in a country with very complex socio-cultural values. Then I have to be pragmatic,” said the former director of Family Health Development department in MOH.

Dr Narimah also assured that she would continue working towards putting a stop to child marriages.

“A child should not marry. Full stop. But again, because of socio-cultural realities, let’s tighten the conditions first, we control it first. One day it would end,” she hoped.

The former regional adviser on maternal and reproductive health for the World Health Organisation also chided Putrajaya’s response towards criticism of FGM prevalence here.

“It really frustrates me they go to nomenclature, they go to typology in Arabic word... The fact is, to me, you don’t touch a girl’s genitalia,” she stressed.

National Population and Family Development Board chairman Datuk Narimah Awin addresses the launch of the State of the World Population Report 2019 in Kuala Lumpur April 10, 2019. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
National Population and Family Development Board chairman Datuk Narimah Awin addresses the launch of the State of the World Population Report 2019 in Kuala Lumpur April 10, 2019. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

In Malaysia, the most prevalent form of FGM among Muslims is Type I, where midwives or doctors remove the clitoral hood of women, usually when they are still infants or children. Some practise Type IV, a ritual which included pricking or nicking of the genitals.

In February, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) committee had urged Putrajaya to eliminate FGM, with representatives from Muslim-majority saying FGM is no longer considered to be in line with Islamic teachings.

The Malaysian delegate had pointed out Malaysia follows the Shafie school of Islamic jurisprudence, and that FGM is obligatory under a 2009 decision by the national fatwa committee unless it brings harm to the girl.

A representative from the Health Ministry had also claimed that FGM is safe and that only medical professionals perform the procedure, while comparing it to immunisation programmes for female babies.

“I wish I can make it ‘haram’. But even if I cannot make it ‘haram’, let’s not make it ‘wajib’,” she added. “Haram” means “prohibited” under the Shariah code, while “wajib” is “obligatory”.

Inclusion and diversity as remedy

To surmount these socio-cultural barriers, especially with religious conservatism, Sivananthani advocated for the inclusion of religious authorities in forming policies in order to understand their reservations.

“In the global scenario we’ve already seen progressive fatwas on female circumcision and on early age marriages, this would help our scenario,” she said.

Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah speaks to reporters after the launch of the State of the World Population Report 2019 in Kuala Lumpur April 10, 2019. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah speaks to reporters after the launch of the State of the World Population Report 2019 in Kuala Lumpur April 10, 2019. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

Similarly, Saifuddin suggested approaching groups who either subscribe to “maqasid shariah”, or the higher goals of Shariah, or those who can be described as Muslim democrats, for discussions that can counter the conservatism.

The definition of the term “Muslim Democrat” is widely debated, but it is often presented as a counter-concept against Islamism — by eschewing a rule by Shariah law to restore a caliphate, and harnessing instead the values of Islam to help them win votes in a democratic system.

These groups, Saifuddin said, would be open to new ideas, be more interested in engagements, and emphasise less on the legalistic approach or the jurisprudence of Islam.

“In the Islamic discourse, the legalistic approach is the conservative approach. Everything is ‘halal’ and ‘haram’... That is where the problem is, when decision makers and people who have influence in society look at ‘halal’, ‘haram’

“Life is not that simple. Life is complex, it goes beyond permissible and what is not,” said the former Global Movement of Moderates chief executive.

“Once you start discussing issues from the permissible approach, then you get stuck. You can’t move forward,” he added.

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