KUALA LUMPUR, March 16 — Women’s rights groups have expressed their concerns over the appointment of Datuk Seri Rina Harun and Siti Zailah Mohd Yusoff as the new minister and deputy minister of women, family and community development mainly because their track record does not inspire confidence.

Veteran social activist said Ho Yock Lin said: “Given their track record (Rina as Bersatu Women’s Wing and Siti Jailah as Wanita PAS chief), they have not really been advocating gender rights, it is only natural that the public raises these kinds of reservations.”

Critics had previously pointed out that Rina did not contribute much when she was the Rural Development minister during the Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration.

Meanwhile Siti Zailah was criticised for her infamous statement in 2013, where she had suggested a female dress code to prevent indecent dressing in public. She reportedly said such a move would also curb rising levels of sex crimes and prevent sexual harassment.

“To be honest we are not confident at all (with their appointments). Just go and check out the past track record of the PAS representative, what’s her ‘style’. 

“She was the one who said that women were asking for sexual harassment because of the way they dress. But it has been proven that even with women dressed in tudung or headscarf, they still experience sexual harassment,” said Ho who is AWAM’s (All Women’s Action Society Malaysia) former president.

“The women representation (in the Cabinet) are conservative, not progressive, not people-centric, not gender-sensitive... this is not the kind of women representative we want to have in the government.

“If we have a minister, full or deputy, who does not fully understand women or gender, then we are not confident that they can perform and progress with women-related issues,” she added.

Ho said it was imperative that laws are enacted to curb sexual harassment as the country has for decades gone by without having laws to regulate such offences.

“Ever since I was an activist 20 years ago, we have been pushing for laws to punish sexual harassment, but we still haven’t seen any. With Perikatan Nasional (PN) will they end up sweeping this under the carpet?” she said.

Ho then questioned if the two candidates were chosen due to the lack of talent in the coalition.

If this was the reason, she suggested that the Prime Minister should have appointed someone outside of the political circle, just like what he did with the appointment of the finance minister and religious affairs minister.

“There are many capable candidates from non-governmental organisations who can head the ministry,” she said, suggesting the likes of the former commissioner of CEDAW  (Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women) Mary Shanti Dairiam.

End child marriage

Expressing similar doubts on the current Cabinet line-up, Sisters in Islam (SIS) raised fears over whether Rina and Siti Zailah would continue to push for the end of child marriage in Malaysia.

“The vision to end child marriage in Malaysia is not a shared goal between SIS and PAS, one of the political parties that make up the PN government.

“Women’s groups have been advocating for many years to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18-years for all girls in Malaysia without exception, and yet, we have a political party in the new federal government that deems child marriage as a necessity,” the group said.

In 2018, it was reported that state agencies in Kelantan had agreed through a roundtable discussion that underage marriage is a necessity and in accordance with Islamic laws.

The roundtable reportedly rejected two United Nations conventions on children and women, which did not allow for children under 18 to be married, their reason being the conventions were not suitable for Muslims in Kelantan as there were social ills.

The current Islamic Family Law Enactment of Kelantan sets the minimum age for marriage at 18 for boys and 16 for girls.

The women’s rights group also reminded the government that Malaysia had made commitments towards achieving Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

SIS pointed out that among the 17 goals, one of them is about gender equality and to empower all women and girls.

The targets and indicators for this goal include, and are not limited to eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation, among others.

Absence of gender equality

As for AWAM, the women’s rights group pointed out that gender equality is sadly not apparent in the new Cabinet.

“We are disappointed that no real attempt was made to improve women’s participation in decision making in parliament.

“The number of women in the cabinet, five full ministers and four deputy ministers, has not increased.

“With the overall number of positions increased in the Cabinet, the ratio of women to men in Cabinet has, in fact, dropped,” said its programme and operation manager Nisha Sabanayagam.

She added that this gap in gender equality is made even more obvious when one takes into account that 2020 is an important year for women on a global scale.

She cited that it is the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the most advanced blueprint for achieving gender equality in the world, and Malaysia is one of 189 countries that will be reporting in New York, in September this year, of progress made in commitments towards gender equality.

“(This year) also marks 10 years since the establishment of United Nation (UN) Women, and the 20th anniversary of the UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.

“It is imperative that we have more women decision-makers in the country, especially so in these trying times for our country,” she said.

Apart from these concerns, AWAM has also urged those in the newly formed Cabinet to continue with proposed reforms such as the introduction of a new stand-alone Sexual Harassment Bill, the Anti-Stalking Bill and amendments to the Employment Act 1955 to introduce paternity leave, anti-discrimination policies and offer longer maternity leave.

“The only step left is to table these policies in Parliament,” she said.

Sumitra Visvanathan, Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) executive director,  also weighed in demanding for the new Cabinet ministers to tell of how they intend to continue these reform efforts.

“These reforms would improve the lives of millions of Malaysians — and therefore must persist,” she said.

Apart from this, Sumitra also expressed disappointment that women’s representation in the Cabinet continues to be underrepresented.

“But with the way the government was formed, talking about representation seems hollow. Nonetheless, we are disappointed to see women continuing to be underrepresented — only 15.6 per cent of ministers are women,” she said.

Earlier this week, Ampang MP and former PKR vice-president Zuraida Kamaruddin had admitted that there were only nine women MPs in the new coalition which she has deserted PH to join.

She reportedly said it is difficult to reach the 30 per cent quota which was previously mooted by the PH government.

She, however, said that the 30 per cent quota can be achieved through the appointment of senators.

The previous PH administration had the most female representation in history with over 20 ministers and deputy ministers.