Malaysia Women and Girls Forum kicks off with spotlight on bodily autonomy, sex education

Student activist Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam, Permatang Pauh MP Nurul Izzah Anwar and Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin spotlight bodily autonomy at the Malaysia Woman and Girls Forum today. – Pictures by Yusof Mat Isa, Choo Choy May and Bernama
Student activist Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam, Permatang Pauh MP Nurul Izzah Anwar and Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin spotlight bodily autonomy at the Malaysia Woman and Girls Forum today. – Pictures by Yusof Mat Isa, Choo Choy May and Bernama

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KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 17 — The second annual Malaysia Women and Girls Forum today brought together a line-up of stakeholders involved in the social and economic advancement of women and girls in Malaysia.

The day-long forum focused on bodily autonomy to ensure Malaysian females have access to this important human right. 

This year’s theme was Bodily Autonomy: Ensuring Rights & Choices for Malaysia’s Women & Girls.

The virtual forum was officiated by Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin and continued with keynote and plenary sessions by notable figures from various organisations focusing on women’s rights and empowerment. 

In his keynote speech, Khairy said violence against women is a health issue, a violation of women's human rights, their bodily integrity, and their sexual and reproductive rights. 

“Abused women are more likely than non-abused women to engage in high-risk behaviour, such as smoking and substance use disorders. 

“Furthermore, the chronic stress caused by violence is linked to higher rates of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, mental health disorders and infections for abused women.”

Khairy noted that the wellbeing of Malaysia’s women and girls is the wellbeing of Malaysia itself. 

“When a country fails its women, that country fails. 

“We cannot progress nor make advancements as a nation if we do not have the full participation and properly invest in our female population.”

Commenting on bodily autonomy, Khairy said it is a promise that is legally endorsed by the laws here for each and every Malaysian. 

However, he said there are essential social and legal gaps that need to be bridged when it comes to women and girls. 

“These gaps can and will be filled when all of us as a society decide to do better.” 

Among the other speakers were United Nations resident coordinator for Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei Darussalam Karima El Korri, Kuantan MP and Parliamentary Select Committee member for Women, Children and Social Development Issues Fuziah Salleh, Permatang Pauh MP Nurul Izzah Anwar and student activist Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam. 

Gender-based violence amid Covid-19 

A plenary session moderated by Nurul Izzah looked at the current scenario and root causes of gender-based violence against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The panel, which included women from various women organisations focused on the role, perspectives and recommendations of civil society in centring the rights and choices of women and girls in Malaysia. 

Women's Aid Organisation (WAO) Sumitra Visvanathan opened the session by sharing some worrying statistics from the organisation’s recent survey to understand what Malaysians think about gender equality and violence against women. 

According to Sumitra, the survey showed that the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the gender gap in areas such as gender-based violence; women’s employment rights in the workplace; sexual, reproductive and women’s health as well as children and girl’s rights. 

“Since the pandemic began in March 2020 until now, WAO has addressed 15,000 cases of violence against women and girls.”

Sumitra said the survey showed that gender-based violence is much more prevalent today than previously documented. 

“Disrespect for bodily autonomy and violence-endorsing attitudes are prevalent and persistent drivers of gender-based violence.” 

To end such violence, Sumitra called on Malaysians to address violence-endorsing attitudes in society. 

Citing a study she said that violence-endorsing attitudes justify, excuse, minimise or trivialise physical, sexual and other forms of violence against women or blame or hold women at least partly responsible for the violence perpetrated against them. 

“Such attitudes are often expressed by influential individuals or held by a substantial number of people which create a culture in which violence at best is not clearly condemned.”

Referring back to the survey, Sumitra said they found that only half of Malaysians are likely to oppose violence-endorsing attitudes and support gender equality. 

Starting sex education from young 

Young and vocal Ain put a spotlight on the importance of comprehensive sexuality education in schools during her discussion session with Spot Community Programme founder Siti Aishah Hassan Hasri. 

The 17-year-old highlighted the issues of rape jokes and asked Siti Aishah to comment on how does the normalisation of such jokes in school violates bodily autonomy.

“Rape joke, unfortunately, normalises sexual violence as something that’s funny and permissible.

“It also normalises the violation of boundaries and the right to do what you want to do with your body, the choice to have personal and physical space as well as the choice not to participate.” 

Echoing similar sentiments, Ain agreed that rape jokes play a role in normalising such criminal acts and may even lead to rape threats. 

Ain put a spotlight on sex education and systemic misogyny in public schools early this year after complaining in a TikTok video that a teacher had joked about rape. 

The video sparked a nationwide debate and prompted other girls and women to share similar experiences.

The movement then escalated on Twitter with a hashtag #MakeSchoolASaferPlace that set Twitter abuzz and appeared among the top 10 trending topics in the country and eventually gained support from prominent personalities in Malaysia. 

Commenting on the movement, Siti Aishah said such initiatives are vital in provoking thoughts, promoting healthy and safe conversations on bodily autonomy.

“When our society decides to honour bodily autonomy across all social aspects, we can expect a lot of systemic changes.”

Organised by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Malaysia on behalf of the United Nations in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam the forum identifies, engages and tracks key social, economic and legislative changes that are needed to accelerate the rights and well-being of Malaysia’s women and girls.

The topics that were discussed under the umbrella of bodily autonomy at the forum included bodily autonomy as a core pillar of human rights, comprehensive sexuality education, ending violence against women, the media’s role, and youth and social narrative.

*Malay Mail is the official media partner for the Malaysia Women and Girls Forum 2021.

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