KUALA LUMPUR, March 30 — Leaders advocating for the equal treatment of women might be the norm around the world, but here, in Malaysia, many feel the government is out of sync.

For example, recent amendments to the Employment Act, especially Sections 44A and 81G, made the government look out of touch with women’s concerns.

Further, in Kelantan, the state legislature passed the Kelantan Shariah Criminal Code Enactment 2019, which — among other elements — is seen as unfairly targeting women, in particular the unmarried, cosmetics entrepreneurs, human rights defenders, sex workers, and those with a sexual identity that is deemed contrary to conservative values.

Malay Mail reached out to Sisters in Islam (SIS) and the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) to gather their thoughts on the role of the government in women’s rights, and here’s what they had to say.

The role of the government

Advocacy, legal and research unit manager of SIS, Adam Idris, told Malay Mail that the government’s recent actions demonstrated an inconsistent approach to women’s issues and rights.

He said that Putrajaya has committed through provisions in the law to improving the living standards of women.

Yet, on the other hand, the government’s actions through the laws it has passed are below par and far from comprehensive.

He added that the government remains obtuse and uncompromising when it comes to matters such as equal citizenship rights and child marriage.

“While the removal of Section 44A on the application of maternity leave will be addressed by the ministry, the removal of Section 81G was in accordance with the planned tabling of the Anti-Sexual Harrassment Bill, which has been put on hold pending a review which is necessary to ensure that an effective and survivor-centric legislation is passed.

“SIS has previously advocated for the Bill to be reviewed by the Parliamentary Special Select Committee before the second reading in this Parliament session. It has been made clear that more time is needed for our proposed amendments to be studied, considered, and hopefully, implemented in the Bill in the next parliamentary sitting,” said Adam.

WAO’s Head of Campaigns, Abinaya Mohan, told Malay Mail that while there has been some commitment made, with the aim of improving gender equality and ending violence against women, unfortunately, it is issues-based and does not apply to all forms of violence.

“There has been little political will on issues such as child marriage — there should be a very clear mandate to ban it.

“Malaysia has acceded to international instruments, such as United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) but we have not harmonised this with domestic laws and we also have reservations about crucial clauses that must be lifted in order to really achieve gender equality and an end to violence against women and girls,” she told Malay Mail.

She said that Malaysia’s current reservations about Cedaw — for example, the automatic transfer of citizenship to children born to Malaysian mothers and putting an end to child marriages — stand in the way of the country providing women with the rights they duly deserve.

“This is a serious barrier to really ensuring women here are protected and given equal opportunities.

“There is also an immediate need for a Gender Equality Bill which would see this sped up and codify efforts to achieve equality for women in Malaysia,” she said.

Both representatives from SIS and WAO agreed that the increase in maternity leave from 60 to 98 days and the addition of paternity leave of seven days is a positive move by the government.

However, they also urged the government to act faster and more decisively when it comes to safeguarding women’s rights.

“This is a good starting point. Additionally, there are more things that need to be done. The employment law that we have still needs further improvement and should follow international standards.

“In some European countries, women receive up to a year of paid maternity leave and men receive up to six months’ paid paternity leave where the government pays a percentage of their salary.

“They also receive government aid in terms of a helper to assist women during the confinement period. The applicability of the law should also be made to all women regardless of their job description, designation or wage earned,” said Adam.

Abinaya said that the move is in line with International Labour Organisation conventions, which also includes seven days of paternity leave for fathers.

“It means we are inching closer to a society that values gender equality in the home and in family life. But it is important to note that employees who earn less than RM2,000 a month will likely still be protected and will have the benefit of paid maternity leave.

“The Ministry of Human Resources has made a public statement that it will issue a Minister’s Order to ensure that the benefits of the amendments will be applicable to all regardless of salary,” she said, adding that it must be done urgently.

On the process for reporting discrimination, Abinaya said the Bill empowers the director-general of the Labour Department to investigate employer-employee disputes on discrimination, but it does not outlaw discrimination.

“It is not clearly defined nor does it include protection against discrimination against job seekers. These are all important elements of the Bill that have to be reviewed and revised,” she said.

The role of civil societies

According to Abinaya, civil societies are already doing as much as they can, working in coalitions and engaging with important stakeholders to ensure the necessary assistance reaches marginalised communities and seeing through policy changes for the wider public.

“But it is imperative that we understand the importance of a gender lens in working with issues, as very often this perspective is lacking outside women’s organisations,” she said, adding that this might even apply to engaging in national budgeting processes with a gender focus, or in research output.

Adam echoed Abinaya, saying that civil societies have always been active when it comes to spreading awareness about issues that affect the community at large, be it ending child marriage, increasing maternity leave or protecting victims of sexual harrassment.

“Campaigns are usually created to highlight issues that are faced by women, children and families in Malaysia. This is also used to push for policy change and law reforms.

“Civil societies are also pushing for change through engagement and offering consultation on issues they are focused on, ensuring policy and laws are drafted to reflect lived realities.

“However, at the end of the day, it is the government that makes policies, and amends, repeals and passes laws to implement change. They are the lawmakers as well as the policymakers who could make the most effective change,” he told Malay Mail.

Recently, amendments to the Employment Act 1955 (Act 265), which among others, proposed for paternity leave to be increased to seven days from three days currently, was approved in the Dewan Rakyat today with a majority voice vote.

Deputy Minister of Human Resources Datuk Awang Hashim, when tabling the Employment (Amendment) Bill 2021 for second reading, said the increase in paternity leave was to allow more space for men workers to manage family affairs after welcoming their child.

A total of 19 MPs from the government and Opposition blocs took part in debating the Bill with most of them touching on issues of paternity leave, maternity leave, minimum wage and forced labour.

However, concerns were raised over the amendments, imploring MoHR to address the amendment to Act 265 of the Employment Act.

In a statement, the ministry stated that a minister’s order would be issued to ensure the benefits and protections under Act 265 extend to all no matter their salary.

The ministry also said a draft order to amend the First Schedule has been prepared and assured that the order will be enforced on the same date that the Employment (Amendment) Bill 2021 comes into effect.