Gender Equality in Malaysia

Since independence in 1957, Malaysia has made remarkable progress in poverty reduction and human development. By 2005 it had achieved all the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Throughout much of the post-independence era, Malaysian women and girls have enjoyed equal opportunities with men and boys in access to basic social services. Women have been increasingly mainstreamed into development processes, and by playing a variety of roles at the family, community, and society levels, they have been able to contribute to national development and prosperity.

In the earlier years, the issue of gender inequality is one which has been publicly reverberating through society for decades. The different religions and cultures of Malaysia have many positive aspects in women’s lives. However, it is also the case that women are discriminated against by their religions and cultures, which perpetuate stereotyped gender roles and protectionist and patriarchal attitudes towards women. First at all, the “family” remains culturally at the centre of Malaysian life.

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A 1999 WAO report, ‘Monitoring the Fulfilment of the Malaysian Government’s Obligation to Women’s Equality: A Baseline Report on marriage and Divorce’, shows how Malaysian women face much discrimination in the area of marriage and divorce, through attitudes towards expected roles of women, and through the formulation, interpretation and implementation laws. Within marriage, many women are expected to stay in the home, as homemakers and mothers. If women are given the choice to work, many are forced to give their salaries to their husbands.

Many women who work before marriage have been ordered to give up their jobs when they marry. The re-naming of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs reinforces women’s place in the home and family life, while women’s other roles in society become secondary. Women who choose not to work also find themselves discriminated against. For example, the Domestic Violence Act (1994) does not protect individuals who live together but are not married according to civil or customary law, or victims of dating violence.

In short, the Domestic Violence Act criminalizes violence against women, but only if you are a married women. Much progress has been made to ensure women’s advancement in Malaysia, particularly after the early 1990s. Successive national development plans have included major policy initiatives for the advancement of women in almost every sector. Of particular note are the higher levels of educational attainment of women, their increased labour force participation in higher paying occupations, their greater involvement in business activities, and their improved health status.

The Government of Malaysia recognizes the important role women play in contributing to the development of the nation. The full commitment of the Government to achieve gender equality is reflected in the formulation and adoption of numerous policies and measures taken to promote women’s development and address gender issues, including the establishment of a Cabinet Committee on Gender Equality in 2004. This Cabinet Committee is the highest level of institutional mechanism and provides policy direction as well as monitors the implementation of strategies and programmes for women and family development.

Considerable progress has been made in gender equality and women’s empowerment in Malaysia. Gender disparities in the country have declined with gains in health, education, economic activity, and the empowerment of women. Improvements in social infrastructure, accompanied by rapid economic growth, have also provided the enabling environment for the decline in gender disparities. To further advance equality between women and men, it is imperative to generate accurate and relevant data that capture gender-related changes in society over time.

Such gender sensitive data not only make gender biases more visible but also provide a more accurate measure of gender inequality, thereby facilitating the formulation of more effective policies aimed at integrating women’s perspective in the development process. In order to track gender-related changes in Malaysia over time, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (MWFCD), in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), has constructed a gender-related development index, referred to as Malaysia’s Gender Gap Index (MGGI).

Designed to measure and monitor the extent of gender inequality in Malaysia, the MGGI comprises four component sub-dimensions covering the areas of health, education, economic activity, and the empowerment of women. It is hoped that the trends and changes in gender disparities measured by the MGGI will lead to the development of strategies that will ensure both men and women receive equal access to resources in health, education, and economic activity as well as enjoy equal opportunity for political growth.

This publication quantifies the progress that Malaysia has made in achieving gender equality over the span of a generation, and the challenges ahead. It shows that gender inequality declined markedly over the period 1980–2004. This improvement stemmed from the improved health status of women and the increased levels of girls in post-secondary and higher education. Investing in girls’ education provides them with social and economic opportunities and choices throughout their lifetime. Reductions in gender inequality have also come about as Malaysian women have benefited from modern sector employment opportunities.

One challenge, however, is to increase the proportion of women in higher professional positions. Another relates to increasing the participation of Malaysian women in political life at all levels—a challenge that even the most mature democracies still face. The Ninth Malaysia Plan (2006–2010) [9MP], which is much bolder than previous 5-year plans in terms of its targets for gender equality and women’s empowerment, proposes new policies and strategies to deepen the mainstreaming of women in development.

These include, inter alia, equipping women with necessary skills and knowledge to enable them to be more competitive and versatile to meet the challenges of a knowledge-based economy; reviewing the legal and institutional constraints that inhibit women’s greater participation in the economy; and perhaps, most critically, setting a target of 30 per cent of women in decision making positions in government. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is pleased to have partnered with the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (MWFCD) in developing the Malaysia’s Gender Gap Index (MGGI).

The MGGI makes extensive use of Malaysia’s sex-disaggregated data. Its primary purpose is to monitor gender disparities between men and women in development outcomes and to track changes over time. It provides a broad measure of gender equity that supports monitoring progress towards the achievement of the Third Millennium Development Goal (MDG)—promoting gender equality and empowering women (MDG3). At the same time, special social, economic, and training programmes have been implemented by the Government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to reduce poverty rates among women, especially for single mothers.

These include provision of microcredit, information and communications technology (ICT), and skills training. Moreover, the establishment in 2001 of the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (MWFCD), and, in 2004, the Cabinet Committee on Gender Equality, has provided greater coherence to policies for mainstreaming women in development. Investments in girls’ education and women’s health lead to high returns in a broad range of sectors that contribute towards national development.

However, eliminating gender disparities in education and health is a necessary but not sufficient condition for eliminating other gender inequalities. For example, gender inequalities still exist in the economic and political spheres. The empowerment of women, through increased political representation, and through a greater proportion of positions in higher paying jobs, will further reduce gender gaps. In general terms, the evolution of female employment has followed the structural changes in the Malaysian economy.

As the economy has shifted from its reliance on agriculture to an emphasis on industry and services, so, too, has the distribution of female employment changed from a predominance in the agricultural sector to the secondary industrial sector. Since 1990, there has been a particularly rapid increase in the share of female employment in the wholesale and retail trade, hotels, and restaurants sector and the financial services sector. Women’s participation in the labour force raised steadily from 44. 7 per cent in 1995 to 47. 3 per cent in 2004.

In 2004, the MWFCD, in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), initiated a project on gender mainstreaming. One component of the project was the development of a Malaysia’s Gender Gap Index (MGGI) as a tool for monitoring trends in gender disparities over time, for evaluating the effectiveness of interventions aimed at the integration of women into the development process, and for advocacy purposes. In conclusion, women’s achievement in education, health, and earning capacity has an impact on future generations and can accelerate socio-economic development.

Higher educational attainment increases women’s income-generating capacity and is linked to reductions in maternal and child mortality. Educated girls are more likely to delay marriage and childbearing and, instead, seek ways to improve their economic prospects. This, in turn, leads to better health and education for the next generation. Thus, overall, it can be expected that reduction in gender disparities can contribute to the well-being of the population.

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