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Post Reflection | Women’s Tribunal 2021
“In 2009 I was again arrested by a religious department officer on the grounds of dressing and behaving like a woman in public, and I was abused and beaten during the arrest”. Witness #23, PADDY
“Our problems were: I had no opportunity to ask for higher wages or shorter hours. It was a take-it-or-leave-it situation. If I took sick leave, I would not be paid”. Witness #25, MEENAMBAL
Over two days, on the 27th and 28th of November 2021, with an audience of 3,850 viewers online, 26 witnesses shared, before a panel of judges, compelling testimonies on gender discrimination and violations they had experienced.
Women’s groups in Malaysia had created their own court, Malaysia’s first Women’s Tribunal (WT) to reimagine justice, holding space for 26 courageous women who came forward to seek justice for themselves and every woman in Malaysia.
I have been involved in advocacy for women’s rights since the 80s, a pioneer volunteer with Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), which opened Malaysia’s first women’s shelter for victim-survivors of domestic violence in 1982, and then as WAO’s first Executive Director in 1996. At WAO I learnt the importance of women’s lived experiences, as they took a brave decision to leave violent relationships. Their narratives informed our advocacy.
We also learnt that these personal experiences of discrimination are deeply connected to the larger social, political and economic forces that negatively impact women's lives. A visible and joint advocacy was urgent as these forces must be challenged.
Women’s groups in Malaysia have always worked together as a coalition to hold the community and the government accountable; we have utilized almost every form of advocacy; from press statements to petitions, to memorandums, to marches and to protests. While the government did concede to pass new laws or reform policies, the state in 2021 was not responding positively to women’s groups. The cabinet and parliament were embroiled in the after-effects of the 2020 Sheraton Move when a new government came to power through the backdoor when some MPs crossed over and no longer gave their support to the government of the day. We were in a political crisis.
Furthermore, the 2021 Global Gender Gap report published by the World Economic Forum ranked Malaysia 112 out of 156. We were 104 in 2020. Within ASEAN we were positioned last - 10 out of the 10 countries in ASEAN. This was shocking and dire.
We had to do something different to get everyone’s attention and platform the voices of affected women central to our advocacy.
So, on 22nd January 2021, I shot off a message to the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination) Advocacy WhatsApp group saying:
“Good morning! Thinking out loud, should we start thinking about how we can continue to highlight CEDAW recommendations, and the govt's commitment via a *women's tribunal*. Just pick a few key issues and organise women's testimonies?”
I went on further to emphasize “I am not saying do not engage (government), we (will) continue engaging critically but let’s approach CEDAW advocacy in a different way. If there is enough interest let's convene via zoom and start plotting to present it to our respective organisations for approval”
The women’s groups liked this idea and within two weeks a Steering Committee made up of 14 women’s organisations began its work. Our first step was to raise funds, hire staff, and set up our operations. Fortunately, people were receptive to this idea and the funds came in from different sources, among them, Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW), the Canadian High Commission in Malaysia, the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) and one generous individual.
The women’s tribunal is not an original idea, this process has been used globally since the 70s, but it was the first in Malaysia. The Steering Committee (SC) relied on past experiences and guidelines that were well documented in SPEAK AND BE HEARD, Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) Guide to Women’s Tribunals, 2016. Furthermore, Meera Samanther, one of the Co -Conveners and I brought our experience from organising the Bersih People’s Tribunal in 2013.
Malaysia has made numerous commitments to promote and uphold women’s rights on the international stage. Malaysia pledged not only to eliminate all forms of discrimination by ratifying to CEDAW in 1995 but had made a global commitment to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) ILO conventions, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
We wanted to platform ALL of the women’s rights be they civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights, to take on an intersectional approach. Although Malaysia continues to fall short of these obligations, these standards provided us with a framework, a standard to assess Malaysia’s performance.
From the start, we did acknowledge that people’s tribunals “do not have the authority or power of the state”. It is not a formal legal process, it has no official power to issue legally binding decisions or enforce state responsibility. But we were confident that our WT would find new ways to speak truth to power. We believed that our WT would have the moral authority as our panel of eminent judges were experts in women’s human rights and have been working on the ground for over a combined total of eighty years!
We strove to adhere to our two core guiding principles of inclusivity and intersectionality during all of the planning. Through our networks, the Issues & Evidence Collection Committee reached out to women from all over Malaysia, and we supported witnesses in their choice of language and mode of delivery. Some chose to pre-record their testimonies, others chose to be anonymous, and most chose to deliver their testimonies live, over the two days.
Being the first virtual Women’s Tribunal, our learning curve was a sharp one. After a couple of technical blunders and several rehearsals, we managed to make sure that the zoom presentations, together with the sign language and language interpretation, were seamless. Since the zoom facility was in Kuala Lumpur, we had to ensure that when witnesses zoomed in from other parts of Malaysia, it would be accessible on all social media platforms. Finally, we just had to pray to the goddesses that the internet would not fail us.
On the first day of the WT, the opening ceremony went on without a hitch. The moment the Presiding Officer, Grazele Jenarun from Sabah, attired in her indigenous dress, made her welcome address, we knew we were hitting the right notes.
At the opening ceremony, the presence of Ms Gladys Acosta, Chairperson of the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), live from Peru, and Ms Heisoo Shin, Vice-Chairperson of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), live from Korea, elevated the WT. Gladys shared that, “we always need to hear the voices of women on critical issues which affect their lives. To understand the suffering behind the violations of human rights of women and girls, we need to open these kinds of spaces." It was poignant that Heisoo Shin was one of the organisers of the historic Women's International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan's Military Sexual Slavery, commonly known as the Tokyo Tribunal, held in 2000.
As witnesses gave their testimonies there was not a dry eye in the room. Women shared their vulnerabilities and determination to seek justice not only for themselves but for all women experiencing discrimination. The two days flew the internet did not fail us, although one witness could not get to a designated facility but spoke from her car using her phone!
The Star journalist S Indramalar in her article “Tribunal of conscience: Women tell their stories in hope of better laws and protection” dated 3rd December 2021, describes it well when she wrote:
“The 26 women who presented their testimonies – either live / through a video recording or via a proxy – were as diverse as the violations they’d been through.
But they all shared one thing in common: The law, enforcement agencies and/or government have failed to protect and safeguard them from harm nor provide them with the justice they seek.
And so, while they continue to push, hope and wait for justice, they have turned to the Tribunal to share their stories, with the hope that it could be a way forward for their voices to be heard”.
The advocates came next and they delivered well too! The advocates made up of activists, lawyers and academics were well-versed in the respective issues. They reflected on the witness testimonies to give the legal and social-economic context for each issue and made recommendations.
On 29th December we mounted an online Arts Festival to complement the Tribunal. “Reimagining Justice, Reimagining Advocacy” invited the Malaysian public to imagine a Malaysia where women’s bodily autonomy and exercise of freedoms are accepted norms. Although there were technical hitches, we enjoyed the performances by talented local performers.
On Saturday 4th December the judges, Mary Shanthi Dairiam, Zainah Anwar and Nadia Malyanah delivered their findings and recommendations and behind the scenes, a team of volunteers assisted the judges in fine-tuning and editing their presentations, working till 4 am on 4th December. The judges’ presentations were powerful and substantive.
Right after the judges’ presentations, we had a representative from the government who agreed to give us a pre-recorded statement. The closing Speech by YB Datuk Wira Mas Ermieyati Haji Samsudin, the Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Department in charge of Parliament and Law was promising. She pledged to deliver on a Sexual Harassment Act! It was unfortunate that the Ministry of Women turned down our invitation to send their officers to witness the WT.
In my view, mounting the WT did strengthen our lobbying efforts and did get the attention of the public. It was both a meaningful and empowering exercise for witnesses themselves to be heard and believed. We forged friendships that will prevail, as the working committees diligently met every week to plan and implement.
As women’s rights activists, we know that the road to substantive equality in Malaysia is long and challenging. We have always known that women have to walk that extra mile to claim our rights, be vigilant, and hold the line so that hard-earned rights are not rolled back. The WT strengthened our commitment and passion for women’s rights.
I remain hopeful and energised, I have great faith in women, our activism and our feminist movements. Despite the backlash and the cruel actions of the patriarchy, women all over the world are joining forces and leading the resistance fearlessly.
“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” Arundhati Roy.
Ivy N Josiah, Convener