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by Nadia Malyanah 

Based on witness testimonies by Rosita binti Dollah, Noraini @ Chipang A/P Bah Itam, Siti Fida A/P Tan Kok Tow, Yaliyana binti Lenab and Puteri Nuraaina Balqis 

1. Background

1.1 Malaysia has progressed considerably over the last two decades in terms of ensuring access to education for girls and women, as reflected in the high levels of literacy and educational attainment[1] of Malaysian girls and women. In terms of educational attainment as measured by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021, Malaysia currently ranks at 70 out of 156 countries with a score of 0.994.[2] A decade ago, Malaysia was ranked at 65 for the same measure, with a score of 0.9906 out of the overall 135 countries measured.[3]   

1.2 However, these high rates of secondary and tertiary education attainment for girls and women do not directly correspond to labour participation or retention rates, as women often drop out of the workforce due to personal or family commitments. Instead, women’s participation in the workforce could be more appropriately linked to their age group: the decline in participation coincides with the typical ages when women start families, while the rise corresponds with the ages when their children reach a certain age and the women are able to return to work.[4] 

1.3 While the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on educational attainment in Malaysia is currently unknown, it is very likely that the progress in respect of the education of girls and women will be adversely affected. Public health measures to curb infection rates, including the shift to hybrid modes of learning as well as repeated school closures and reopenings, have had a disruptive impact.

1.4 Marginalised communities — especially indigenous children — have experienced some of the more severe impacts of such disruptions to their education, amplifying the vulnerability of these children. Many Orang Asli children in Peninsular Malaysia and indigenous children in East Malaysia who were living in boarding schools or homes away from their families in order to attend school had to be sent back to their families at the start of the first set of nationwide restrictions on movement, known as the Movement Control Order (MCO). Daily life continued in a relatively normal manner in their villages, but the lack of Internet access meant that participating in online learning was not an option for children living in rural locations. This caused many indigenous children in these communities to fall behind in their schoolwork and to subsequently face added challenges upon returning to face-to-face learning in their schools, as they had essentially lost out on formal education for nearly a year.[5]

1.5 Prior to the pandemic, education-related gaps between Orang Asli and non-Orang Asli had continued to persist despite near-universal literacy and school enrolment rates in Malaysia. Orang Asli students face two major struggles in school, namely high dropout rates, and low levels of academic attainment. Ministry of Education (MOE) data from 2017 revealed that the dropout rate for Orang Asli students remained as high as 26 per cent that year despite the MOE’s target to reduce this to only 8 per cent. In contrast, the national average dropout rate in the same year was only 3.4 per cent.

1.6 The Government has made attempts to institute several policies and initiatives aimed at tackling these gaps, most notably the Malaysian Education Blueprint 2021-2025. Specific initiatives geared towards improving access and equity for Orang Asli students include expanding K9 schools from two to six schools, updating the contextualised Curriculum for Asli and Penan (Kurikulum Bersepadu Orang Asli / Penan, KAP) to align with the principles and framework used in the standard national syllabus (Kurikulum Standard Sekolah Rendah, KSSR), and establishing a research centre to develop curriculum and pedagogy tailored to the needs of children from Orang Asli and other minority groups. While the attendance of Orang Asli students has shown improvement, the transition rates of these students from primary to secondary level has decreased — a reflection of how long the education gap has persisted. 

2. Findings

2.1 Issues of concern

(a) Discrimination and bullying of Orang Asli students due to racial prejudice and stigmatisation. 

2.1.1 The testimonies of four Orang Asli girls from different Orang Asli sub-ethnic groups — Rosita, Chipang, Siti Fida and Yaliyana — reveal a shared experience of growing up in school hostels away from their families in order to acquire an education. These young women spent more time with their teachers and peers, in an environment that may not be sensitive to their needs nor respectful of their cultural heritage. 

2.1.2 Another experience they shared was that their Orang Asli cultures and beliefs were disrespected and stigmatised by peers, and occasionally by teachers as well. Stories of teachers attempting to “purify” young Orang Asli students by imposing certain religious practices on them are also alarmingly common within their communities. Due to these experiences, Orang Asli girls and women might resort to leaving their identity and heritage behind or hidden, to evade or minimise bullying and stigmatisation as they go on to pursue their studies at higher levels. 

(b) Sexual harassment, sexual assault, and violation of bodily autonomy

2.1.3 The overall safety and well-being of girls and women in educational institutions also continues to be a serious concern. While it is difficult to officially quantify the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault incidents in schools and universities, the 770 anecdotal accounts received via the Save The Schools MY Instagram page and a number of high-profile cases reported over the last decade are sufficient indicators of how pervasive and persistent this concern is. 

2.1.4 Recent high-profile cases in 2021 include student activist Ain Husniza’s TikTok exposé of a rape joke allegedly made by her former physical education teacher. The media has also reported sexual harassment cases involving public universities. A majority of the survivors coming forward recount incidents of verbal and sexual harassment in their submissions to Save The Schools MY. These include “period spot checks” where a teacher (or a student under the direction of a teacher) checks whether girls are menstruating, which is an invasive practice that violates the fundamental right to bodily autonomy. Descriptions of bullying by peers or authority figures such as teachers and school staff also seem to be prevalent among the submissions, alongside narratives by a small number of survivors of child grooming, stalking and even rape. 

(c) Lack of institutional action and support

2.1.5 Unsurprisingly, survivors confide that their reports were regularly dismissed by authority figures, and perpetrators were not reprimanded or punished. The survivors also faced a backlash (such as victim-blaming attitudes) after coming forward, and did not receive any support. The overall school environment is not supportive or respectful of girls.

(d) Additional issues

2.1.6 Other long-standing issues concerning education also persist — including gender gaps in technical courses and higher education degrees, lack of accessibility of rural schools (which has now become more pertinent due to the pandemic), and lack of rights-based sex education in schools.

2.2 Rights violated/standards not adhered to/failure of duty bearers (state)

2.2.1 The four young Orang Asli women were essentially denied the right to education in a safe and secure environment — the repeated incidents of bullying and discrimination they faced led to loss of interest in schooling and eventually to poor academic performance or discontinuation of education, in some instances. In both Siti Fida and Chipang’s accounts, the bullying they had to endure was not actively stopped or even discouraged by some of their teachers, and their requests for support were often ignored, and met with inaction. However, it should be noted that some of these young women had teachers who were supportive and who made a positive impact on their school experience, as recounted by Rosita and Yaliyana. Teachers clearly play a critical role, and have the capacity to make schools safer and more inclusive for Orang Asli students if they truly understand and empathise with the struggles these students face. 

2.2.2 Additionally, these Orang Asli women were not protected from bullying and discrimination that clearly stemmed from the stigma and prejudice surrounding Orang Asli cultures and heritage. In Yaliyana’s case, a figure of authority — an ustazah — even perpetuated such damaging attitudes in the presence of Yaliyana’s peers. Fortunately, Yaliyana was able to escalate this matter to a different teacher, and the ustazah changed her attitude towards Orang Asli students after receiving counselling. 

2.2.3 There is also a clear failure by the authorities to ensure accessible education for these Orang Asli girls, as most of them related how they had to live in hostels away from their parents in order to attend school regularly. Limited access to education will likely have an adverse impact on whether students remain in school, and may ultimately be a contributory factor leading to deprivation of economic opportunities and lack of generational upward mobility in these communities. 

2.2.4 The lack of safeguards and measures to address and prevent sexual harassment and abuse in schools — as recounted by survivors via the Save The Schools MY Instagram account — is also a breach of the right to education. These survivors were clearly denied a safe, appropriate, and conducive environment as students, which then impacts their overall mental and physical safety and well-being. Harmful acts such as period spot checks were not actively prohibited by schools, as teachers actively carried out these acts in the guise of imposing discipline and ensuring obedience.

2.2.5 Testimonies from the four Orang Asli girls and the Save The Schools MY survivors pinpoint the consistent failure of school authorities to ensure their students’ safety. They failed to investigate their students’ allegations; and neglected to protect their students by addressing the backlash they faced, and disciplining perpetrators or reporting them to enforcement agencies.   

3. Recommendations[6]  

3.1 Short term (within one year)

(a) For Orang Asli communities

3.1.1 Strengthen existing programmes for Orang Asli communities — including the K9 school model, Kurikulum Bersepadu Orang Asli / Penan (KAP), and Kurikulum Kelas Dewasa bagi Ibu Bapa Murid Orang Asli dan Peribumi (KEDAP) — to address the mismatch between the home values and cultures of Orang Asli students, and the school curriculum.

3.1.2 Establish a mechanism for consultation and negotiation with local Orang Asli communities to mitigate the power imbalance between schools (which are usually headed and staffed by non-Orang Asli staff and teachers) and communities, with committed and culturally sensitive staff.

(b) For all schools

3.1.3 Prohibit all schools from carrying out harmful acts against students, including period spot checks.

3.2 Medium term (within two to three years)

(a) For Orang Asli communities

3.2.1 Build mutual trust between the Orang Asli communities and non-Orang Asli communities by equipping teachers with relevant cultural and linguistic knowledge and constructively addressing racial imbalances, biases and prejudices, with continuous professional development training programmes. More constructive conversations are needed, and both teachers and schools need to be willing to explore issues beyond their comfort zones.

(b) For all schools

3.2.2 Adopt specific guidelines on responding to violence against girls and women in all schools and universities — including prevention and protection, as well as provision of counselling services where necessary.


[1]“Statistics on Women Empowerment in Selected Domains, Malaysia, 2021”. Department of Statistics, Malaysia (DOSM), 17 November 2021.
[2]“Insight Report: Global Gender Gap Report 2021”. World Economic Forum, March 2021, p. 10.
[3] “The Global Gender Gap Report 2010”. World Economic Forum, 2010, p. 10.
[4]“Time to Care: Gender Inequality, Unpaid Care Work and Time Use Survey”. Khazanah Research Institute (KRI), October 2019, p. 12.

 [5]“Understanding the Impact of COVID-19 on Vulnerable Children & Families in Malaysia”. UNICEF Malaysia, November 2020, p. 20.

[6] These recommendations are derived primarily from the Advocate Statement entitled “Education of Orang Asli Children” prepared for the Women’s Tribunal Malaysia by Dr. Suria Angit, along with various other pertinent reports.

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