by YBhg. Tan Sri Othman bin Hashim, Chairman, Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM)
Distinguished Guests, Participants, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am honoured to be here and to address you at the opening of the Women’s Tribunal, Malaysia. This is the first of its kind and serves as a historic culmination of women’s human rights advocacy in Malaysia as women’s human rights defenders collectively reclaim policy spaces in civil, political, economic, and social spheres. I would like to congratulate the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) and the Women’s Tribunal Steering Committee for successfully realising this historic event.
I would like to start off my opening speech with an excerpt from the CEDAW [UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women] expert during the CEDAW Committee’s observations in 2018:
A dual legal system is not an excuse for regression. A dual legal system should exercise preference for what is positive, not discriminatory. Malaysia needs to build a tolerant and peaceful civic space where all can co-exist . . .
You need a Freedom of Information Act to replace the Official Secrets Act. You indicate no commitment to progressive scholarship and law reform. I am not sure this is the way the state party should handle its obligations under international treaties. It took 12 years for you to report and you still have no answers. Even Saudi Arabia is changing.
It was an embarrassing five-hour process. The CEDAW Committee urged Malaysia to summon the political commitment to make a difference and remedy the dismal situation by setting a timeframe with clear objectives and phases to move forward, dialogues with women’s rights groups and progressive scholarship that reconciles religion and rights.
SUHAKAM repeatedly urges that the Government take concrete steps to advance fully women’s rights in Malaysia and to treat gender mainstreaming as a matter of national priority, which the government delegation indicated is not the situation during Malaysia’s recent review by the CEDAW Committee, despite gender equality being a key component of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development.
Although considerable progress has been made in improving the situation of women in Malaysia, developments have been uneven, and there have also been many setbacks. Making matters worse was Malaysia’s poor performance during the review by the CEDAW Committee composed of 23 experts, including Muslim experts on women’s issues.
Malaysia faced a barrage of challenging questions which it failed to adequately address, and this in SUHAKAM’s view is an indication that Malaysia is clearly out of step with internationally accepted norms in regard to women’s rights and non-discrimination.
SUHAKAM wishes to point out that discrimination against women still exists in laws, for example in areas such as marital rape, forced religious conversion of their children, the right to confer citizenship to their children in certain circumstances, and laws pertaining to permanent residence for a foreign wife, indicating that a lot remains to be done.
SUHAKAM believes it is necessary that the Government adopt a rights-based approach to correct existing discriminatory laws and policies. SUHAKAM will continue to promote the development of non-discriminatory legislation.
We advise the Government to take meaningful steps to address remaining issues on stereotyping, harmful cultural practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and child marriage, as well as violence against women in accordance with fundamental principles of equality and non-discrimination, which the CEDAW Committee underlined appears to be growing in Malaysia in a way that undermines and reverses Malaysia’s commitment to equality and moderation.
We call on the Government to rethink how it would like to present Malaysia to the world and cannot ignore the many embarrassing comments that the country received during the review, which SUHAKAM interprets as a slight to Malaysia by the international community. A perceived indifference to the comments and advice to Malaysia will in SUHAKAM’s view affect the country’s profile at the United Nations.
As we repeatedly mention, SUHAKAM would like to work with the relevant government bodies in addressing issues concerning the human rights of women in all its facets towards realising a progressive shift for making gender equality in Malaysia a reality.
We affirm that Malaysia must not allow religion, tradition, or culture to be used as an excuse for the continued discrimination against women. It remains to be seen whether Malaysia will show an improved level of commitment and progress in the promotion and protection of women’s rights in our rapidly changing global and national scenario.
It is my hope that you will take advantage of this opportunity to come up with valuable recommendations and conclusions. I look forward to open and constructive debates, and wish you a most successful session.