There is no doubt women are making visible shifts on a once predominantly patriarchal platform – for instance, in education and the corporate workforce. However, when it comes to women’s health, public discourse still continues to revolve around their physical demeanour and general medical checks.
The more pressing issues of sexual and health rights of women are often masked under the cloak of religious regimens and tradition, and for this, we may be quick to condone discrimination.
Take for example, the recent 69th session of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in Geneva; Malaysia was criticised by representatives from other Muslim countries for allowing female genital mutilation (FGM). The country was urged to abolish the practice and to dissociate it with the Islamic religion.
Countries like Bangladesh and Egypt highlighted that the practice of FGM is not Islamic, but rather an African tradition, and even so, is no longer practised in many African and Muslim countries.
Naéla Gabr, Vice-Chairperson of CEDAW, mentioned that, “FGM is not compatible with Islam. We are forbidding it and we are putting penalties on the person who is doing it, practising it – whether it is the doctor or the family.”
The CEDAW committee repeatedly reminded the Malaysian delegation – led by Suriani Ahmad, Secretary-General of the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development – that in a context of plural legal systems, the civil law – instead of traditional and customary laws, including religious laws – should be recognised as the law of the land. The state is obliged to respect, protect and fulfil “women’s rights to non-discrimination and the enjoyment of equality”.
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Malaysia urged to stop FGMInconsistencies between the civil law and Shariah law are yet to be reconciled in Malaysia. In the CEDAW session, reference was made to Malaysia’s 2009 fatwa on female genital mutilation (FGM), which made it mandatory for women to undergo circumcision – unless it brings harm to the girl – as it was part of Islamic teachings.
The procedure was also deemed “harmless” and is done under the medical guidelines drawn up by Malaysia’s Ministry of Health (MOH).
This raised concern among the coalition as “the principle behind the mandatory circumcision, being to ‘control’ women’s sexual urges, was not disclosed by the government.”
The last time Malaysia submitted its report to CEDAW Committee was in 2006. This is only the second time it is undergoing a CEDAW review, after a 12-year delay.
The elevation of fatwas over civil law is a discriminatory act that deprives women of equal rights. It is deemed as undermining democracy and the social contract that holds people together.
But the Ministry of Health (MOH) representative has maintained its stand that fatwas fall under the purveyance of Shariah law, and female circumcision is not considered FGM, and it is compulsory, medicalised, and harmless.
However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) differs in its view, and asserts that FGM is painful and may lead to infection, infertility, painful sex and other complications including death. It defines FGM as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons".
Women’s healthcare rights: A global issueMalaysia is not alone.
Despite the criticism during the CEDAW meeting, many other countries still have fatwas insisting on women conforming to the blueprint – get circumcised and then get married. In fact, many children who have undergone FGM have given up schooling for early marriages.
Rose, a farmer from the outskirts of Nairobi, who had visited a clinic for circumcision, said, “An uncircumcised woman was considered uncultured. Such a woman was considered a sexual disaster, tempting men to sleep with her.”
In Somalia, 98% of young girls undergo FGM, which is seen as a rite of passage into womanhood.
Soraya from Somalia recalled the day when her mother told her she was ready for the gift – to be a real woman. She woke up on the surgical table and felt she had lost her right as a woman. Today, she speaks out, challenging the oppressive act, and stands up for women’s empowerment.
Women’s reproductive rights are human rightsThe Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) stressed that everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, has human rights, yet, Malaysia’s healthcare policies are seen to be less inclusive – putting the health of LGBTs and illegal female foreign workers at risk.
“Regrettably, human rights and sexual violations of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) persons continue regarding education, employment, healthcare and insurance. LGBT persons have been denied their right to housing due to their identity and have suffered violations of their right to dignity upon arrest or detention by enforcement agencies,” Suhakam said in a statement.
Suhakam claimed that Malaysia had yet to implement many concluding recommendations by the UN women’s rights committee since 2006.
Female foreigners have become a critical ethical issue in the country. Not only are they not provided for adequately, but they are often put at a vulnerable state, especially when they do not have legal documents. Clinics and hospitals are required to report such “illegals” when they seek care.
At the heart of human dignity, lies the entitlement of women to their reproductive rights – for when a woman is denied her reproductive rights, she is also denied obstetric care, birth control, information on reproductive health, or safe abortion. In short, she has lost the freedom to direct her own life, protect her health, and exercise her human rights.
When it comes to contraception, there is stigmatisation and not all women have access to it. According to Dr H. Krishna Kumar, past-president of the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA), “A woman's right to contraception is determined by national policies on their age, marital status, and other factors that may not be relevant to the woman herself.”
Call-to-action: Time to restore women’s dignity and freedom
“We hope that healthcare is treated differently from other forms of assets and services. We need to ensure that the right to health is not denied to any group, including those that do not have their full rights. The government, as the ruling body of the country, has this responsibility and needs to address these issues seriously,” said Dr Krishna.
As a ratifying member to CEDAW, Malaysia is committed to initiating actions that will eliminate all discrimination against women. As a collective society, Malaysia stands at an advantageous position to fill the gaps of women’s rights and to initiate more comprehensive discussions and research on this subject.
Given the resources and expertise in healthcare, the country can champion women’s health rights in the region. In the interests of progress, there is an urgent need to review existing legislation and ensure that women receive more equitable healthcare – perhaps learning from other countries.
As we move forward and celebrate International Women’s day, let us reclaim the status of women, who too, enrich our existence. Let us embrace the fairer sex as equals. MIMS
“I wish we weren’t fighting all the time to protect women’s rights, to protect women’s health” – Hillary Clinton
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#HealsInHeels—a special feature of seven #WOW inspiring women who #DareTo challenge the status quo, and their empowering stories—throughout the month of March. Video by: Content Marketing, MIMS