Malaysia’s Backwaters: Women and Children’s Rights

After two decades of struggle for democracy, Anwar Ibrahim finally became the 10th prime minister of Malaysia last November. His election comes with very high expectations on human and civil rights reforms. However, after more than 100 days in power, Anwar’s promises of justice have yet to be translated into effective measures. Malaysia acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1995. However, women and children’s rights have been addressed only sporadically and this government has yet to start the democratic revolution it promised.

Scandals in every layer of state and society continue to expose the institutional violence and social injustice that women and children are victim to, and there are a plethora of concerns. According to UNICEF, Malaysia registers at least 1,500 child marriages per year and the minimum marriage age of 18 has yet to be implemented in numerous states. Women who expose sexual abuse and harassment continue to be stigmatized in the media, societally, and institutionally, while the legal system to redress the injustice is dysfunctional. Moral policing of women’s behavior also remains a concern, as indicated by a February incident involving a woman being refused entry to a police station over “inappropriate” clothing.

The period spot checks and groin-padding by teachers exposed in 2021 are still in practice, and cases of sexual violence and rape in schools are recurrent. Sexual education remains elusive and access to reproductive health counseling and structures are extremely limited while teen pregnancy, incest, sexual violence, and vulnerability to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) remain very high. Eight out of the nine children’s rights issues raised by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) in 2004 have yet to be addressed (almost 20 years later), including but not limited to the need for protection of marginalized children, such as those living with HIV/AIDS; low-income communities, people with disabilities, migrants without papers, and indigenous children and orphans. Other rights yet to be addressed are accessibility to basic needs, such as health and clean water for all children, and the right to a high-quality education.

The new government missed its opportunity to finally implement the minimum 30 percent women’s political participation quota as recommended by CEDAW. Today, women’s representation remains limited and only 30 out of 222 members of parliament are women (13.6 percent). The cabinet counts only 5 women for 22 men, or only 18 percent of ministers are women. In absence of greater representation for women, hopes for inclusive public policies are doomed. However, the common reproduction of gender bias by women should not be ignored, particularly in conservative, heteronormative, and patriarchal societies like Malaysia. As highlighted by the World Wonderers Women Up! 2022 report on women’s political participation, greater representation is urgently needed, as much as education and promotion of gender equality and women and children’s rights in general.

The absence of civic education and the idea that human rights are Western inventions (a vision promoted by Mahathir Mohamad prior to his political revamping in 2018) have led to the internationalization of the misconception that there is conflict between Malay—or Malaysian—culture and human rights. These factors, and the widely spread idea that equality between not only genders but also between ethnic groups would be detrimental to the Malay majority and to Islamic principles, led to the 2018 uproar when the government (then led by Mahathir) announced that Malaysia would ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The intersectionality, or combination, of prejudicial factors make some communities particularly vulnerable to women and children’s rights abuse. Indigenous, low socioeconomic status, refugees, foreign workers, orphans, and stateless individuals are most at risk. While the entire Malaysian society bears the responsibility to uphold human rights and protect its most vulnerable populations, the Ministry of Women and Children and the Ministry of Home Affairs (which oversees the Departments of Immigration and Registration) play a particular role. One of the key persisting issues in Malaysia is the lack of a proper system of registration for children. A child with no birth certificate or a child whose Malaysian ancestry cannot be proved (as is the case for most orphans/foundlings) will not be able to obtain documents, will be considered stateless, and will have no rights to education, health, or any state-provided services.

Access to registration services for populations living in the interior of the Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak (Insular Malaysia) is extremely difficult and children’s births may not be registered. Some Orang Asli groups (indigenous populations of peninsular Malaysia) have been marginalized by state administrations and are reluctant to seek any services. This also applies to the third generation of Indian Tamil children, whose parents failed to obtain citizenship when the country became independent. Also, the social stigma against children born to unmarried parents (whether Malaysian or not) may lead to parents not willing or meeting resistance by the administration to register the child at birth. Finally, as they are not able to prove their ancestry, most orphans are considered stateless. The federal administration has abandoned its responsibility toward them as it systematically refuses to apply the Federal Constitution of Malaysia’s provision that grants citizenship to all foundlings/orphans.

In most cases, the reluctance of the administration to recognize children as citizens illustrates the ethnonationalist culture cultivated by the state since independence. The rhetoric, according to which the Malay identity is under threat from not only the influence of non-Malay and non-Muslim minorities, but also from the influx of migrants and refugees, is widely spread. This has been the core of propaganda from Malay-based political parties. The Departments of Immigration and Registration are at the forefront of this rhetoric and are self-proclaimed defenders of the Malay identity—the obtention of citizenship is a political chip. Added to this is the absence of an adequate system of registration and tracking of all orphans or unaccompanied minors (who may have been separated from their parents or whose status is unknown) found in Malaysia.

To date, the number and location of stateless children and stateless orphans in peninsular Malaysia is unknown. And the tracking of these children is impossible. In this context, unaccompanied stateless children and stateless orphans are to be found in detention by immigration (to date, about 800 of them including 20 below the age of 3 months), in state-run orphanages (only 1,500 places), in private-state-sponsored orphanages (number unknown), in illegally operating orphanages (no control), or simply left to their own devices. These children do not receive adequate care. In a legal limbo, stateless children in general and stateless orphans will remain invisible and living in the margins of society, becoming the ideal prey for abuse, online baby selling, trafficking, child labor and sexual exploitation

Successive Malaysian governments have entirely failed a large segment of the population, endangering generations of Malaysians by reproducing institutional violence, perpetuating discriminative practices, and denying women and children their rights. It remains to be seen whether Anwar Ibrahim will be the true reformer he promised to be.

Sophie Lemière is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.