Thursday, September 1, 2011

Advocating for SRHR: The Malaysian Experience

The members of the Association of Women Lawyers (“AWL”) were invited to attend the panel presentation "Advocating for SRHR: The Malaysian Experience", organised by the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR). I attended in my capacity as secretary of AWL.

The event was held on Wednesday, 20th July, 2011 from 4-6pm at the Cyberview Lodge, Persiaran Multimedia, Cyberjaya.

The event was chaired by Meera Samanther, President of AWL.

The following panellists spoke on their respective topics as listed below:

1) Julian Lee, "Moral Policing in Malaysia"
2) Rashidah Abdullah, "Abortion Rights and Challenges"
3) Pang Khee Teik, "Seksualiti Merdeka: Reaching Out Without Over-reaching"
4) Abigail de Vries, "Project Sentuh: Connecting The Dots Between Violence Against Women& Sexual Rights Through Art and Activism"

Unfortunately, I was delayed due to prior work commitments and missed Mr. Julian Lee’s session, so this report is a summary of the content presented by the other three speakers.

Ms Rashidah Abdullah, Co-Chair of the Reproductive Rights Advocacy Alliance Malaysia (RRAAM), presented a talk on “Abortion Rights and Challenges”.

In Malaysia, abortion is legal for very liberal reasons since 1989 when the Penal Code was amended. The only pre-requisite for an abortion is that the doctor needs to hold the opinion that the continued pregnancy would be injurious to the women’s physical and mental health.

Statistics have revealed that rape cases in the country have tripled in the past 10 years. One baby is abandoned every ten days and that there are 2,500 illegitimate births each month on average. Majority of these are Muslim babies.

However, although abortion is legal in Malaysia, 41% of the women are unaware of the legal conditions for an abortion as this is considered taboo. Unsurprisingly, many women seeking an abortion have resorted to an abortion at sea, popularly termed “Women on Waves” which involves a sea voyage on abortion boats on international waters. A few have even attempted to conduct abortions alone at home via a webcam under the instruction of a doctor. Few are aware that clinic abortions are simple procedures which may be completed in just a few hours.
There are many reasons for such ignorance.

Lack of media coverage is one reason; lack of properly trained medical professionals is another. Misconceptions and ignorance on the legalities of abortion and the judgmental attitude of health professionals for women whose rights have already been violated have also resulted in the creation of barriers for women trying to access legal abortions in the country.

Apart from this, Muslim women’s reproductive rights are further curtailed by the increasing Islamisation of the public healthcare system. We were told of a true story where a doctor in private practice had referred a young Muslim women to a government hospital for further treatment, following an abortion. However, she was prevented from being discharged from the hospital until she had been “counseled” by a religious officer who in turn, informed her parents without her consent. These are some of the reasons many young Muslim women are driven to illegal and unsafe abortions.

Furthermore, the lack of quality education on reproductive health, sexuality and sexual violence prevention is an issue which needs to be resolved. The root of the problem is that the government has failed to acknowledge the need to provide sexual education to our youth.

The Malaysia Federation of Reproductive Health Associations (formerly known as Federation of Family Planning Associations) aims at educating Malaysians in family planning and supporting effective sexual and reproductive health services. RRAAM is set up to accurately inform the public about women’s contraception and the abortion law, to empower them on their reproductive rights.

The current challenge faced by RRAM is that these issues of reproductive and sexual rights are not on the priority list of the various women NGOs whose main focus areas on eradicating violence against women.

Pang Khee Teik, Co-Founder of Seksualiti Merdeka, presented a talk on “Seksualiti Merdeka: Reaching Out Without Over-reaching”

Seksualiti Merdeka is an annual sexuality rights festival which celebrates “Freedom to Love”, featuring a programme of talks, workshops, art, theatre, music performances and film screenings. It uses a non-confrontational method via the Arts to apprise the public that “it is our right to be responsible for our own bodies” and also to educate the LGBT (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals) community of their rights.

The media is generally reticent in publishing news on LGBT but theatre performances staged by Seksualiti Merdeka allows the media to indirectly write about LGBT issues as such articles would appear in the Lifestyle section of local newspapers covering the arts and theatre.

Seksuality Merdeka enjoys the support of the Bar Council Human Rights Committee, United Nations, Pink Triangle Foundation and the Ministry of Women & Children and various NGOs.

Pang says that the Malaysian government has successfully demonised the concept of rights. For example, “special rights” of the Bumiputras (which translates to property and monetary rights) cannot be discussed or negotiated. The idea of rights has become inferior and what he means by that is that it the public is made to think that if one party has rights, then it necessarily means that someone else would have inferior rights.

Another story that Pang shared was that most gays have two facebook profiles: the “straight” profile and the “gay” profile. The reason behind this is due to the stigma and fear of the repercussions that may arise from “coming out” to friends and colleagues and society at large.
Seksualiti Merdeka’s aim is to affirm sexuality rights as human rights and to provide LGBT with a platform for advocacy of their rights.

For more about Pang, check out this website:

Abigail de Vries presented a talk on “Project Sentuh: Connecting The Dots Between violence”

Project Sentuh (coined from two words, “Sexuality” and “Tubuh”) is an art and activism event to highlight discrimination against sexuality. This project, held in 2009 was joint project with JAG (Joint Action Group for Gender Equality, comprising of WAO, AWAM, SIS, Empower and WCC) and the artists groups.

Installation art and theatre performances and was used to engage new audiences, in particular the Muslim youth. Project Sentuh was held during the“16 Days of Activism” campaign. The 16 days campaign is held yearly to raise awareness to end violence against women. During Project Sentuh, 5 real cases were used as content. For example, khalwat raids which have resulted in deaths, violent beatings against transgendered women in Melaka, the story of a local actress who shaved her hair for a role and was attacked for her “lack of Islamic morals”. The scenes would be acted out in different rooms in a “House of Horrors” and the audience would be invited to walk through each room and watch each sketch as it is being acted out.

This campaign provided an avenue to showcase through the medium of theatre performances, issues which touch on sexuality, gender norms and body autonomy to educate and sensitise the public to the same.

Abigail went through a bit of history and shared that in 1999, Women’s Agenda for Change (a coalition of many women NGOs) had put forward a lobby document to articulate on the position of women’s rights and it included a chapter on non-sexual discrimination.

In year 2009, a Statement was issued by JAG for the abolishment of Section 498 of the Penal Code which was deemed to be discriminatory against women and to bring the law on “enticement” to an end. It was asserted that every person has a right to control over his or her body and sexuality. In 2005, Malaysians against moral policing also fought for the end of violence against transgenders.

The afternoon soon ended and the participants who came from various countries such as Indonesia, Africa, Iran, Turkey, Palestine, Phillipines , Cambodia adjourned for a celebratory buffet dinner nearby.

After dinner, there were speeches and toasts and some singing. But what really stayed in my mind was the round song that we were asked to sing in little groups of 4 or 5. I found the lyrics interesting and these are reproduced below:


Goh Siu Lin

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