Status Report: Women\'s Equality in Malaysia

Posted on 01 March 2001


Status Report

In this section:
The Government of Women's Equality
National Machinery for Women's Advancement
Women, Culture and Religion
Women in Work
Women and the Law
Pushing the Women's Agenda Forward


The Government and Women's Equality

The Government of Malaysia has committed itself to women's equality and taken a number of initiatives to promote this:

By agreeing to the commitments set forth in the Beijing Platform for Action at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women (1995), the Government promised to:

  1. Enhance the national machinery for women's advancement.
  2. Increase women's participation in decision-making.
  3. Safeguard women's rights to health, education and social well being.
  4. Remove legal obstacles and gender discriminatory practices.

The Government has also ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women where,

“…discrimination against women shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction mode on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing of nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” (CEDAW, Article 1)

National Machinery for Women's Advancement

In response to the United Nation's 1975 resolution to integrate women into the development process, the Government of Malaysia formed the National Advisory Council on Integrating Women in Development (NACIWID). This serves as an advisory and consultative body for the Government on matters relating to women in development planning and implementation.

In 1983, the government established a Women's Affairs secretariat (HAWA), which was upgraded in 1997 as a department of the Ministry of National Unity and Social Development. HAWA's role is to ensure that women's interests and concerned are taken into consideration.

Both the Sixth and Seventh Malaysia Plans (1990-1995; 1996-2000) contained special sections on Women and Development, where it is stated,

“…the Government also recognises that specific strategies must necessarily be formulated to effectively incorporate women in the process of development. Towards this end, concerted efforts will be made to progressively reduce existing constraints and facilitate the assimilation of women into the mainstream social and economic activity.” (Sixth Malaysia Plan).

A National Policy on Women was formulated in 1989, followed by an Action Plan for Women in Development in 1997.

In January 2001, the Government announced the formation of a Women's Affairs Ministry, heralded by the Prime Minister's Office as recognition of the contribution and role of Malaysian women.


How equal are women in Malaysia?

Despite the Government's commitment to women's equality, the monitoring of different state parties' obligations to equality is essential. The State often does not have the same access as NGOs to women 'on the ground' who experience discrimination. Women's groups and NGOs in Malaysia have a vital role to highlight areas where women continue to face discrimination - to lobby for changes that will remove barriers to women's equality in all spheres of women's lives.

Women, Culture and Religion

The different religions and cultures of Malaysia have many positive aspects in women's lives. However, it is also the case that women are discriminated against by their religions and cultures, which perpetuate stereotyped gender roles and protectionist and patriarchal attitudes towards women.

The “family” remains culturally at the centre of Malaysian life. A 1999 WAO report, 'Monitoring the Fulfilment of the Malaysian Government's Obligation to Women's Equality: A Baseline Report on marriage and Divorce', shows how Malaysian women face much discrimination in the area of marriage and divorce, through attitudes towards expected roles of women, and through the formulation, interpretation and implementation laws.

Within marriage, many women are expected to remain in the home, as homemakers and mothers. If women are given the choice to work, many are forced to give their salaries to their husbands. Many women who work before marriage have been ordered to give up their jobs when they marry.

The re-naming of the Ministry of Women's Affairs, reinforces women's place in the home and family life, while women's other roles in society become secondary!


Women who choose not to work also find themselves discriminated against. For example, the Domestic Violence Act (1994) does not protect individuals who live together but are not married according to civil or customary law, or victims of dating violence. In short, the Domestic Violence Act criminalizes violence against women, but only if you are a married women.

Many other laws are not satisfactory in guaranteeing protection against gender discrimination. Women's organisations, NGOs and others have long campaigned for amendments to laws relating to divorce, custody, maintenance, immigration, domestic violence, property, and tax to safeguard against discrimination. To date, only the Income Tax and Distribution Acts, and laws relating to rape have been amended.

Several of the religions practised in Malaysia, including Islam, Catholisism, Buddhism and Hinduism, deny women access to interpreting and implementing their sacred texts. Such patriarchal structures and practices contribute to women's lack of representation in leadership positions. Women are also denied access to certain sacred places and rituals, for example, if they are menstruating. Such practices encourage negative attitudes towards women, including disrespect and inferiority to men, and demean the status of women.

Stereotyped gender roles and protectionist and patriarchal attitudes enshrined in religion and culture permeate through society, and are reflected in the nation's schools, in places of work, in media, government, laws and in the home.

School curricula, religious teaching material and media images continue to stereotype women as homemakers when many women in also Malaysia work and pursue careers.

Although the number of women members of political parties is high, representation of women in decision-making positions in the Government and other statutory bodies is poor, and falls well short of the 30% women participation rate in Government targeted in the 1995 Global platform for Action.

Women in Work

Women represent 36% of the Malaysian workforce according to official statistics. However, half of this comprises women working as unpaid, family workers.

Although the number of economically active women has increased, the largest growth in women's participation has been in middle- and low-level jobs, such as clerical and production jobs. And while more women are entering professional sectors, this is largely restricted to nursing and teaching professions.

In 1980, women accounted for only 7% of employers in the economically active population of Malaysia. By 1990, female employers had still only reached 8.5%, with men still comprising the vast majority in employee status. Conversely, women continue the greatly outnumber men in unpaid work, 64% women to 35% men in 1990. Especially in the private sectors, women continue to collect lower wages than their male colleagues. (1)

Women and the Law

The legal system in Malaysia is to a large extent derived from the English legal system. Civil and criminal laws come under the Federal Government's jurisdiction. State Governments determine, among other areas, Syariah (Islamic) Law and Native Laws that apply to indigenous groups. For Muslims, family laws, including marriage and divorce laws, are governed by the Syariah Courts.

Overlapping between Syariah laws and civil and criminal laws causes difficulties in the working of the law, and in the formulation or amendments of laws. One example is the amendment to the Guardianship Act to grant non-Muslim women equal rights to guardianship. This right was not extended to Muslim women because Muslim women are under the jurisdiction of Syariah Law.

The eleven year campaign for a Domestic Violence Act, which was finally implemented in June 1996, posed similar problems in ensuring that both Muslim and non-Muslim women would receive equal protection and rights from this law. More on the Domestic Violence Act and Conflict of Jurisdiction.

Women's Equality

Equality is enshrined in the Federal Constitution of Malaysia,

“All persons are equal before the law and entitled to equal protection of the law” (Article 8 (1).

Yet the protection against gender discrimination guaranteed in Article 8 (1) is not upheld in Article 8 (2),

“Except as expressly authorised by this Constitution, there shall be no discrimination against citizens on the ground only of religion, race, decent or place of birth in any law relating to the acquisition, holding or disposition of property or the establishing or carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation or employment.” (Article 8 (2).

The absence of State sanctioned protection against sexual discrimination in the Federal Constitution has failed to protect against a legal system and social structures in which equality between the sexes is apparent.

Women and men are not equal before the law, nor do the sexes have equal protection of law. Women before the law continue to encounter sexual discrimination, in the formulation of laws, in lack of laws to protect women against discrimination, and in the interpretation and enforcement of laws. Inequality, and a failure to protect women against discrimination manifest itself in many detrimental ways in all spheres of women's lives.

Pushing the Women's Agenda Forward

In 1999, women's organisations, NGOs and individuals came together to raise awareness of the specific problems, issues and needs of Malaysian women, with the aim of strengthening the voices and roles of women in Malaysia, to promote equality between women and men.

The outcome is the Women's Agenda for Change, which examines the status of women in Malaysia 11 issue areas, and sets out Actions for Change.

The Women's Agenda for Change recognises the progress made by women in the last decades. But, it also highlights the difficulties and disadvantages women continue to face in many aspects of their lives.

Violence Against Women is one shameful and glaring indicator of inequality and discrimination and seriously inhibits women's ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on a basis of equality with men.

Sexual Harassment of women continues to demean and degrade women. It threatens women's safety, and jeopardises women's rights to work.

In 1999, a Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace launched. While the Code sends a clear message on how society views Sexual Harassment, the absence of legislation means women still do not have the legal means for redress in sexual harassment cases.

Fives years on from its implementation, the Domestic Violence Act (1994) has yet to make significant advances towards eradicating domestic violence. While women's groups continue to inform women of their rights under the DVA, we must also warn women to be prepared for delays, inconsistencies and inaction. Failures in implementation reflect a more pervasive environment in which the rights of women are not always respected, or even understood.

The Women's Agenda for Change continues to push the Women's Agenda Forward in Malaysia in many areas of women's lives.

This is also your agenda. Use it to lobby:

  • The government and institutions for their support in terms of policy measures and actions.
  • The politicians so that they will incorporate the issues and recommendations into their election manifesto and, if elected, their constituency programmes.
  • The general public to raise their awareness on the issues and challenges facing women in Malaysia.

(1) Reviewing Malaysian Women's Status: Country Report in Preparation for the Fourth UN World Conference on Women, 1994, Coordinated by Jamilah Ariffin, Population Studies Unit, University of Malaya.
(2) Monitoring the Fulfilment of the Malaysian Government's Obligation to Women's Equality: A Baseline Report on Marriage and Divorce, October 1999, Women's Aid Organisation
(3) Women's Agenda for Change, 2nd Edition, 2000,

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