Resident Coordinator's speech: 2nd Malaysia Women and Girls Forum 2021
17 December 2021
2nd Malaysia Women and Girls Forum 2021
Yang Berhormat Tuan Khairy Jamaluddin, Minister of Health;
Yang Berhormat Fuziah Salleh, Member of Parliament, Member of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) for Women, Children and Social Development Issues;
Yang Berhormat Nurul Izzah Anwar, Member of Parliament;
Ms. Asa Torkelsson, United Nations Population Fund Country Representative in Malaysia, and Country Director for Thailand;
Esteemed speakers, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, a very good morning to you all;
On behalf of the United Nations in Malaysia, I warmly welcome you, whether physically present or connected remotely to this second Malaysia Women & Girls Forum 2021.
Let me also say a huge thank you to everyone who has worked to make this forum happen.
I am honored to be with you today, to interact with you, hear your insights and learn from you.
The subject of empowering women and girls is a cause that is very close to my heart, both as an individual and as the UN Resident Coordinator for Malaysia.
Gender equality is both a core human rights issue and primary driver of development performance, and absolutely central to the achievement of the SDGs in Malaysia and the world over.
As many of you will know, I am relatively new in this country, and I am still building my knowledge on the status of women and girls in Malaysia.
I acknowledge that I am very much a guest today, but I take this opportunity to share some thoughts.
Let me start by congratulating the team on the choice of women’s bodily autonomy as the theme of this year’s forum. Promoting an informed dialogue about personal autonomy and integrity is long overdue, and today is a good day to move the needle on a topic that is gaining social and political momentum.
Women’s autonomy and unfired ability to exercise control over their bodies is an absolute human right. Realizing this right and protecting autonomy is not just about securing access to health. It’s about breaking those barriers that undermine women’s agency and capabilities.
It is about questioning those norms and practices that violate women and girls’ right to privacy, dignity and self-respect.
Women’s bodily autonomy is a catalyst of educational gains, of employment, and of social mobility. It is also a protection against violence, abuse and other forms of bad treatment.
Some four decades since the ratification of CEDAW, almost three decades since the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and then Beijing, and 7 years into the 2030 Agenda, there have been many achievements with regards to the advancement of women’s rights in Malaysia.
A review of Malaysia’s progress on SDG 5 and other related goals and targets shows that there is progress on many levels.
These include a set of legislative measures, institutional and policy changes, louder voices from civil society and progress on several national and global indicators, including on poverty, education, maternal mortality, and participation.
However, progress on a host of critical accelerators of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, has been far too slow.
As elsewhere, this has many causes – insufficient political will, a measure of denialism, poor financing, weak law enforcement mechanisms, but importantly, resistance within families, communities, and society at a large.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare profound fault lines and raised fundamental questions about the status of women and girls. Crucially, we must ask - why was it so much tougher on them?
Women have suffered more and still do; their hard-won development gains were probably too fragile to withstand such a crisis. We have seen countless heroic acts performed women, particularly as healthcare workers and caregivers –
Yet at the same time, massive job losses, wrecked livelihoods, disruptions in access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, a rise in domestic violence, all alongside a rise in unpaid work. And we have seen a resurgence of child marriage and school dropouts, especially among girls.
The impact on certain categories of women has been catastrophic: women with disabilities, older women, widows, single women and female-headed households, and indigenous women and girls.
So now is the time to act with determination and a clear sense of purpose. As the country charts its path towards recovery, several deep-seated challenges that pre-dated Covid need to be addressed.
Ladies and gentlemen, three points quickly:
First, understanding and respecting women’s bodily autonomy is a prerequisite to rebuilding and strengthening mutual respect, safety, and dignity. It improves our tolerance of individual choices and the reasons behind them and fosters a safe and healthy environment.
It is time to address structural barriers by enacting and implementing effective policies.
Second, what is not defined lacks salience; it lacks visibility, and it does not matter. So, we need to unambiguously call-out the real challenges faced. We need to identify the taboos, their scale and their impact, in order to break them. That is the only way to make them matter.
The media has a huge eye-opening role to play - recent shocking reports on the suffering of adolescent girls whose privacy was transgressed are one example among many.
Third, what is not measured also does not exist, and if something does not exist, then it cannot be tackled. Policy gaps can only be filled with the right legislation if the evidence is there.
We need data, disaggregated by age and sex, but also geographic location and other key characteristics. This is an imperative, globally, and here in Malaysia. Measuring progress on any goal requires solid baselines and the right indicators to monitor quantitative and qualitative progress towards the set targets.
Every day, I am inspired by the billions of women who work hard to achieve a life of dignity for themselves and their families, those who have the potential to reimagine the future, shape our recovery and achieve more.
We need to work together for and with them, to educate, raise awareness and advocate. Delivering gender equality is as important for the welfare of men and boys. We need to engage with them.
If the root causes of the problem are known and clear, we need now to identify what kind of action is needed and at which level it would be most strategic to ensure a safer, more equitable future for millions of women and girls in Malaysia.
The Women and Girls Forum is a dedicated platform through which the United Nations works with a broad range of stakeholders to enhance knowledge and understanding of the issues, to identify key areas for action and coalition building.
With this impressive lineup of speakers here today, I look forward to hearing your perspectives and engaging today and beyond.