Still a long way to go for women’s rights

WOMEN everywhere marked the centenary of International Women’s Day on March 8. We hesitate to say “celebrate” the day because, while there have been many gains, there are still many barriers to overcome, and gender equality still seems infuriatingly far off.

After all, the battle for gender equality should be a fact of life, not just a day on the calendar.

Women’s groups here, like their “sistas” elsewhere, have fought on many fronts, such as equal pay, separate taxation laws, domestic violence and rape.

For that we applaud them.

It’s also thanks to them that there is increasing realisation that feminism is not a dirty word and that it’s not about angry women burning their bras.

Unfortunately, legal reforms alone do not transform the social clime. Attitudes, prejudices and the cultural atmosphere continue to exist long after legislature is enforced, and often spottily.

So although on paper, a woman’s status is enhanced, in actuality the state of her affairs remains unchanged.

In the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap report on Malaysia, which ranks 98 out of 134 countries, the only areas in which women exceed men is in tertiary education enrolment and in life expectancy. In all other areas, women still lag behind men.

Women make up roughly half the potential work force of the country, yet represent only 36% of the actual labour force.

There is, moreover, a disproportionately large number of women in the informal sector, namely, women who run small food stalls or who are casual and subcontract workers, and who do not receive any worker benefits or health insurance.

Those who work as casual labourers among men encounter various forms of gender harassment – from receiving lower salaries than their male counterparts to being physically abused.

Professional women have it better, but are still discriminated against when it comes to promotions, especially to positions of responsibility, and in terms of equal pay. They are faced with the dilemma of having to choose between pursuing their careers or devoting more time to their families.

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