Francis Loh reports on a landmark two-day conference in Penang that looked at where we are in the struggle for gender justice.
Congratulations to the Good Governance and Gender Equality Society, Penang (3Gs Society) for two days of excellent presentations and stimulating discussions! The ‘Gender Mainstreaming: Justice for All’ Conference held in Penang on 31 July and 1 August 2010 drew almost 200 participants from all races and ages. Although a majority of participants were women, considerable numbers of men were present.
The participants were welcomed by the chair, YB Lydia Ong, the Penang State Government Exco member in charge of Youth and Sports, Women, Family and Community Development, whose office was sponsoring this important event. In her short message, Lydia expressed her delight at the turnout and called upon all present to step forward to push for good governance and gender mainstreaming in Malaysia, particularly in Penang. She reminded all that we had a long way to go since she was the sole woman member of the Penang State Exco, and that there were only three women out of 42 Penang State Assembly members.
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Two keynote addresses followed. The first was by YB Chong Eng, the Member of Parliament for Bukit Mertajam and Conference Organising Chairperson. The address was a useful introduction to the notion of gender mainstreaming and an overview of how others elsewhere have ushered in gender mainstreaming via, among others, incorporating ‘gender quotas’ into the selection of candidates for elections and enhancing the electability of women via introducing the gender factor into proportional representation electoral systems.
No doubt, some might comment that these methods of gender main-streaming might not reflect the wishes of the society at large. Chong Eng, however, asserted that if we do not resort to these ‘short cuts’ to achieve gender mainstreaming, women’s representation in political decision making will remain poor. Consequently, gender equality will remain a low priority in other realms too. (Chong Eng’s address is carried in this issue of the Aliran Monthly).
The second keynote was by Ms Judy Cheng, Assistant Secretary-General for Peace Building Support in the United Nations. Judy has spent almost 30 years serving in the UN and is now the highest-ranking Malaysian in the UN, reporting directly to the Secretary-General. Judy shared with the participants her observations of how women were always at the short end of the stick each time conflict occurred. Women were the ultimate victims and suffer rape and other forms of sexual violence too. Significantly, whereas men always started conflicts, women often played key roles in helping to end the conflicts.
Yet, the specific problems and needs of women and girls had not been given adequate attention in post-conflict scenarios. It was in recognition of such neglect of women’s needs that the UN department that she now heads has given new attention to women’s participation in economic recovery, in rebuilding social support institutions, and in political decision-making. She supported Chong Eng’s call for introducing gender quotas, which she showed had facilitated the participation of women in political decision-making in post-conflict Rwanda, Mozambique, Angola, Nepal, Timor-Leste and Guatemala.
We are so used to hearing the term ‘favourite sons’ that the term ‘favourite daughters’ sounds odd. In fact, there have been outstanding women who have scaled the heights of achievement in spite of gender discrimination and the patriarchal structure of our societies. Present at the 3Gs Conference were some of Penang’s ‘favourite daughters’. Apart from those mentioned earlier, also present were Dato Latifah Merican, Dr Khoo Hoon Eng amd Datin Dr Rashidah Shuib.
Latifah Merican, a Convent Pulau Tikus ‘old girl’ who is currently Advisor to the Office of the Chairman, Securities Commission Malaysia, had previously served in a top position in the World Bank in Washington. On this occasion, she shared her ideas on ‘Engendering the Economy: Opportunities and Challenges’. Her discussant was Prof Cecilia Ng, Professor of Gender Studies in Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), who happened to be her former classmate. Apparently, these two ‘old girls’ from Convent Pulau Tikus have been debating on how to enhance the role of women in Malaysian society for several decades.
Dr Khoo Hoon Eng, now in the National University of Singapore, was previously the Rector of the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Bangladesh. How many of us have heard of this new university, let alone that a Penangite, a Convent Green Lane ‘old girl’, had played a critical role in launching this important initiative in Bangladesh?! Also a top scientist, this former CEO of AUW shared with us about ‘Women’s Leadership and Good Governance’. Drawing upon her rich experience in university administration, teaching and research, she summed up her presentation on the need for women in leadership positions thus: ‘Changing who decides, changes what is decided!’.
Her discussants were Ms Ramlah Bee Bte Asiahoo and Ms Lim Kah Cheng, two Councillors from the Penang Municipal Council. Whereas Ramlah is a politician, Lim is well-known as a lawyer who has also been very active in gender issues and promoting the rights of the disabled.
Professor Rashidah Shuib spoke next about the need for ‘Gender Sensitive Social Policies’. A respected public health expert and the Director of the Women’s Development Research Centre (Kanita) in USM, Rashidah was critical that many government policies do not yet benefit men and women equally, a problem perpetuated because we do not yet have gender-sensitive measurement tools that can help us appreciate women’s critical contributions as social protection providers which are ‘unpaid and invisible’. Likewise, we do not seem to recognise ‘women’s economic citizenship’ since many women are employed in the informal sector and perform so-called ‘casual work’. Rashidah argued a need for government to go beyond linking social policy and protection to jobs in the formal sector.
Her discussant was Dr Prema Devaraj, an ‘old girl’ of Methodist Girls School, now Programme Director of the Women’s Centre for Change. While agreeing with Rashidah’s pointers on gender discrimination, Prema reminded us not to lose sight of wider social injustices and discriminatory policies that marginalise the poor and minority groups too.
Going beyond 3Gs
The final session on Day One featured a ‘dialogue’ with Dr Lesley Clark, who is now Director of Equity and Diversity in James Cook University. A former Australian MP, Lesley shared about the Australian experience with 3Gs. An important point discussed was about the double-edged role of the women’s wings of political parties. For indeed, there is a danger that gender issues will end up being debated only within the confines of the women’s wing, with no change of attitudes among men or the sharing of power and positions between men and women.
However, Lesley opined that the women’s wings were useful ‘training grounds’ for women and that they could be used as vehicles to push for gender justice at all levels and in all committees of the party. In Australia, introducing gender quotas into the Labour Party was an important step towards successfully pushing for gender quotas in government, which were passed by a Labour-dominated parliament.
Importantly, there was also consensus among participants that gender mainstreaming could not be the sole criterion for promoting gender justice, especially if this was being achieved via the introduction of gender quotas. It was equally important to change attitudes to erase gender stereotypes as well as to challenge the patriarchal structure of our societies writ large, not just government positions.
More than that, some members of the floor also reminded the gathering that we must not lose sight of other forms of social injustices and discrimination on the basis of class, race and religion, a point that Prema had raised earlier.
Day Two was spent listening to Workshop Reports and Recommendations and on the Finalisation of Resolutions. These were then presented to the Chief Minister of Penang, YAB Lim Guan Eng, who showed up towards the end of the proceedings. Indeed, he also participated in the official launching of this new NGO called ‘3Gs’ which, no doubt, will continue to remind us about how there can be no good governance without gender equality. Oh, there was some talk that the 3Gs Society should organise a future conference that will bring together top women scientists and artistes to share their thoughts on gender justice.
Dr Francis Loh is secretary of Aliran. He learned a lot attending the 3Gs conference.
The Good Governance and Gender Equality Society, Penang (Persatuan Untuk Tadbir Urus Baik dan Kesaksamaan Gender, Pulau Pinang) or 3Gs was established in December 2009 with the objective of promoting good governance and substantive equality between men and women at all levels of society.
It also intends to work towards the eradication of discrimination against women, by empowering women and through genuine partnership with men, to ensure women’s full and equitable participation in all sectors of society.
In line with the National Policy on Women and the call of the State Government towards Competency, Accountability and Transparency, the society networks and engages with relevant government authorities as well as other individuals, organisations and agencies, nationally and internationally, with similar goals.
An important part of our governing ethics is to recognise, respect and embrace diversity within our multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society.