As 2021 draws to a close, Malaysia is keeping up efforts to contain the Covid-19 pandemic for the second year running. Vaccine booster shots to mitigate the threat of the Omicron variant are steadily rolling out, amid the new normal of safety protocols and re-opening of all sectors.
With the focus on national health, UNFPA Malaysia wishes to emphasise the urgency of simultaneously addressing the pandemic’s disproportionate and continuing impacts on the lives and wellbeing of Malaysia’s women and girls.
This can be achieved through centring Bodily Autonomy, ensuring rights and choices for Malaysia’s women and girls.
The Importance Of Bodily Autonomy
Nearly half of all women are denied their Bodily Autonomy, according to data from 57 countries in UNFPA’s flagship 2021 report, State of World Population, entitled My Body is My Own.
This landmark United Nations report focuses on the power and agency of individuals to make choices about their bodies without fear, violence or coercion, or having someone else decide for them.
Yet, currently, women and girls’ decisions are often influenced by others — partners, families, societies and governments.
The report examines data on women’s decision-making power and on laws supportive of sexual and reproductive health and rights. Tragically, only 55 per cent of women have Bodily Autonomy, according to measurements of their ability to make their own decisions on issues relating to health care, contraception and whether to have sex.
The report also highlights the legal, economic and social barriers to securing Bodily Autonomy for all. And some of the most persistent barriers to Bodily Autonomy involve stereotypes, assumptions and misconceptions about Bodily Autonomy and the rights of women and girls.
In Malaysia, we have seen violations of women and girls’ Bodily Autonomy all through the pandemic. These range from the shadow pandemic of domestic violence and intimate partner violence to the escalation in online gender based violence and sexual harassment- especially towards young girls.
In tandem, continued period spot checks in schools and education institutes traumatise survivors. Meanwhile, pandemic related economic deprivation manifests as period poverty and child marriages, restricting education, livelihood and social participation for underprivileged women and girls.
A Comprehensive Approach Towards Ensuring Bodily Autonomy
Preventing violations of women and girls’ Bodily Autonomy requires addressing systemic economic and social inequalities as well as changing discriminatory gender norms and institutions.
As the majority of Bodily Autonomy violations affect young women and girls, it’s essential to empower youth with the knowledge and language to stand up for their rights.
This includes ensuring their access to scientifically accurate, age-appropriate, human-rights-based information about sexual and reproductive health.
The prevalence of Bodily Autonomy violations in schools alone is evident from the All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) and Save the Schools MY recent joint report which brought to light 770 testimonies of abuse, such as period spot checks and sexual harassment. 1,145 incidents of abuse and 1,495 violations were identified from these testimonies.
This highlights the urgency of tabling a survivor-centric Sexual Harassment Bill to provide justice for all survivors, which will also bolster schools’ role as safe spaces for the intellectual and emotional development of adolescent girls through protecting their mental health, privacy and dignity.
UNFPA Malaysia commends the commitment of the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development to urgently table the Sexual Harassment Bill.
Stalking is yet another violation of women and girls’ Bodily Autonomy which has received renewed attention, particularly for the grave impact it has on survivors’ long term mental health and safety.
In fact, a Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) survey from 2020, involving 1,008 Malaysians, reported that one-third had experienced stalking that instilled fear; 17% had experienced stalking resulting in harm and 12% were stalked and threatened with harm – and almost 70% of the incidents involved the victims approached at their homes, workplaces, and schools.
UNFPA Malaysia is thus encouraged by the efforts of the Prime Minister’s Department (Parliament and Law) towards tabling the policy paper and proposed amendments to the law to criminalise stalking.
Another area of concern, drawing from numbers reported by the Ministry of Education, is that a total of 21,316 students stopped schooling from March 2020 to July 2021.
Parliament records also acknowledge that 445 students in Malaysia had dropped out of school last year to get married – of which, 411 were female students. Girls’ vulnerability to child sexual abuse, teenage pregnancies and compounded risk factors resulting from Child Marriage, all constitute different violations of Bodily Autonomy.
Indeed, girls dropping out of school and their curtailed access to education is one of the earliest and most lasting indicators of lifelong Gender Inequality.
Ending child marriage is possible, though it requires firm political will to enact an inclusive and effective National Strategic Plan.
This includes addressing harmful practices and attitudes through awareness campaigns, while overcoming economic deprivation to ensure early marriage is not viewed as a means to escape poverty.
UNFPA Malaysia wishes to emphasise that comprehensive, multi-sectoral, long-term collaboration between governments and civil society at all levels is essential for alleviating pandemic related increases in child marriage, which is a fundamental violation of girls’ Bodily Autonomy.
Not only is Bodily Autonomy a human right, it is the foundation upon which all other human rights are built.
It is included, implicitly or explicitly, in many international rights agreements, which Malaysia is a signatory to, such as the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Any concern affecting the welfare of half of Malaysian society cannot be dismissed as a “women’s issue”. As is the case with achieving gender equality, the realisation of Bodily Autonomy will fortify the welfare of all people, men and boys included.
Achieving the end goal of a society where all Malaysian women and girls are ensured of their rights and choices begins with acknowledging, understanding and implementing mechanisms and legislation which uphold Bodily Autonomy throughout Malaysian society.
After all, women and girls who are able to fully exercise their Bodily Autonomy are also empowered to achieve their full potential while contributing to national development and Malaysia’s pandemic recovery in the year to come.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is the United Nations’ sexual and reproductive health agency.
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