Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen.
Beta bersyukur ke hadrat ILAHI kerana dengan izin dan rahmat dari Nya juga, Beta dapat berangkat untuk menyampaikan titah di Seminar “The Empowerment of Women” anjuran Kelab Rotary Green Town, Ipoh. Kebetulannya dunia mengiktiraf hari Ahad kedua setiap bulan Mei sebagai Hari Ibu. Kita berhimpun pada hari Ahad Kedua, Mei 2006. Hari ini adalah Hari Ibu.
- Today in particular we acknowledge and recognise mothers all over the world for their unconditional love, dedication, sacrifice and contribution to their children and families. Before I proceed, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all mothers and women present a very Happy Mother’s Day.
- The empowerment of women is today widely acknowledged as an important goal in and of itself. Women have the right to live in dignity, in freedom from want and from fear. Gender discrimination in whatever form constitutes a denial of a fundamental human right and violates our sense of fairness and justice. As such, promoting women’s empowerment is not only women’s responsibility, it is the responsibility of all of us.
- Aside from issues of justice and fairness, women’s empowerment is today also recognized as an important tool in the development goals of national governments and international agencies. Women’s empowerment is a critical component in the achievement of poverty reduction. Studies show that when countries invest in educating girls, the girls grow up to take on productive jobs, have smaller families and have the knowledge and means to take better care of their children. Education also holds the key to unlocking many of the obstacles facing girls and women ⎯ from being forced into early marriage, to vulnerability to HIV/AIDS and other diseases. The process, once started, becomes self-perpetuating, as the educated mother will in turn ensure that her daughters are educated.
- The benefits from empowering women extend far beyond raising economic productivity. No other policy is as likely to reduce infant and maternal mortality. Policies that empower women also lead to improved nutrition and health. Studies show that when women have access to and control over family resources, children’s nutritional levels and wellbeing improve. Where women are excluded from wage labour or earn little, or where men take their wives’ wages as their own, women are forced into a dependent relationship and have difficulty negotiating what they need. Since women take responsibility for children, the children are at risk.
- For the sake of clarity, it would be useful at the outset to spell out what is meant by women’s empowerment. The World Bank defines empowerment in its broadest sense as the “expansion of freedom of choice and action”. Women’s empowerment can thus be taken to mean the enhancement of women’s ability to make strategic life choices.
- It is important to recognize that women’s empowerment has multiple dimensions, which do not necessarily evolve simultaneously. These dimensions include the social, economic, political, legal, and psychological, among others. The nature and extent of gender inequality can vary across these different dimensions, and women may be empowered in one dimension of life while not in others. Furthermore, policies that promote empowerment along a particular dimension need not necessarily lead to empowerment in other dimensions.
- Empowerment also operates at multiple levels of aggregation, from the individual or household level at the lowest level of aggregation, through the community at the intermediate level and to the national polity at the highest level.
- Any meaningful discussion of women’s empowerment, it seems to me, needs to take cognisance of these multiple dimensions and multiple levels of aggregation. So that in assessing the effectiveness of policies that promotes empowerment, we can then determine the potential impact within each dimension and at different levels of aggregation.
- We need to distinguish also between sex and gender. Women’s primary role is predetermined by their sex, which bestows on them their biological function and the enormous blessing of motherhood. To give life is a precious gift. This is what differentiates them most of all from the opposite sex – the one role we men cannot emulate. But it is not exclusive of other roles, these being determined more by gender, and, unfortunately, all too often by gender bias. Gender is our male or female persona in a cultural and social context. The roles allotted to these are capable of changing as society changes.
- However gender roles have been stereotyped down the ages – set in stone, literally. According to one version of human evolution, the hunter-gatherer societies during the Stone Age made a simple distinction where the female was to bear offspring, nurture them and protect the nest from the wiles and perils of the outside world, whilst the doughty male went forth. Thus began the tradition of confining the so-called weaker sex to the home and curtailing their freedom. The male was the hunter who ventured far and wide to gather sustenance for his family. It wasn’t long before he also went forth as a warrior.
- Most modern societies inherited a patriarchal system with men as head of the household. Their responsibility as breadwinner gave men control over the resources that supported and ensured the survival of his family. Women’s traditional orientation towards caring for the household – even though it involved a great number of chores and responsibilities ⎯ was considered to be of lesser importance. Their work went unpaid and undervalued.
- This division of labour affected attitudes toward their respective empowerment. Social norms typecast men as needing to be tough, macho, independent, aggressive. They are expected to strive for superiority and not show weakness. Women, on the other hand, were brought up to be good mothers and homemakers for which high professional qualifications were deemed unnecessary. For a long time they were excluded from the workplace. They had little power to make decisions even on issues related to the home. All too often they were viewed as mere sex objects or the property of a father or husband who must be obeyed.
- Significant change in the status of women began to take place in the late nineteenth century. The suffrage movements in the west and elsewhere mobilised and organised women to assert themselves, in due course putting issues of gender equality on national and international agendas. In 1893 New Zealand became the first country to give women the vote. A year later Australian women achieved the right to stand for public office. Since then many countries have followed suit – in varying degrees and at varying pace. Kuwaiti women voted in their first election last month.
- Despite the considerable progress made in the more enlightened societies, the historical legacy that puts women at a disadvantage remains in force in many parts of the world. With catastrophic consequences. Seventy percent of the world’s poor today are women. Women make up two-thirds of the world’s 880 million people who are illiterate. Most of them strain to raise children with little or no help from men, much less their governments or international agencies. Many have little access to medical care, education or meaningful employment. Many are also denied ownership of property or land. In many societies, religious, social and cultural mores curb the freedom of women to participate fully in the life of society.
- What then of the situation here in Malaysia? I do not want to pre-empt the speakers who will be presenting their papers later this morning. So I shall limit myself to a brief remarks. The evidence suggests that women here have done well in many areas of life, and not so well in other areas. In the area of education, for example Malaysian women stand out, particularly in higher education where female students outnumber their male counterparts. Large numbers of women continue to enter the labour force and we should expect this number to increase in the future. More women are earning an income than ever before.
- However, of all women currently employed, nearly 40 percent are at the clerical or equivalent level. Only 6 percent of working women occupy senior positions in government and only 14 percent in the corporate sector. As a result the ratio of female to male earned income is just 47 percent. Women are well represented is professions such as law, medicine, dentistry and accountancy, and underrepresented in architecture and engineering. At the bottom end of the economic pyramid, the incidence of poverty among female-headed households is twice the national average.
- Malaysian women fare fairly well in overall health and wellbeing. Female life expectancy at 76 years is higher than that of men at 71 years. The infant and maternal mortality rate is low. An unsettling trend, however, is that reported cases of HIV/AIDS among women and cases of domestic violence against women have been increasing.
- It is in the area of Islamic Family law that has seen the most intense opposition from some quarters in recent weeks. They believe that certain provisions in our shariah law are too discriminatory against women and advocate a more progressive interpretation.
- This is perhaps not the proper forum for me to go into the details and I believe the Attorney-General’s office is currently looking into the matter. But a few general points are in order. Islam has always affirmed the equality and rights of women, which modern nations have only recently conceded out of social pressure. The Muslims among you here will know that women have played a significant role in the history of Islam since its earliest days. The first human being to embrace Islam following the proclamation of the Prophet Muhammad as the Messenger of God was his wife, Siti Khadijah. Siti Khadijah was much more than wife to the Prophet. She was his business partner and confidant. She was the Prophet’s champion, source of inspiration and provider of financial support. In Islam, women, as personified in the person of Siti Khadijah, are a source of strength and dignity.
- Likewise, the Prophet in his last sermon emphasised the equality of women when he counseled, “Treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers”. I would translate this to mean that men are not above women, neither are women above men. Rather we are equal in standing, working in partnership for the betterment of society.
- Malaysian history is replete with examples of strong and courageous women who have made their mark on society. From historical records we know of Tun Fatimah, a noblewoman of sixteenth century Malacca, who inspired her husband, the tyrannical Sultan Mahmud, Shah to mend his errant ways. In more recent times we can draw inspiration from heroines such as Khadijah Sidek, Aishah Ghani, Mrs Bhupalan, PG Lim and many many more. To say nothing of the many women seated here in front of me today who have contributed and are contributing greatly to the development of this nation.
- I am confident that Malaysia will move forward in large part because of the crucial role women have played in the development of this country. Whilst saluting the progress made so far, we must recognise we still have some way to go.
- In doing so we empower not only the women, we empower the nation.
- I wish you all every success in your endeavours and once again I’d like to wish all of you, a very Happy Mother’s day.