Bodily autonomy and do we have it? Recently, Malaysians read about the horrors of period spot checks that occurs in some boarding and say schools, when traumatized victims came forward to recount the shame, embarrassment and humiliation suffered while they were groped and prodded by teachers and guardians . Period spot checks, I found out, has been going on for years.
Then, just early this year, 17-year-old Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam made headlines when she took to social media to call out her physical education teacher for making a ‘rape joke’. It was alleged that the teacher while discussing the topic of sexual harassment said, “If you want to rape someone, make sure they are above 18.”
Al Jazeera, in its article titled “The 17-year-old exposing rape culture in Malaysian schools”, it had reported that the video made by Ain Husniza a student at a state secondary school in Puncak Alam near Kuala Lumpur, has been viewed more than 1.8 million times since it was posted.
And Ain’s social media post has reignited debate over sexual harassment, misogyny and violence against women and girls in the Southeast Asian nation, which is home to the majority ethnic Malays who are Muslim, and sizeable ethnic Chinese and Indian communities as well as various Indigenous groups. This issue has since escalated into a legal case and is still ongoing.
Much Needed Forum on Bodily Autonomy
With the urgent need to recognize and protect the rights of all Malaysians to bodily autonomy, UNFPA Malaysia on behalf of the United Nations in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam kicked off the second annual Malaysia Women & Girls Forum (MWGF) on 17 December with a keynote address from YB Khairy Jamaluddin, Minister of Health Malaysia.
Themed “Bodily Autonomy: Ensuring Rights & Choices for Malaysia’s Women & Girls,” the forum was live streamed on Facebook and featured academics, advocates, activists, media, civil society organisations (CSOs), government and opposition representatives and members of the public.
With three plenary sessions and two keynote presentations, MWGF addresses the challenges in achieving and embedding bodily autonomy in our society, the role the media plays in promoting gender equality and youth-centric issues that reared their heads during the pandemic such as period spot checks and rape culture in schools.
The forum featured recommendations from speakers and a list of resolutions that will be presented to the Government of Malaysia.
In his keynote address, Khairy emphasized that the well-being of a nation’s women and girls is the well-being of the nation itself, a crucial aspect of determining the nation’s success. “We cannot progress nor make advancements as a nation if we do not have the full participation and properly invest in our female population. That is a simple fact. To do that, we must remove every social, legal, economic and healthcare impediment that hinders their development.”
In her welcome remarks, United Nations Resident Coordinator for Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei Darussalam Karima El Korri described women’s autonomy and unfired ability to exercise control over their bodies as “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,” she said.
While Malaysia has made progress on various sustainable development goals (SDGs), progress on a host of critical accelerators of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls has been slow said Karima, pointing to insufficient political will, a measure of denial, poor financing, weak law enforcement mechanisms and resistance within families, communities, and society at large as key causes for this lag.
Meanwhile, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Malaysia Representative Dr. Asa Torkelsson emphasised the negative impact the pandemic had left on women and girls but acknowledged that it presented new opportunities to seek novel ways to bridge the myriad social, legislative, logistic, behavioural and economic gaps prompted by Covid-19 and accompanying lockdowns.
“We have witnessed a so-called shadow pandemic, including increases in domestic-and intimate partner violence, and escalating online gender-based violence and sexual harassment – especially targeting young girls, with lasting impacts including on mental health and well-being,” she said.
MWGF 2021 streamed live on UNFPA Malaysia’s Facebook page. As the nation moves to passing sexual harassment laws to protect women in the workplace, MWGF seeks to foster open dialogue and encourages the participation of the media, private and public sectors in sharing perspectives and formulating action plans to safeguard, promote and recognize bodily autonomy an essential human right.