Opinion

In 2012, men still lay claim to women’s bodies

Azrul Mohd Khalib

Azrul Mohd Khalib works on HIV/AIDS, sex and human rights issues. He is becoming cynical and is in danger of losing his sense of humour and mind. He also runs and is battling an addiction to the "A Song of Ice and Fire" book series. Azrul can be contacted at azferul@gmail.com.

MARCH 14 — Last week, on March 8, we commemorated International Women’s Day. Indeed, there are plenty of milestones and achievements for us to recognise when it comes to the progress of women in Malaysia.

Most girls growing up in this country are able to have access to a primary and secondary school education. Literacy and numeracy among girls are around 10 per cent higher to that of boys. Enrolment of girls in tertiary institutions continues to outnumber boys each year by at least a ratio of 3:2. In some private colleges, the student body is 80 per cent female.

Our financial institutions are ably led by women of high calibre and integrity. Key leadership and decision-making positions in a number of sectors traditionally dominated by men from mechanical engineering to construction are increasingly populated by women. Nevertheless, though women have advanced 10 steps forward, it does seem that on a number of issues, progress has been stunted and even retreated. One such area has been in sexual reproductive health.

It is interesting to note that in comparison to many similar upper middle income countries, Malaysia’s contraceptive prevalence rate (CPR) reported in 2007 was 29.8. The CPR is the proportion of women of reproductive age who are using (or whose partner is using) a contraceptive method at a given point in time.

Malaysia’s is depressingly low. The low numbers of people using contraceptives coupled with increasing reports of teenage pregnancies and of abandonment of babies are reflective of our continued blinkered and straightjacketed views on the issue of sex education.

Yes, sex education. Not, health and fitness education. Not, some repackaged Frankenstein version that attempts to offend no one. Sex education. We need to get our act together to educate both girls and boys on the issue of sex and relationships. We need it now.

Every time we hear of news of babies who have been found buried, thrown in dumpsters, wrapped in plastic bags, thrown into rivers, and left on the doorsteps of mosques, our eyes and fingers have fallen upon many a frightened and desperate young woman. The ages of these mothers are increasingly getting younger each year. Twelve-year-olds are having sex with older boys. Incidences of sexual violence are on the increase.

 Our moral and religious sensitivities and misguided good intentions in denying sex education and the necessary life skills to our kids have resulted in the futures of hundreds of young women to be jeopardised and many others victimised. There are too many policies that aim to punish and too few that seek to help and provide support for these young mothers in need.

Oh, and by the way, where are the fathers of these abandoned children? Why are they being left out of interventions and programmes? Why is the burden of preventing unwanted pregnancies and dealing their consequences placed squarely and solely on the shoulders of women and girls?

The abandonment of babies, teenage pregnancies and the increasing proliferation of sexual predators are a direct result of our failure to acknowledge and address our neglect in providing essential life skills to our children and the imposition of our blinkered and harmful view of sex.

It seems that the bodies of women and girls continue to belong to the political and religious decision makers, who are mostly men. To make them feel better and avoid the slippery discussion of sex, compromises are made where personal convictions and religious dogma are allowed to determine public health and education policies over proven and pragmatic approaches.

Rape, incest and sexual violence are also on the increase in Malaysia. The Deputy Inspector-General of Police Datuk Seri Khalid Abu Bakar had indicated that from 2006 to 2010, 11,809 out of 16,159 rape victims were children (73 per cent).

 According to the Sexual Crimes Unit under the Sexual Crimes and Children Investigation Division, around 50 per cent of all rape cases each year involve victims aged 16 and below, while another 19 per cent were aged 16 to 18.

 While I was writing this column, news came of the discovery of the charred remains of five- year-old Nurul Nadirah Abdullah, whose nickname was Dirang. The remains were found in a 3.5m hole dug in a palm oil plantation, a few kilometres away from the flats where she lived.

What the hell is going on? What kind of species of humanity was capable of doing such a thing?

There will be plenty of outrage, judgements cast upon the young mother but ultimately this sad incident shows how we have failed these women and girls. Despite the presence of adults in the household, on that day she was forced to rely on a five-year-old to go buy groceries at the nearby kedai runcit.

We have created a hostile environment where growing up is now a process of going through a battleground. Those who are economically better off are able to afford domestic helpers, secure safe childcare, obtain better protection and choose to have fewer children. From the sound of it, Dirang’s mother was unable to afford or choose any of this.

Please join me in a prayer for Dirang and her family? Al-fatihah.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

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