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6 Historic Milestones For Women’s Rights In Malaysia Since Independence

Since gaining independence, Malaysia has witnessed a stirring saga of advocacy, resilience, and legislative reforms as diverse groups, particularly women’s organisations, have rallied to uphold women’s rights. The path to reform, however, has been fraught with challenges, from legal obstacles to deeply entrenched cultural norms, and progress has often been slow to materialise. Nevertheless, six significant seismic shifts in Malaysia mark the journey towards gender parity and equality in the nation. Let’s take a look… 

#1: Addressing Pregnancy Discrimination Through Amendments to the Employment Act (1955)

Source: Rawpixel pic

In Malaysia, the Federal Constitution enshrines equal rights for both men and women. However, the practical application of these rights often appears to be selective. One area where this becomes particularly apparent is in cases involving the termination of pregnant or expectant mothers, where legislation has been wielded with significant impact.

Our Federal Constitution and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) prohibits gender discrimination. When employers penalise women for having children, they are violating women’s human rights. Specifically, their right to have a family if they choose, their right to work, and their right to be appropriately appraised and remunerated. – Sumitra Visvanathan, former executive director, Women’s Aid Organisation [1]

The rulings of the Federal Court have seemingly limited the application of Article 8(2) to the public sector as Noorfadila Ahmad Saikin was revoked from her job offer as a temporary teacher in a government school due to her pregnancy. She was awarded RM300,000 in damages in 2014 but was slashed to RM30,000 by the Shah Alam High Court in 2016[2].

Those in private sector jobs have faced obstacles too. Court cases like Beatrice Fernandez versus Sistem Penerbangan Malaysia and AA Bhd versus Rafiza Shima Mohamed Aris exposed flaws in gender equality rights under Article 8(2) of the Federal Constitution. The Federal Court ruled that private sector employers could terminate employment based on this[3]

One such victim of discrimination, May Lee, took it in her strides. After being terminated from her job upon revealing her pregnancy despite having secured a job offer, May took proactive steps. She filed a complaint with the Labour Office, where she was offered RM10,000 in compensation[4]. Refusing to accept, May’s determination only grew stronger. In 2014, she joined forces with the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) to further advocate for women’s rights in the workplace[4].


Their long, laborious advocacy resulted in the enacted revisions to the Employment Act (1955) in 2022. The amendments introduced significant changes aimed at enhancing gender equality and fostering a more family-friendly work environment. Among the key alterations are restrictions on the termination of pregnant women. The amendments came into full effect in January 2023[5]

The revisions to the Employment Act also encompass an extension of maternity leave for female employees from 60 to 98 days, aligning with the standards set by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the provision of seven days of paid paternity leave for married male employees for each childbirth, with a maximum allowance of five confinements[5].

#2: Legislation Against Stalking

The need for legislation criminalising stalking became apparent following numerous cases, including the Devi Sudarsani case. In 2016, she turned to the police station for help after being followed by two strangers. Devi found herself at the centre of unwanted attention at a convenience store, and eventually, the two men tailed her for nearly three hours before she fled to the police station. But, she was told that no case could be made against her stalkers since there was no physical assault involved[6].

Source: BFM

Former Malaysian beauty queen Sabrina Beneett faced a similar ordeal, enduring nearly eight years of stalking. In January 2021, her stalker was charged under Section 509 of the Penal Code for insulting her modesty. Pleading guilty at the Jalan Duta Magistrate Court, he was advised to pay a fine of RM 1,200 and was subsequently released[7]

For almost a decade, women’s rights groups in Malaysia, including WAO, have been striving to raise public awareness about the dangers of stalking. WAO first approached the authorities to discuss the criminalisation of stalking in 2014[8].

According to a 2020 report by WAO, one-third of Malaysians and 39% of women had experienced stalking that left them fearing for their safety while 17% were injured by their stalkers[9].

In 2019, the then-Pakatan Harapan government revived a policy initially proposed by the previous Barisan Nasional administration in 2017. The late Datuk Liew Vui Keong, former de facto Law Minister, actively engaged with stakeholders, NGOs, and the public[10].  

The bill was passed in 2023, amending the Penal Code with the addition of 507(A) which defines stalking as “the repeated act of harassment, which is intended or is likely to cause distress, fear, or alarm to any person for their safety”[11]. The first case charged under the legislation is the case of Acacia Diana, a photographer who was stalked for more than 8 years. 

#3: Malaysia, 1st Asian Muslim Country To Criminalise Domestic Violence 

In the 1980s and 1990s, the average number of recorded domestic violence was estimated to be 500[12]. During this period, domestic violence was often ignored and treated as a personal issue, leading to many cases going unreported.

Source: Tatler Asia

In the ’70s and ’80s, violence was not recognised as a violation of human rights, it was never condemned and it remained a family matter. The biggest change is now: the police are recognising it as a violation of law, a legal and criminal issue.Mary Shanti Dairiam, United Nations expert and founding director of International Women’s Rights Action Watch – Asia Pacific[13]

However, the numbers rose significantly after the Domestic Violence Act (DVA – Act 521) was passed in 1994 making Malaysia the first Asian and Muslim country to adopt the legislation. The journey towards enacting the act was the result of 10 years of advocacy efforts by organisations like WAO, alongside the formidable figure who presented the Bill in Parliament, the late Dato Napsiah Binti Omar[14].

Source: The Star

Its implementation in 1996 marked a pivotal moment for survivors and activists, as it criminalised domestic violence, protecting the rights and safety of survivors and compelling law enforcement agencies to take decisive action against abusers. A ripple effect of the legislation was evident, with 88% of government hospitals establishing one-stop centres by 1998, where victims could report incidents, receive treatment, and access counselling.

The Act initially focused primarily on physical evidence such as bruises overlooking the insidious nature of coercive control and emotional abuse which leaves no visible scars but just as painful.

Due to this, the DVA was amended in 2012 to expand its scope to include mental, emotional, and psychological abuse, a work of the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG)[15]. The subsequent amendments in 2017 represented a major step forward in Malaysia’s efforts to combat domestic violence by broadening the definition of domestic violence to encompass various forms of abuse, including financial manipulation, threats to personal safety, and communication intended to insult the victim’s modesty[16]

One of the key enhancements introduced by the Domestic Violence Act (Amendments) or DVAA was the Emergency Protection Order (EPO) designed to provide immediate relief and intervention for victims and abusers. Unlike the traditional Injunction Protection Order (IPO) and Protection Order (PO), which required court applications, the EPO could be obtained through the Social Welfare Department, streamlining the process and offering a quicker response to urgent situations[16]

#4: Monumental Win For Mothers

Since the 1960s, there has been a protracted struggle, primarily led by women’s groups, to amend the Guardianship of Infants Act 1961 (Revised 1988) or GIA, to grant women equal parental rights as legal guardians of their children. However, the amendment to the GIA only occurred in 1999. Section 5 of the GIA, which declared the father as the guardian of the infant’s person and property, was particularly contentious[17].

This provision resulted in numerous issues, particularly affecting mothers, especially those who were divorced or abandoned by their husbands. They faced difficulties in applying for passports for their children, thus depriving them of the freedom to travel abroad.

mother and child
Source: Unsplash

Being nearly 45 years old, the GIA needed to be updated in its concepts. The amendment to the GIA finally took effect on October 1, 1999, bringing relief to those who had long advocated for this change[17].

However, even though mothers typically have physical custody and care of the child, the rights and responsibilities of guardianship still lie with the father. This means that while the father has to provide maintenance, he also has the final say in major decisions concerning the child. An example of the inconvenience caused by this unfair position is the application for a passport, where the father’s presence at the Immigration Department may be required, posing difficulties in cases where the father is absent[17].

In response to complaints from affected women and concerns raised by non-governmental organisations, notably women’s groups, the Guardianship of Infants (Amendment) Act 1999 was enacted. However, complexities may arise if the court grants joint guardianship to the mother, especially concerning religious matters in a multi-religious state. The court may need to determine the child’s religious affiliation if the parents adhere to different faiths[17].

Source: SAYS

One such case that highlighted this issue was Shamala Sathiyaseelan versus Dr Jeyaganesh C Mogarajah, where the conversion of the children to Islam by the husband was challenged[17]

The Federal Court’s unanimous decision to nullify the conversion of M. Indira Gandhi’s children to Islam set a precedent for future similar cases. The court ruled that unilateral conversion contravenes the Guardianship of Infants Act 1961 and the Federal Constitution, emphasising the importance of the welfare of the children involved and ensuring they remain under the protection of the law[18].

#5: Advancing Maternal Health Across The Nation

The history of family planning in Malaysia dates back to the 1950s when concerned doctors initiated efforts to address maternal deaths leading to the establishment of the Federation of Reproductive Health Association within the Ministry of Health of Malaysia in 1971[19]

Since independence, the maternal mortality rate in Malaysia has decreased significantly, which has led to a marked improvement from 164 to 24 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births per year in the past 50 years[19]. Collective efforts such as adjustments to the Family Health Programme, which provided broader services had a part to play[14]. 

During the whole of the 1970s and 1980s, our focus was on how we were going to reduce maternal mortality. And that’s when we started training bidan kampung (village midwives), training health personnel and we did risk assessments and improved infrastructure, and so on. – Dr Raj Abdul Karim, vice-president of the Federation of Reproductive Health Association[19]

Access to antenatal and postpartum care has also improved significantly, with coverage exceeding 60% through public health facilities, although this has declined due to the availability of private healthcare services between 1957 and 2000. 

In rural communities, antenatal coverage has been nearly universal, with an average of 8.1 antenatal visits per mother reported in 1998. Similarly, postnatal coverage was relatively high at 74.6% in 1998[14]

However, the rate stagnated and the period of the pandemic saw a surge recording 24.9 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births per year[19]

NGOs like the Selangor Family Planning Association paved the way for the establishment of the National Family Planning Board later renamed the National Family Planning Board in 1966, later renamed the National Population and Family Development or Board or Lembaga Penduduk dan Pembangunan Keluarga Negara (LPPKN)  in 1984[14]

Family planning services were integrated into rural health services in the 1970s, extending to all regions of the country by the 1990s. Since then, LPPKN has evolved from family planning to family development, with a focus on population, family development, and reproductive health. LPPKN is also a pioneer in fertility services in Malaysia providing sub-fertility treatment with facilities and expertise[14]

Today, reproductive health services are facilitated through 49 Nur Sejahtera clinics and 15 Family Mobile Centres (FMC)[20]

#6: Greater Women Participation In Non-Traditional Fields 

Malaysian women have benefited from increased access to education and training, leading to improvements in literacy rates and enrollment at all levels of education since 1957[14]

The enrollment of Malaysian women in tertiary institutions has mirrored the expansion of tertiary education in the country, especially after 1970[14]. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Malaysian government implemented measures to promote equal opportunities for men and women. 

The implementation of the National Education Policy in 1960 emphasised science and technology, leading to an increase in government-sponsored technical and vocational education schools. 

Furthermore, the trend of increased enrollment of female students in technical and scientific courses has evolved, with more women pursuing studies in traditionally male-dominated fields like engineering. 

One initiative contributing to this shift was significant investment in health and education infrastructure. This ensured that every home in Peninsular Malaysia had access to a school and a fully-equipped hospital within a five-kilometre radius. While infrastructure in East Malaysia may not have been as advanced, it was supplemented by the provision of residential schools[14].

According to a 2021 UNESCO report, Malaysia stands out as one of the few countries where women have achieved parity in representation among research scientists and engineers[21].

In 2016, women comprised about 37% of students enrolled in engineering, manufacturing, and construction fields in higher education[22], with public universities showing a higher representation at almost 46%[23]. Compared to the United States, the number of registered graduate engineers who are women in Malaysia is 29% higher[23]. The World Bank report in 2021 found that Malaysia has achieved gender balance in fields like engineering (45% women), science, maths, and computing (61% women), and engineering/technology (49.8% women researchers), as well as in the tech private sector[24]. 

However, despite the promising rate of enrollment, the proportion of women in the workforce in engineering, manufacturing and construction is only at 27.1%, indicating a gap between enrollment and employment in these fields[25]

Added to the fold, only 7% of women were professional engineers with practising certificates (the highest professional level engineers in Malaysia) in 2019 [22]. It was also an observation made by Azian Wahab, an engineer with more than 30 years of experience, currently working at NI, Penang.  

The number of women in engineering hasn’t changed much at all since I started. – Azian Wahab, NI’s Asia-Pacific corporate impact lead [26]

In addition to Azian and her fellow engineers who are pushing for women’s participation in STEM through their Girls in Engineering and Technology (GET) programme, scientists such as Datin Paduka Teo Soo-Hwang, who founded and helmed a pioneering cancer research centre, Cancer Research Malaysia serves as a shining beacon of hope and an inspiration to the younger generation of women in STEM.

Explore our sources:

  1. Financial Tribune. (2016). Pregnant Women in Malaysia Likely to Get Fired. Link 
  2. Boo,S.L. (2017). Landmark case set to decide how much Putrajaya must pay for rights breach.  Malay Mail. Link 
  4. Shah.L (2022). The Untold Truth About Pregnancy Discrimination In Malaysia. Link 
  5. Haron., H.N (2022). Implementation of amended Employment Act 1955 deferred to Jan 1. New Straits Times. Link
  6. Claudia, N. (2016). Apparently, Stalking in Malaysia Isn’t a Crime Unless They “Touched” You. CiliSos. Link
  7.  Jayamanogaran, T. (2021). Cyberstalker fined RM1,200 for outraging modesty of former Miss Universe Malaysia. Malay Mail. Link 
  8. Koh, E. (2022). Stalking Is Finally Set to Be a Crime in Malaysia. VICE News. Link 
  9. Women’s Aid Organisation. (2020). New Research Supports Calls to Make Stalking A Crime. Link 
  10. Palansamy, Y. (2019). To all stalkers, what you’re doing may (literally) be a crime soon. Malay Mail. Link 
  11. Ministry of Health (1999).“Malaysia’s Health, 1998. Technical Report of the Director General.” Ministry of Health Malaysia.
  12. Liew,J. (2017). 5 empowering female rights reforms to be proud of, as shared by activist Mary Shanthi Dairiam. Tatler Asia. Link 
  13. Women’s Aid Organisation. (2023). WAOZINE: WAO 40th Anniversary Edition. Link
  14. Ministry of Women and Family Development. (2003). The Progress of Malaysian Women Since Independence 1957 – 2000. Link 
  15. New Straits Times. (2014). DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ACT: Men, too, can become victims of mental, physical abuse. Link
  16. Kaur, P., Singh, H. & Singh, H.K. (2020). LETTER | Domestic violence in the time of Covid-19. Malaysiakini. Link 
  17. Thambapillay, S. (n.d.) Recent Developments in Malaysian Family Law. Link
  18. Tham, J.V. (2018). 3 Key Points That Helped Indira Gandhi Win Her Case Against Unilateral Conversion. SAYS. Link 
  19. Ismail, N.J. (2023). Malaysia Must Address Stagnant Maternal Mortality Ratio: UNFPA Report. Ova. Link 
  21. UNESCO. (2021). UNESCO Science Report 2021. Link 
  22. SWE. (2021). Different or More of the Same? Malaysian Women in Engineering and Technology Fields. Link
  23. Berry, A. (2022). Why doesn’t Malaysia have a problem with women and STEM careers? RTE. Link 
  24. World Bank (2021). MALAYSIA Country Gender Note 2021.Link 
  25. World Bank. (2023). Global Gender Gap Report 2023. Link 
  26. NI. (2021). Inspiring Malaysian Girls to Pursue Engineering. Link 

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