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The Impact of Gender on the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Women and Girls

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Photo taken from The Star, 2012

Photo taken from The Star, 2012

UNDP’s dialogue on The Impact of Gender on the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Women and Girls included an interesting line up of speakers and topics.

The speakers from the Ministry of Education (MoE) and Ministry of Health (MoH) gave presentations on programmes conducted by them.  The National Policy and Action Plan on Reproductive Health and Social Education took off in 2010.

However, MoE has been running programmes on this topic since 1989.  Their programme called PEERS (Pendidikan Kesihatan Reproduktif dan Sosial) is a holistic Reproductive and Social Health Education programme to “develop individuals who will become intellectually, spiritually, emotionally and physically balanced and harmonious, based on a firm belief in and devotion to God.”  This programme has been taught in secondary schools since 1989 and primary schools since 1994.

The programme emphasizes family as a basic and important institution and teaches healthy and safe lifestyles.  While teaching these topics are important, PEERS does not include the word sex explicitly in the programme.  As such, young people are not given the much needed information on appropriate/inappropriate touches, safe sex or sexually transmitted infections (STI).

In 2012 the National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN) conducted their pilot of a new life skill module with 2,376 students.  This module includes topics such as gender, sex and sexual reproductive health, and has shown success.  As a result, plans to include it in the national curriculum are underway.

Since the contents of this module are not shared with civil society, it is difficult to gauge the impact it will have and whether it addresses all the needs of adolescents today.  Certainly, with the high rate of rape cases and pregnancies among adolescents much needs to be done, and the success of this programme will be welcomed.

Two other areas of importance included in this dialogue were Female Circumcision (FC) and Child Marriage (CM).  According to a study done by Dr. Maznah Dahlui from UM, FC is a common practice amongst Muslims in Malaysia.  In the sample used in their study 93.6% of Malay Muslim and 14.8% of Non-Muslim females were circumcised.

The reasons for the prevalence of FC are cultural and religious.  The interesting fact is that nowhere does Islam impose this procedure on women.  It has become a part of the tradition and some recent studies have even claimed that FC is necessary for hygiene purposes and sexual pleasure of women.  How these conclusions are reached remains unclear.

Photo by BlatantWorld.com

Photo by BlatantWorld.com

The 2009 fatwa issued by the National Fatwa Council made it obligatory for all Muslim women to be circumcised.  Interestingly, while female genital mutilation (FGM) is not permissible and is seen as being against the rights and dignity of women, FC is not viewed in the same light. MoH has even provided guidelines classifying FC as a medical practice.

Even though, due to criticism from civil society, MoH has requested the Islamic Development Malaysia Department (JAKIM) for a revision of the fatwa, the request was declined. MoH is continuing discussions with JAKIM on this matter.

Regarding CM, worldwide statistics by UN show that from 2011-2020 more than 140 million girls will become child brides, and of these 50 million will be under the age of 15.

In Malaysia while child marriage exists in all ethnic groups, the focus recently has been mainly on marriages in the Malay community, especially as news of statutory rape offenders marrying their victims to escape conviction is hitting headlines very often.

Apart from avoiding criminal prosecution, reasons for CM are also economic (girl becomes a burden to the family) and parents want to prevent sexual activity of their daughters or prevent their “wild” daughters from social ills.

On average, 80 Muslim marriages are conducted every month in Malaysia where one party is a minor. The 2010 Malaysian Population & Housing Census indicates, 1.4% that is 82,382 of population of married women in Malaysia are between the ages of 15 and 19.  The same census indicates that 6,800 of these married women were girls below the age of 15.

The repercussions of CM are tremendous. Complications or death during pregnancy is highest among 15-19 year olds.  Generally the figures are high for teenage pregnancies; in 2011, 18,652 teenagers were pregnant between the ages of 10-19. The youngest age to get pregnant was 13 but mostly they occur in the 15-16 age groups.

CM also forces the girl to leave school early usually by lower secondary.  Their young age and lack of education make them more vulnerable and dependent.  Thus domestic violence is also high amongst child brides, as is divorce.  The 2010 Census shows 842 girls between 15 and 19 were divorced or permanently separated.

Poor parenting is another important fact of CM.  Children born to teenage mothers are at increased risk of abuse and neglect.  Boys born to teenage mothers are 13% more likely to be incarcerated later in life.  Girls born to teenage mothers are 22% more likely to become teenage mothers themselves.

Since the rate of CM is high amongst the Muslim community, it is important to note that the study done by Sisters in Islam (SIS) clearly states that CM is not stated as permissible in Islam and nowhere does Sharia specify the age of marriage.

Furthermore, a study done on Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha, sheds new light on the age of Aishah, where a Pakistani scholar challenges the accuracy of Aishah’s age and asserts it is more likely to be 19 not 9 at the time of her marriage.

Despite these new developments JAKIM Director-General insists getting married at an early age “is not forbidden in Islam but the marrying couple have to be mature enough to understand that with matrimony comes great responsibility”. Surely a teenage boy or girl does not possess such maturity.

SIS poses a good question for all those who use Islam selectively and from the lenses of patriarchy.

“The question needs to be posed to those who support early marriage on the basis of the practice of the Prophet: Why is the Prophet’s marriage to Aishah selected as the exemplary age of marriage for Muslims while his marriage to Khadija, a widow 15 years older than him or his marriage to other widows and divorcees ignored as exemplary practices?”

Much work needs to be done on Sexual and Reproductive Health of Women and Girls and the biggest challenge is the lack of open-mindedness on this issue.

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