28 December 2005

Wednesday December 28, 2005
Ignominious end
What an ignominious way to end the year! The Government admits that it got Parliament to pass a law that was unjust and discriminatory to half the population. As a member of that particular half, I am gobsmacked.
How could this have happened? The Women, Family and Community Development Ministry claims to have found even more flaws in the new law than even the women’s groups. And they kept quiet? All because they wanted to keep a promise to standardise the Islamic family laws? Does that make sense? Why risk looking like fools by rushing to pass a seriously flawed law? Why not make sure it is clear of the kinks before presenting it to anyone?
The NGOs that protested that the laws were unjust had presented 42 pages of objections to the new amendments way back in January 2002. It will be interesting to see how many more pages of flaws the Ministry came up with, and then still allowed the laws to go through Parliament unchanged. If they knew it was discriminatory to women, how could the Ministry, set up to ensure that women are treated justly in this country, have let it pass? Was someone sleeping on the job? Or did political expediency triumph once again?
And how easy will it be to amend flaws in an already passed law? (It makes you wonder whether this episode is typical, that in fact numerous flawed laws are passed through Parliament each year.)
Let us get it straight what this new law means. In its zeal to be “gender-neutral” in a field that was never level in the first place, whoever drafted this law amended it in such a way that rights that originally were given to women are now also given to men. This, mind you, on top of the many more rights that men already enjoyed.
Previously whatever a Muslim woman brought into a marriage remained hers and whatever husband and wife acquired together during the marriage could be divided between them if the marriage was dissolved. Thus whatever she owns in her own name remains hers. But with the new amendments, if he should, say, pay for some renovations, then he can claim the property as his as well. What’s more he can claim any gifts he gave her as also his. Thus if the marriage fails, he can demand that all this supposedly joint property be sold and the proceeds shared between them. And then he can merrily use the proceeds for his own use, including marrying someone else. Great!
If that’s not bad enough, in the good old days, if a Muslim man wanted to marry someone else, he had to justify it as just and necessary. Meaning that he could not, by marrying another person, be unjust to his first wife and his children with her. The new law, however, has amended this to say “just OR necessary”. Which means if he says that it is really imperative for him to marry another (perhaps because he’s knocked her up), then he can. So forget the justice part, let’s make it easy to get married, and married, and married.
And get this: already Muslim men can divorce their wives anytime they want for whatever reason they want, while women used to have to rely on 12 conditions husbands don’t fulfil to get the court to consider telling them to free their wives. Now they get those 12 conditions as well. Great! I used to be able to complain if he didn’t provide me with household help, now he can divorce me if I don’t get him someone to polish his shoes!
If anyone wants to argue that this is Islamic law, then it implies that Islamic law is unjust and discriminatory. Yet Islamic law upholds women’s rights. How to explain these contradictions then? What has this done to the image of a religion based on equality, justice and compassion?
How to rectify this? First the law must not be gazetted until all these flaws are corrected. There is precedent for this. The Domestic Violence Act was not gazetted for two years after it was passed by Parliament because some people objected to it. (In that case, they put on hold a law that was actually beneficial to women. Do we detect legislative misogyny at work here?).
In the meantime, a new law that upholds the principles of justice and non-discrimination for women should be drafted. It should be subject to widespread consultation and public scrutiny and debate. After all we are supposed to be a democracy.
This whole episode just shows what happens when women are riled. They cannot simply be bulldozed into accepting laws that disadvantage them. I feel proud of the 19 women Senators who stood up against this law even though they were finally forced to pass it anyway. And I thank Sisters in Islam and the other women’s groups for waking the Senators and the public up. But shame on the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry for letting it through the Lower House, and shame on Members of Parliament for letting down half their constituents. If only we could withdraw our votes for them.
Here’s to a 2006 that treats women with more respect.

22 December 2005

Wednesday December 14, 2005
Closing the gap

A young boy gets slashed in the stomach and dies. Another young man gets beaten unconscious and needs a blood clot removed from his brain. All of a sudden, parents have even more to worry about than usual.
Life in Kuala Lumpur is violent as it is. Every day we read about bag snatchings, robberies, assaults, rapes and murders, all within the few square miles that make up this metropolis many of us call home. For the most part, we hope that the police do something about it. But these two recent incidents are causing a lot of talk among parents.
Let me correct that, they’re causing a lot of talk among middle-class parents who are wondering how safe is it to let our kids out clubbing at night. Before, it was unsafe enough and to be called up in the middle of the night to go to a police station to rescue them after some club raid was a very real possibility. But at least they were not going to be hurt. But now the likelihood that it is actually dangerous out there is a chilling thought.
We need to look carefully at why these two incidents happened. In both cases, these young men were escorting young women. This is exactly what we tell our daughters to do – never walk the streets alone at night. And no doubt parents of sons also tell them to ensure that their girlfriends and sisters are always safe when they are out.
In both cases, they encountered other young men who, perhaps emboldened by their numbers, decided to demand attention from the young women. To which, being the gentlemen they have been brought up to be, their escorts reacted – with disastrous consequences. So what do we tell our sons to do in these circumstances? Don’t escort your female friends? Make sure you have other male friends with you? Always be armed and ready to fight?
This will only cause the violence to escalate. Instead perhaps we should take a close hard look at the Kuala Lumpur social milieu and identify where the potential triggers for violence are.
I think that these incidents are ultimately rooted in the social inequality that is rampant in Kuala Lumpur. The wealthy educated young, those with the bright futures, are increasingly living side by side with the ones who feel there isn’t much hope at all. Kids spill out of clubs in their designer clothes, speaking their MTV-accented English straight into the turf of the Mat Rempits hanging out at mamak stalls in their tatty jeans and slippers. Our Mat Rempits aren’t all that poor, at least not on a global scale, but they do feel left out of things because they cannot afford to have the clothes, cars and girls that their wealthier counterparts can. Unsurprisingly resentment builds up.
Resentment, however, isn’t an excuse for slashing or beating up somebody. Nobody deserves that. But if we understand that underneath it all, there is an underclass that is seething with frustration because they cannot attain even half of the things they see others having, then perhaps we can take measures to at least diffuse these tensions.
Malaysia makes much of promoting harmony among the different ethnic groups. But we should also think of promoting harmony among the different classes of people. That can only be done by actually trying to remove the barriers between the classes, by promoting equality and greater opportunity for those who don’t feel they have any.
Violence in society is just symptomatic of some deeper trouble. People don’t steal from others if they feel that they all have the same amount of wealth. The yakuza notwithstanding, look at Japan where everyone feels they are middle-class and where street crimes are rare. People don’t slash someone and then coolly walk into a convenience store to buy cigarettes, unless they have no empathy at all for their victim.
In the short term, we need to educate young people to be more alert and conscious of their surroundings and be more sensitive to people around them. Roaring up in expensive cars to eating places is bound to elicit negative remarks. Looking condescendingly at those who don’t have as much is going to stir resentment. We need to teach our more privileged kids to respect others as equals.
At the same time, we need to find ways to ensure better opportunities for those who feel left behind. We need to give people hope that they too can enjoy life but in a legitimate way. The desire to be materially equal to others is also what leads to people taking shortcuts to wealth, including corruption, get-rich-quick schemes and drug trafficking. We need to emphasise that wealth and achievement comes through hard work, not luck and connections.
If these violent expressions of frustration can be reduced through religious education, then let’s have religious education that teaches young people to value other people’s lives and how to deal with conflict, not just about how they should dress and what sex lives they should not have.
It’s not easy; social transformation never is. But unless we are resigned to live in an unsafe environment, we’d better take a good, hard look at our society and take action.

06 December 2005

Wednesday November 30, 2005
Lip service is useless
It's another World AIDS Day tomorrow and there is some good news to announce. According to the latest UN AIDS report, sustained efforts “have yielded decreases in HIV incidence among men who have sex with men in many Western countries, among young people in Uganda, among sex workers and their clients in Thailand and Cambodia, and among injecting drug users in Spain and Brazil.” Also, prevention programmes that were begun some time ago are finally bringing down HIV prevalence in Kenya, Zimbabwe and urban Haiti.
That’s it. For the rest of us, it’s still gloom and doom. Some 40.3 million people are now living with HIV, 4.9 million of them newly added in the last year. And 3.1 million adults and children died of AIDS last year.
What is going wrong? You would think that a global pandemic that has killed more than 25 million people since it was first recognised in 1981 – making it “one of the most destructive epidemics in recorded history” – would grab more attention. Indeed it has: government leaders talk about it at major gatherings, the rich ones pledge money, the less rich ones clasp their hands in gratitude. But still, more people are getting infected and more and more are dying, more than half a million of them children in the last year alone.
What is happening? National responses to HIV/AIDS in many countries can be summed up in two words: lip service. In 2001, every single country in the world, after much time-wasting wrangling, agreed to implement the recommendations in the UN General Assembly Special Session’s Declaration of Commitment. Yet, in 2005, most have not. One of the agreed-to recommendations is that by this year, most young people would have access to HIV education. Why then are we in Malaysia still talking about whether or not to have HIV (and sex) education in schools?
Two years ago, the World Health Organisation rolled out its much-vaunted three-by-five access to treatment programme. This means that by 2005, three million people around the world would be on antiretroviral (ARV) therapy. Has it happened?
More than one million people in low- and middle-income countries in the past two years are living longer and more productive lives because they have had access to ARVs and between 250,000 and 350,000 deaths were averted because of it. But this is still far short of the target. In Malaysia, the government announced that it would provide up to 4,000 Malaysians living with HIV with ARVs, even though it is estimated that about 7,000 actually need them. Yet only about 2,500 are actually getting the treatment. Has anyone looked into why exactly the rest are not coming forward? (We cannot assume that everybody will read the papers or watch TV the one time this was announced.) Do they know where to go and will they get fair and professional treatment when they do go?
Prevention is another thing. As long as we remain queasy about realistic prevention programmes – and that means promoting condom use consistently to ensure safer sex by everyone, and harm reduction programmes for injecting drug users – we will never make a dent in the course of the epidemic.
Why aren’t we in Malaysia doing enough prevention? Firstly, because it means having to deal with things we don’t want to deal with, such as drug use, and sex outside marriage, among young people and between people of the same sex.
Secondly, when we do try and deal with them, we refuse to use programmes that have been known to work, preferring to believe that we are so unique that we need our own. We refuse to promote condoms because we think it causes more people to have sex. Yet from the evidence from countries where condom programmes have been comprehensive and long term, the results are showing.
Thirdly, we need to do programmes at a scale that actually makes a difference. Fourthly, we need to seriously deal with stigma and discrimination.
The stigma of AIDS derives from its perceived associations with death, with shame and with behaviour that we regard as anti-social. It also comes with fear of infection. But with treatment, having HIV does not necessarily mean one gets AIDS or dies anymore. Not everybody who has HIV is a drug user, sex worker or gay, as the 17.5 million HIV-positive women, mostly married to only one partner, will attest. Fear of infection can be reduced through intense and accurate facts about how HIV is and is not transmitted. Dealing with stigma and discrimination also means not tolerating cruel and inhuman statements coming from people who may not know much about HIV, even though they hold positions of authority.
When are we seriously going to walk the talk?
For updates on the global AIDS pandemic, go to www.unaids.org