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17 July 2008

Women under fire

South-east Asia's women hold high office in business and politics, but they face challenges from gro

By Marina Mahathir

In December 2005, uproar erupted in the Malay sian Dewan Negara (Upper House) when female senators from the ruling coalition were forced to vote for the Islamic Family Law (Federal Terri tories) (Amendment) Bill 2005, despite their protests against provisions that curtailed the rights of Muslim women. The government pro mised that after the law was passed, it would request the attorney general to amend the provisions. This has yet to happen.

In Indonesia, women are caught in the crossfire between the more pluralistic secular system of old and the emerging religious conservatism of the post-Suharto era. In 2006, the publication of Indonesian Playboy elicited angry responses from conservative groups. An anti-pornography bill followed the same year, introducing penalties of up to 12 years in prison and fines of up to two billion rupiah (£110,000) for kissing in public and baring of legs or shoulders.

Women in south-east Asia, especially in the Muslim countries of Malaysia and Indonesia, are facing the challenges of both modernisation and growing conservatism. Though many women are highly educated and hold public office, including cabinet posts, in both countries, they continue to face attempts to limit their personal lives. In Tangerang, not far from Jakarta, local police patrol the streets at night looking for “behaviour that suggests prostitution”. Already, at least one woman, returning late from her factory shift, has been mistakenly arrested and detained.

Across south-east Asia, women are increasingly participating in public life. Women on average make up 60 per cent of students in tertiary education, and Muslim women in Malaysia and Indonesia run companies alongside men. Rohana Rozhan, CEO of Malaysia’s Astro TV, is just one of them. And even wearing the hijab is no barrier.

But women’s health care varies across Asean. Maternal mortality rates, for example, are 24 per 100,000 live births in Thailand and 470 per 100,000 in Cambodia. Even within success stories such as Malaysia, women face problems. Although Malaysian total fertility rates are 2.7 children per woman, rates are much higher among Muslim women. Fifty-five per cent of Malaysian women use contraceptives, but usage among Muslim women is much lower, leaving them more vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

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In Malaysia, Malay Muslim men who inject drugs make up some 80 per cent of diagnosed HIV cases. Since 2007, however, female infection rates have been rising, indicating that the sexual partners of these men are now being diagnosed. Though their Aids epidemics are nowhere near as serious as Burma’s or Cambodia’s, Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s reluctance to promote condom use has left their women at risk.

Even more vulnerable are the millions of women who leave poorer countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia to work as domestic servants in richer ones such as Malaysia and Singapore. Often isolated, they are vulnerable to abuse. In Malaysia, they are subjected to annual medical check-ups and if found pregnant or diagnosed with an infectious disease, they are immediately deported. Illegal workers, however, have even less access to health services for fear of being detected and arrested.

While shiny towers and miles of highways now characterise south-east Asian cities, attitudes towards women’s rights are largely stuck in the early 20th century. Unfortunately for some women, this may prove fatal.

Marina Mahathir is a columnist and chair of the Malaysian Aids Foundation