No excuses for nixing human rights standards

Discrimination against Women

KUALA LUMPUR: Women’s rights activist Ivy Josiah today denounced those who cite cultural and religious rules for rejecting international human rights standards.

She said governments had no choice but to say “yes” to Article 5 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw).

“The article deals with how a state or government must address stereotyping and prejudices because of culture,” she pointed out. “It must do all in its power to change that mindset. One might say it will take a long time to do that, or that I’m not going to do that ever because it’s part of my culture and religion. No. Religion and culture cannot be used as an excuse to violate someone’s rights.”

Cedaw, which is often described as an international bill of rights for women, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979. Malaysia signed it in 1995.

Josiah, who is a member of Women’s Aid Organisation, was commenting on the Indira Gandhi child custody case. She said the government should put Indira’s rights as a woman and mother above considerations of religion.

“We should follow the UN principles,” she said. “When we say UN, we’re not talking just about America, Geneva or Paris. The UN is made up of all member states, including Malaysia.

“And when the UN came up with these conventions and treaties and standards, the governments that signed them said ‘Yes, we agree in principle.’ So you can’t go back home to your respective national communities and say well, in my country there’s culture and religion and race.”

In January, the Court of Appeal, in a 2-1 ruling, set aside a 2013 court order that had quashed the conversion of Indira’s children to Islam by their Muslim convert father, who did so without their mother’s knowledge.

Josiah said Indira’s case should be considered from the human rights perspective, not the religious or cultural perspective.

She said international human rights treaties clearly outlined not only the nature of human rights, but also the obligations of the signatory states.

“Culture is what says that men are the leaders, or that they only can be straight. It’s a sort of prejudice or xenophobia. We must change that mindset. One must look at how to do this through education and campaigns and through law and policy.”

She referred to the issue of domestic violence as an example, saying that policymakers did not wait for cultural assumptions to change before deciding it was a crime.

“You don’t wait for the culture to change,” she said. “You don’t wait for people to change their minds. You change the policy so that people will go ‘Oh, really? I didn’t realise that, actually. You’re right.’

“We didn’t wait for Malaysians to decide that domestic violence is a crime. We just brought the law in. As soon as we did, there was a 200% increase in police reports. People were just waiting for some leadership to say that domestic violence is not a private matter or a matter between a man and a woman.

“If you wait for people to change, it’ll take another 50 years. Why wait?”