Malaysia: Violence against Women and Information Communication Technologies

4 November 2009

By Jac sm Kee and Sonia Randhawa

Although violence against women (VAW) is a widely recognised problem in Malaysia, there are significant challenges to its eradication. Women's groups have adeptly strategised and lobbied on media issues to address VAW, but this has been largely limited in terms of visibility and representation. Advocacy has not extended to the area of information communications technologies (ICT), augmented by the fact that ICT is framed under the paradigm of development and political neutrality. Women's groups are aware of the importance of appropriating ICT more effectively in their advocacy given Malaysia's heavily regulated public spaces for speech, expression and information. Several recent high profile ICT incidents have catalysed greater engagement.

VAW received clear government commitment in the 1980s and 1990s, in tandem with global women’s movements’ efforts in understanding VAW as a violation of human rights in the framework of the UN world conferences on women. This was also when many women’s rights organisations were established in the country, mostly focussing on legislative advocacy on VAW. As a result, there is wide acknowledgement of domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment – types of VAW that also have some form of recognition and redress in laws. However, since the Eighth Malaysia Plan, which was ironically also the period when the Federal Constitution was amended to include prohibition of discrimination on the basis of gender, there has been a de-prioritisation of VAW specifically, and women’s rights generally. National development priorities for women focussed on their reproductive role in the family, and their productive role in the economy.

In that same period, there was a strong focus on ICT in the national development agenda. ICT was conceived as the primary vehicle to propel the nation into fully developed status by 2020; and heavy investment in terms of policy, infrastructure and budgetary allocations were placed into the development of Malaysia as a model ICT for development country. The private sector plays an influential role in policy and enforcement of ICT policy. The economic framework that drives ICT development has also resulted in an internet space that has been free from State intervention in the form of censorship. This is significant given the strictly regulated space for communication and expression in other forms of media and communication channels. However, there has been an increase in State intervention to regulate the free flow of information and expression on the internet in recent years. Measures which have generally relied on existing peripheral laws such as the Sedition Act, Official Secrets Act and the Internal Security Act, are shifting towards more ICT-specific mechanisms and laws, such as the Communications and Multimedia Act, amendments to the Penal Code to allow state surveillance in attempts to combat terrorism and plans to introduce internet filtering to “protect children from the culture of internet pornography”. The recent change in the configuration of the Ministry that is responsible for communications also demonstrates that the government sees ICT as more than infrastructure and profoundly implicated in power and nation-building.

This presents both challenges and opportunities for women’s rights movements in the advocacy to end VAW and in the advancement of women’s rights. Challenges include analysing and articulating how ICT has impacted on VAW (such as the use of private and intimate photographs to control partners in domestic violence situations); responding to issues of censorship and content regulation while taking into account questions of fair and equal representation of women in the changing landscape of media and; articulating a clear stance on emerging privacy and security concerns from the perspective of women’s rights and realities. Discourses on sexuality, culture and morality are deeply entwined, necessitating a clear stance by women’s rights advocates to reclaim the capacity of women’s rights to control and make decisions about her own body, spaces, action and life as inalienable and fundamental principles. Opportunities include the repositioning of VAW as a national priority by integrating ICT and VAW through the framework of public participation and governance; identifying new potential allies in the private sector and government bodies; engaging in multistakeholder platforms and mechanisms that have been created due to the model of ICT governance adopted by the government; and claiming and shaping digital spaces and discourses through strategic and creative use of ICT. This however, requires the building of new knowledge and capacity in understanding the interconnection between VAW and ICT in women’s current and diverse realities, as well as greater clarity on ICT policy and technology.

The paper highlights forms of VAW that have received recognition in Malaysia and provides the context of ICT development and national policy objectives. It is not an exhaustive assessment of the current state of VAW, but rather aims to surface some of the interconnections between ICT issues and VAW and areas of potential opportunities for advocacy, as well as looking at related cyber laws and areas of regulation, particularly content regulation, privacy and surveillance.

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