Malaysia has made great strides in its economic development in recent decades, becoming a regional economic powerhouse on its way to being a high-income nation. Despite a notable increase in income and quality of life, half of the country’s population is still being left behind — there are still a number of barriers to achieving women’s empowerment in Malaysia.

Malaysia is a diverse and multiracial country where the status of women’s empowerment is complex and may depend on their religion and ethnic background. About 60 percent of Malaysians are Muslim Malays, 23 percent are Chinese, 7 percent are Indian and the rest hail from various indigenous groups. The country’s major religions include Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism.

Within Malaysia’s large Muslim community, over 90 percent of women reported undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM), making the country one of the worst offenders in the world for the practice. FGM is spreading in popularity in Malaysia, especially in more conservative Muslim states dominated by religious parties.

While non-Muslim women have equal parenting rights across the country, Muslim women only enjoy those rights in four out of thirteen states. Child marriage is still permitted in Malaysia, and efforts to raise the age of marriage for girls to 18 were defeated in parliament last year.

Despite these challenges, a greater focus has been placed on women’s empowerment in Malaysia, particularly in regards to women entrepreneurs, journalists and politicians. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the wife of imprisoned former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, is the leader of the country’s opposition and may become Malaysia’s first female prime minister at the next elections in 2018.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has a project that supports women’s empowerment in Malaysia by aiding low-income women entrepreneurs in the conservative states of Terengganu and Kelantan, enabling them to succeed in the cottage food industry. Women now outnumber men in universities despite constituting a minority of the total population and participation in the labor force has steadily increased in the last two decades.

– Giacomo Tognini

Photo: Flickr