The primary objective of this article is to understand that the indigenous girls and women in Malaysia need better access to formal education. It is a fundamental right they are entitled to, which is a powerful tool of empowerment.

Statistics obtained from Hansard shows that the drop-out rates of indigenous students in Malaysia are still high at 37.4% and 35.1% for primary and secondary school students respectively, even though countrywide the percentage has dropped between 2014 to 2018. Furthermore, there are around 2000 less indigenous students registered to primary and secondary schools in 2019 compared to 2018. These numbers show that there is a disproportionate effect on the indigenous community. They live in abject poverty, experiencing a lack of access to essential services, education and employment. Even more so for the girls and women in these communities since rural women are disproportionately affected by lack of development in rural and remote areas.

It is still evident until today that there is negligence towards the educational rights and needs of indigenous women despite state obligations and efforts to ensure their fundamental right. For example, the drop-out rates are still high despite the fact that 6 years of primary education is compulsory and that under article 10(f) of CEDAW, state parties are to take all appropriate measures to reduce the female drop-out rates and organise programmes for girls and women who have left school prematurely. 

Furthermore, there is a clear disconnection between governmental plans to increase the quality and equality of education in Malaysia between men and women with the needs of the indigenous community, particularly the indigenous women.

RM400mil has recently been spent to upgrade 116 schools in Sarawak, and the government is currently planning to build more schools. There are also plenty of entrepreneurship programmes which are dedicated to indigenous women. But what is the point of this when vulnerable groups in indigenous communities such as the Penan girls are unable to even physically attend schools due to their circumstances? How useful can the Rancangan Makan Tambah programme be if these girls are not even getting to schools in the first place?

To understand the obstacles faced by the indigenous communities in Malaysia to accessing their education, I use the example of the lived experiences of the Penan girls and women. What is crucial to know is their vulnerability to local timber workers, where they are exposed to systemic patterns of sexual violence. A case study by NGO SUARAM showed that the girls experience harassment, rape, physical assault and emotional abuse by loggers. Some of them end up pregnant, then most probably coerced into marriage for financial support, only later to be deserted. 

The sexual violence they experience is an obstacle to them accessing their education because pregnant girls are more likely to drop out of school.  In 2015, 95% of pregnant teenagers in Sarawak dropped out of school during pregnancy or after child birth. In addition to that, poor infrastructure in remote areas also plays a role, hence causing reliance on logging vehicles to get them to schools which exposes them to danger through the likelihood of sexual abuse also contribute to the high drop-out rates.This explains part of the trauma and stigma which they face leading to their lack of motivation to go to school. In general, parents also fear for their safety and choose not to send their children to secondary school.

Women’s human rights NGOs confirm that there is a link between the experience of violence and discrimination with limited education opportunities and poverty. Therefore, a vicious cycle of poverty can be seen where all the circumstances interplay to keep them in their vulnerable and helpless situations. What is shown is a lose-lose situation – they either never go to school due to fear of making their way using remote routes exposing them to danger, or eventually quit anyway because of difficult circumstances that they may face. Ultimately, because they lack access to education, they are forced to remain in these conditions of poverty where generations of girls continue to experience the same hardships as their mothers.  

It is no doubt the State has an obligation to ensure that the indigenous communities’ fundamental right of access to formal education is put into place. Malaysia needs a more holistic approach to ensure they have the tool of education to be empowered and increase their chances of breaking out of poverty. 

In light of the information above, the following are recommendations that should be implemented moving forward:

  1. The law on compulsory attendance to school should be increased to SPM level. It is not enough that the law exists but it should also be enforced.
  2. In order to enforce the above, social support is needed to ensure the ease and safety in getting to and staying in school. Most of the logging activities in Peninsula Malaysia are illegal — in the last 10 years there have been 187 cases of illegal logging. This needs to be curbed in order to ensure the safety of girls and women in rural areas. In addition to that, SWWS recommends investing in providing safe transportation to rural students to facilitate their travels to school and stem their reliance on logging vehicles. 
  3. Finally, awareness programmes should be provided to girls and women. On the one hand, the ‘Empowering Rural Girls’ project by the Sarawak Women for Women Society targets their knowledge on relationships advising them on how to limit and leave sexually exploitative and abusive relationships. We should go even further than this, to educate them on the rights to their own bodies. On the other hand, ‘One Stop Teenage Pregnancy Committee’ and the availability of One Stop Crisis Centres, helps them to access information and services related to their sexual health and family planning. There is evidence proving that instances of teenage pregnancy has been reduced due to initiatives such as these.

Such comprehensive efforts and initiatives are more able to strike at the heart of the problems to encourage and help these girls access their formal education. Without these kinds of intrinsic encouragement, efforts by the government only result in providing inaccessible opportunities which are not effective in improving the lives of indigenous girls and women in the country.

Ref: Hansard (Penyata Rasmi) is the traditional name of the transcripts of Parliamentary Debates in Britain and many Commonwealth countries. It can be found at Abject poverty is worse than poverty in that it means they live not just below the poverty line but severely deprived of basic human needs The Status of Women’s Human Rights: 24 Years of Cedaw in Malaysia Photo by Jonny Lew from Pexels


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