The National Campaign towards Muslim Family Law Reform (MFL Campaign) in Malaysia
- March 2016
The project sought to increase public demand for law reform based on the principles of justice and equality. It did this by raising awareness among women on their rights within Islam and women’s access to justice. Its intended outcomes were: increased awareness of rights among women at the grassroots level; increased public discussions on religion; and increased engagement and dialogue among women’s groups and government stakeholders by 2015.
The project attempted to effect change from the bottom up, but more activities would have been needed at the grassroots level for the desired outcomes. One-off workshops were not enough to create the type of momentum and broad based support needed to create a surge in public voice for law reform.
Lessons from Project
The major assumption underlying the project, which was also its main risk, was the ability of grantee to secure meetings with relevant government stakeholders. Grantee intended to mitigate this risk through the use of different strategies to pressure the government for meetings, including a concerted media strategy and activities with grassroots women. In the report on the convention the grantee stated that they invited 50 MPs and only the opposition MPs replied. These MPs felt it was important to discuss the problem of women and gender discrimination but noted that there was a general fear among politicians and the population to voice different opinions as they would then be branded as too progressive or liberal.
The workshops were one-time events for most participants and most said they had not since heard from grantee. More consistent follow up would have been needed to gel these groups into the type of nationwide advocacy network that could create a surge in public demand for law reform. A more concerted effort will be needed as the network is not yet functional without the grantee’s initiative and action.
The impact of the project is difficult to assess without performance data beyond the output level. Adopt more performance based indicators that can be easily collected and tracked throughout the project, with baseline and end of project data. For example, percentage increase in the level of understanding of participants and changes in behaviour on issues related to women’s rights under Malaysian and Islamic laws. This could be measured through pre and post tests or surveys. When seeking attitudinal change, include knowledge, attitude and practices questions so that this change can be measured.
Grantee has a unique niche but other NGOs working for gender equality and legislative reform can also help deliver the message through their different channels and constituencies. Expand reach by training partner NGOs in every state to deliver project workshops. Harness the power of celebrities for public service announcements. Continue to leverage social media and build an online site for persons to find information on the Muslim Family Law, join the network, register complaints, lobby their policy maker and endorse legal reform.
There was logic to the sequencing of the activities in the project design, but the project itself was implemented as a series of activities and would have benefited from being delivered as more integrated and cohesive programme, with adequate follow up, needs based trainings and the use of other developmental approaches.. Factors included the intermittent nature of project implementation, lack of follow up with most workshop participants, and the focus on achieving activity outputs more than on creating a surge in popular support for Muslim Family Law law based on Islamic principles of justice and equality.
Linking the efforts done by the broader coalitions for free and fair election and domestic observers will add weight to the effort and allow for a much broader group of individuals to query candidates about their positions and to extract promises for support- or for reasons why they would not support legal reform. It will also increase the visibility of the key issues with the public which could help provide support and build momentum for a parallel advocacy effort for law reform.
Take advantage of election years to get commitments from parties and policy makers for Muslim Family Law reform. Election years provide good opportunities to question candidates about their positions on gender rights and to lobby them to include legal reform in their electoral platforms. This will also increase the visibility of the issues and build momentum for a parallel advocacy effort for law reform.
There was UNDEF-value added as it allowed grantee to expand its activities, resurrect the Coalition of Muslim Women’s Rights and hold a national convention that it had wanted to do for several years. Donor funding for human rights projects is extremely limited in Malaysia because of its upper-middle income status. It is unlikely that grantee would have received the level of funding needed to undertake this programme from another donor.
The overall situation regarding women’s rights in Malaysia was largely unchanged by the project. However, if the project had not occurred, it is likely that the space to discuss Muslim women’s rights would have closed further as grantee activities kept these issues in the public arena. It also seems likely that this project provided a safe space for women to discuss their problems and to find strength in collective voice. The project also gave some of the women’s groups, pro-reform media and interested Members of Parliament (MPs) the language and justifications they could use to support Muslim Family Law reform when that issue arose.