By Beh Lih Yi
KUALA LUMPUR, May 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — In a rare move for Asia, Malaysia has appointed its first female top judge, leading to calls from human rights activists on Friday to reform the country's judiciary and improve the low conviction rates for crimes against women.
Widely seen as a progressive judge, Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, an ethnic Muslim Malay woman, was unveiled as the country's next chief justice by the prime minister's office on Thursday.
There have been a rising number of female judges in Malaysia's top courts in recent years but women's rights groups hoped her appointment would help tackle the low conviction rates in cases like rape and domestic violence.
"We hope there will be more justice for women who go to court," Majidah Hashim, a spokeswoman for the Kuala Lumpur-based women's rights group Sisters in Islam told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Among the 10,810 cases of domestic violence reported between 2015 and 2016, only 7% resulted in a conviction, according to official figures cited in a report by the non-profit Women's Aid Organisation.
For rape, out of some 28,700 rape cases reported between 2005 and 2014, only about 3% saw guilty verdicts, the report showed.
In cases such as divorce and domestic violence, Majidah said women sometimes have had to wait up to 10 years to get a court judgment granting a separation because of a "lack of empathy" among male judges.
Women at the helm of the judiciary are rare in Asia.
Congratulations PM Tun Dr Mahathir @chedetofficial and relevant Malaysian authorities on the appointment of the first female Chief Justice in Malaysia. A great democratic initiative. I wish the new CJ Datuk Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat every success. pic.twitter.com/IDZwylQxMl— Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (@maumoonagayoom) May 3, 2019
Maria Lourdes Sereno was the first woman chief justice in the Philippines until she was ousted last year after President Rodrigo Duterte called her an "enemy" for voting against controversial government proposals.
Latheefa Koya from Lawyers for Liberty, a nonprofit of human rights lawyers, said the appointment was a "big step."
"It makes a difference when it comes to cases which involve the rights of women — rights at the workplace, marriage, and divorce," said the executive director.
"If you have gender balance in the judiciary it only means there will be consideration and understanding from a woman's perspective," she added.
Malaysia's government, which came to power a year ago on promises of reforms, has pledged to improve its record on women rights.
Women's rights groups however, have criticized the government for failing to fulfil an election promise to have at least a third of women in policy-making positions.
Malaysia was ranked 101 out of 14 countries in the World Economic Forum's 2018 Gender Gap Index after scoring poorly on political empowerment.
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)