Women’s Rights to Education: Steps in the Right Direction, But Still A March Ahead

By: Nurul Hannah Binti Haslimi, Acting Human Rights and Activism Officer of KPUM ASASI


Education is a fundamental right recognised by international human rights law that all individuals possess. In light of International Women’s Day, this blog post will consider the right to education through the lens of women’s rights in a Malaysian context. Although Malaysia has made significant strides post-independence in closing the gender gap in certain aspects of access to education, we must acknowledge that we still have a long way to go before we achieve true gender equality in education. 

The international human rights framework

The United Nations’ Article 10 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) obligates all States Parties (of which Malaysia is one) to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in order to ensure women and men have equal rights in the field of education.[1] It also lists specific things that States Parties have to ensure and these include:[2]

  • the same conditions for access to studies and diplomas at all educational levels, in both urban and rural areas
  • the same quality of education
  • the elimination of any stereotyped concept of the roles of men and women
  • the same opportunities to benefit from scholarships and other study grants
  • the same access to programmes of continuing education, including literacy programmes, particularly those aimed at reducing the gender gap in education
  • the reduction of female student drop-out rates and programmes for women and girls who have left school prematurely
  • the same opportunity to participate in sports and physical education
  • access to educational information on health, including advice on family planning

The Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has also released General Recommendation 36[3] on girls’ and women’s right to education. In it, they introduce a “tripartite human rights framework,” identifying three aspects of women’s right to education. This consists of:

Rights of access to education 

  • Involves participation
  • Reflected in the extent to which girls/boys, women/men are equally represented

Rights within education

  • Corresponds closely with the concepts of ‘acceptability’ and ‘quality’ and goes ‘beyond numerical equality and aims at promoting substantive gender equality in education 
  • Equality of treatment and opportunity as well as the nature of gender relations between female and male students and teachers in educational settings. This dimension of equality is particularly important given that it is a society that shapes and reproduces gender-based inequalities through social institutions, and educational institutions are critical players in this regard.

Rights through education

  • Ways schooling shapes rights and gender equality in aspects of life outside the sphere of education
  • Absence of this right = failure to advance the position of women in the social, cultural, political and economic fields thereby denying their full enjoyment of rights in these arenas
  • Whether certification carries the same value and social currency for women as for men

Now, let’s examine how successful Malaysia has been in protecting these three aspects of the women’s right to education, and highlight the work that needs to be done to ensure that the right to education is fully upheld.

Rights of Access to Education

Many of us have probably heard of the oft-cited statistics about how the rate of enrollment for Malaysian girls in tertiary education is consistently surpassing the number of boys enrolled in Malaysian higher education institutions. This is true: by 2010, female students made up 60.1% of all undergraduate students in Malaysian public universities.[4] On a cursory glance, things are better than ever for Malaysian women: the female adult literacy increased from 61.3% in 1980 to 90.8% in 2010 and the gender gap in labour force participation has narrowed significantly between 1982 and 2017 from 40.8% to 25.4%.[5]

However, gendered expectations of girls are still an impediment to access to education. A look through UNICEF’s findings on out-of-school children in Sabah reveals that 19.3% of all students not in school are being denied their right to education due to expectations that they have to help with housework like cooking, cleaning and babysitting, all of which are aimed at ensuring that the girls are married.[6]

The data shows that despite the impressive rates of enrollment for female students, some girls are still being denied their access to education due as they are expected to perform other “womanly” duties perceived to be of more importance than attending school. As such, efforts to fight back against these stereotypes are just as important as ever in ensuring girls are not being prevented from accessing the education they are entitled to.

Rights Within Education

The issue of gender stereotyping impeding girls’ education development is even more prevalent when considering rights within education. Despite the high rates of enrolment in schools and tertiary education, when looking at it from a subject-based perspective, there is a trend of gender segregation between boys and girls when it comes to certain courses of study – stemming from a culture of gender-stereotyping.[7] An example you are probably well aware of is the concentration of female students in the Arts stream as opposed to the Science stream.[8]

The reinforcement of outdated, inaccurate and harmful gender stereotypes even extends into the subject matter being taught in schools. Recently, the Ministry of Education received much online backlash after a disgruntled parent tweeted a page of their child’s Standard 3 Physical Education textbook which appeared to blame the actions of women for potential sexual harassment/abuse.[9]

In response to netizens’ criticisms, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development announced in January that it would take a closer look at the lack of sex education in Malaysian schools.[10]

This example is but a symptom of the much larger societal ill of gender stereotypes in education. Think of it this way, this book was most definitely written and reviewed by many authors and panels, but none of them spotted the troubling aspect of the content. Hopefully, the government meant what they said and not saying it only for the sake of quelling the public’s fury.

Rights through education

Education is an important tool to elevate an individual’s social standing and raises his or her prospects. Research has shown that women with higher levels of education (holding a certificate or a higher qualification) have a higher rate of labour force participation.[11]

However, Malaysia has come under criticism for struggling to unlock women’s full potential beyond educational attainment.[12] A 2011 report from the International Labor Organisation (ILO) outlines that female labour remains an underutilised resource in many Asian economies, as signalled by the low female labour participation rates. In South-East Asia, Malaysia has one of the lowest standing at 45.7% in 2008 compared to our neighbours Singapore (60.2%), Thailand (70.0%) and Indonesia (51.8%).[13]

The World Bank estimates that removing barriers to women’s economic participation could potentially increase income per capita by 23.7% in the short term and up to 26.2% in the long term, which, according to the former Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, Dr Wan Azizah, would amount to an average income gain of about RM9,400 for each Malaysian each year.[14]

Showing similar trend to the gender segregation in the STEM and the Arts fields, the data on sector-specific breakdowns highlights that women’s labour force participation in STEM is lower than that of their male counterparts – reflecting in lower enrollment in STEM courses in tertiary education.[15]

The main takeaway from this data is perhaps the consequence of gender segregation in education – has far-reaching implications that affect a woman’s career and livelihood for the rest of her life. And so, it is crucial to address these inequalities at an early stage as possible.


Malaysian women are as educated as they have ever been and are more poised to enter and excel in far more careers than their fore-mothers were given the opportunity to. However, we should consider these improvements as successful battles in the larger war we have to fight to ensure gender equality in the right to education in Malaysia. Happy International Women’s Day! 🙂


Edited by Chia Zhi Zhi, SC Media Journalist.


1 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, art 10
2 Right to Education, ‘Women and Girls’ Accessed 5 March 2020
3 Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, General recommendation No. 36 (2017) on the right of girls and women to education, 4-5
4 Beatrice Fui Yee Lim, “Women Left Behind? Closing the Gender Gap in Malaysia.” Japan Labor Issues (2019) 22
5 Ibid 22-23
6 UNICEF, ‘Out of School Children – The Sabah Context’ (2019)
7 Lim (n 5) 22
8 Ibid
9 World Education Blog, ‘Malaysia says it will redress the gender bias in its textbooks’ (12 February 2019) Accessed 5 March 2020
10 Ibid
11 Lim (n 8) 25-26
12 The Malay Mail, ‘Malaysia ranks high in women’s educational attainment, says Dr Wan Azizah’ (7 Nov 2019) accessed 5 March 2020
13 Lim (n 11) 25
14 The Malay Mail (n 11)
15 Lim (n 13)