March 8 2018
By Pearl Lee
IT is not every day you come across a man who gets it.
My other half would attest I am instrumental when it comes to issues concerning women. I believe women alone do not hold the key to empowerment.
Men are essential to women empowerment to ensure the needs of mothers, sisters, wives and daughters are addressed and protected.
So when a male minister announced the nation’s largest biennial agriculture event – The Malaysia Agriculture, Horticulture and Agrotourism (MAHA) Fair 2018 – was going to be ‘Segalanya Wanita’ (All about Women), it certainly piqued my interest.
MAHA, powered by the Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Ministry, has been a talking point for many following the 2016 edition which saw over four million visitors throng the Malaysia Agro Exposition Park Serdang in Seri Kembangan.
One would imagine its minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek would already be satisfied with what has been described by many as a successful fair.
But it seems he wants to raise the bar higher.
Following his revelation of the women-powered theme, I was compelled to meet him to understand where he was coming from. He agreed to a chat over coffee.
Hailing from a testosterone-driven ministry, Ahmad Shabery believes MAHA 2018 has the potential to transcend into the largest women gathering in the country.
“Why not,” was Ahmad Shabery’s immediate reaction as he broke into a smile when I asked about the theme.
The 59-year-old said he wanted to realise the government’s aspiration of making 2018 a year for women empowerment.
I pointed out there has been little discourse regarding the government’s aspiration, to which he admitted the Women Empowerment Year 2018 scope was wide and not clearly defined.
However, he wants policies by his ministry to elevate the status of women.
This includes setting aside 50 per cent of the RM500 million provision under the National Entrepreneurial Group Economic Fund (Tekun) for women entrepreneurs.
“A strong nation must have strong women in every part of the system and women empowerment is to an extent ensuring women are able to enjoy economic and financial independence,” Ahmad Shabery said.
For the record, in 2015 the United Nations urged member states to step up efforts to empower rural women who often do backbreaking work to harvest food. The agency said more opportunities must be given to women to participate, improve their skills, gain access to assets and be involved in agricultural production and marketing.
The Kemaman MP displayed sheer enthusiasm throughout our conversation, sharing his views on women’s role in the agriculture sector, only pausing briefly to sip on his coffee.
He said women worked hard on the field as they did at home.
According to Ahmad Shabery, Malay families in the northern states had in the past looked at a girl’s soles to determine if she would be the perfect daughter-in-law.
“If the soles of her feet were rough and coarse, it was a sign she was hardworking and would be able to help her in-laws at the paddy field,” he said.
“While this was the practice in the past, some things have not changed … like how women continue to work even after they get off work.
“Women from all sectors will head home to ensure the needs of their families are taken care of. They are always working.”
So how did his officers react when he first suggested the theme?
“Some of them were initially surprised, some sniggered … but they eventually understood where I was coming from and were receptive to the cause.”
He hopes to change the mindset of Malaysians through MAHA 2018.
“I am hopeful MAHA 2018 will change the public’s view on women in agriculture and in general. We want to increase the number of women entrepreneurs in the agriculture and agro-food industry. We want to liberate women in these sectors.”
“I have two daughters and I believe men and women are equal. Defining women empowerment is not just the role of the government but everybody must be involved.
“There must be a strong understanding of the meaning of women empowerment in our society,” he added.
Ahmad Shabery seems to get it in his quest to #PressforProgress.
While his initiatives are commendable, it is hoped such forward thinking will be adopted by others within his ministry and related government agencies.
Stakeholders from both the government and private sector must ensure continuity in their aspirations to liberate women.
Campaigns mooted and engineered to empower, assist and elevate the status of women in society must be followed through to ensure they bring about positive changes.
Happy International Women’s Day!
Award winning journalist Pearl Lee hopes to see more men spearheading efforts that will #PressforProgress to empower women in line with the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day celebrations. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @pearllee22