Entitlements And Rights In Reproduction: Lessons From Chinese Women In A Peri-Urban Village in Peninsular Malaysia

- Chee Heng Leng, Ph.D.
Fakulti Ekologi Manusia, Universiti Pertanian Malaysia
43400 UPM Serdang, Selangor Darul Ehsan, MALAYSIA

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 8 (1998), 41-44.

Reproductive rights embrace certain human rights that are already recognized in national laws, international human rights documents and other consensus documents. These rights rest on the recognition of the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health (ICPD Programme of Action, paragraph 7.3).

Reproductive Rights and Population Policy

The struggle over the reproductive rights of women in the early twentieth century had Eugenicists, neo-Malthusians, and advocates of women's rights arguing for birth control from each of their different ideological stances. After nearly a century, the debate continues with the population controllers essentially building upon neo-Malthusian arguments, while feminists insist that birth control should be seen as part of women's reproductive and human rights.

The population control movement spearheaded by the United States government has, since the 1960s, funded aggressive population control programmes directed at curbing population growth in Third World countries, the underlying premise being that rapid population growth in the Third World is leading to a global crisis, and what is more recently argued, to global environmental degradation. Although these programmes and policies have been widely criticised, and even shown to be ineffective, the essential thrust in population control remains unchanged.

The enunciation of the concept of reproductive rights at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), and the drawing up of its Programme of Action represents a culmination of the long struggle by feminists and the advocates of women's rights to have the reproductive rights of women recognised.

Entitlements and Rights

Rights, however, though formally accorded, may not necessarily be accompanied by the resources and the power to fulfil them. They have the potential to be realised, although there may also be structural and cultural barriers to attaining them. The ability to exercise one's reproductive rights requires one to be in a position of power which is based on knowledge and information, laws and policies which sanction and guarantee these rights, as well as structures and mechanisms which support their realisation.

A pertinent question, therefore, is whether or not women in different societies and under various conditions feel that they have access to their rights as enshrined in international instruments, or even national laws and policies. Furthermore, an examination of the barriers and constraints that stand in the way of these rights would be valuable for policy making that would lead to the enabling conditions for the attainment of these rights.

In many Asian societies which are firmly grounded in patriarchal values, however, women rarely have recourse to the language of 'rights'. Nevertheless, women do have certain entitlements which are sanctioned by social norms and cultural rules and practices. Beyond this, however, women may also feel themselves entitled to certain rights which are not socially sanctioned, and which they themselves may not explicitly express. Nonetheless, their feelings of entitlement may be reflected in what they do and say, the way in which they recount their lives, or simply in their explanations of why they do certain things.

The concept of entitlement is based on the premise that a human being has rights based on laws, religion, customary rules, practices and norms. Like rights, entitlements cannot be isolated from the structural and other forces in society that assign privileges and power, roles and responsibilities. Whether or not one is capable of pursuing one's entitlement is linked to one's position in society. However, from a particular position, one negotiates, strategizes, bargains, accomodates or even resists.

In this paper, I aim to illustrate the ideas of entitlement in reproduction that are held by Chinese women in a peri-urban community in Peninsular Malaysia. Although these entitlements are not expressed in terms of 'women's rights', and may or may not be explicitly sanctioned socially or culturally, the women nevertheless claim them in their various ways.

Background to the Study

The data used in this paper is drawn from a study conducted in 1993- 94 as part of a seven-country study of women's perception of their reproductive rights. In Peninsular Malaysia, the country team conducted five separate studies among: (i) Malay women in a fishing village on the east coast, (ii) Chinese women in a peri-urban community on the west coast, (iii) Tamil women living and working in an oil-palm plantation, (iv) Chinese women living in low-cost high- rise flats in the city of Kuala Lumpur, and (v) Malay women who have been relocated from a squatter area to low-cost flats.

A qualitative method is used, and the women were selected based on existing contacts with researchers and willingness to be interviewed. Based on framework questions which were used for each of the seven countries, the Malaysian country team devised a further list of possible questions as an interview guide. The basic approach is to ask the interviewee to tell us about her life history, with an emphasis on her reproductive history. Each woman was interviewed at least three times over a period of a few months.

The peri-urban Chinese community is located about 25 kilometres from a major city. It consists of about 180 houses, with a population of about 800, almost all of whom are of Chinese origin. About 30% of the population of Peninsular Malaysia are descended from Chinese immigrants, the majority of whom came into Malaya in the nineteenth century as coolies, tin mine workers, rubber tappers. The Chinese population, though varied in many aspects, have in the main, maintained a distinct culture and identity.

The people in the community are factory workers, unskilled as well as skilled workers, drivers of heavy machinery, lorry drivers, agricultural workers, vegetable and tapioca farmers, rubber tappers and smallholders, petty traders, and hawkers. Most of the older people would either not have gone to school, or have had very few years of schooling, while the younger generations have increasingly more years of education. Income range is very wide, from a few hundred ringgit to a few thousand ringgit per month per household, but most households would have an income of about one thousand to two thousand ringgit per month.

The 16 women interviewed spanned the teenaged to the post-menopausal ages. Four are between 16-19 years old, three each in the 20-29, and the 30-39 year old age groups, four are in their forties, and two are in their fifties. The four teenaged women are single, but all the others are married with children.

Two of the women are from an entrepreneur household, operating a backyard plastic mould factory at the back of their house. The others are essentially of working class households, where husbands, sons and fathers are skilled workers such as welders, tilers, heavy machinery and lorry drivers, factory workers, and mechanics. The women themselves are housewives, home-based workers, informal sector cake makers, vegetable sellers, and cleaners.

Patriarchy and Women's Subordination

Malaysian society, like most other societies, cast women primarily into a reproductive role, i.e. motherhood, and this particular community is no exception. Furthermore, the study community is strongly rooted in Chinese culture which is patriarchal, as reflected by son preference, and the importance assigned to male lineage.

There are other practices and norms in the community which indicate this, for example, the practice of patrilocality, and the fact that after a woman marries, she 'belongs' to her husband's family. The women themselves echo this, for example:

But the Chinese customs are also important. Like giving dowry. My mother said, how much the boy's family gives us, we would return the same amount to them ... Giving to the daughter, isn't that the same as giving back to the man's family? ... (Yim Leng, 17 years old, backyard factory worker).

When it was suggested that a woman might stay with her own mother after marriage, the responses were:

You are already married out, how can you stay with your mother? (Yim Leng, 17 years)

... people will talk ... (Kui Meng, 18 years, backyard factory worker)

You've already married out, you have to follow your husband ... (Kit Cheng, 27 years old, clerk)

... surely one has to follow the husband. The husband is the one to decide. (Kei Yin, 29 years old, cleaner)

The prevailing norms dictate strict gender roles: men are the breadwinners, with them lie the duty of supporting the family; while wives are responsible for housework and child care, and are therefore entitled to be maintained by their husbands.

If the husband is not good, does not support the family then I agree with the woman getting a divorce. If the wife is no good -- lazy to do housework, always going out to gamble and gossip -- then the husband should divorce her. (Wan Yee, 47 years old, cake seller)

... Support myself! Might as well not get married. (Fah Mei, 17 years old, backyard factory worker)

Nevertheless, work is seen to be an important feature in their lives, for a variety of reasons: husband's low income, aspirations to achieve a higher standard of living, and not least, desire for a certain degree of financial independence.

My husband's wage is not very much. If I come out to work, and if I want to buy things to eat, clothes to wear, or go visit places ... I do not have to stretch out my hand to ask for money. I am free because it's my own money. (Wan Yee, 47 years old, cake seller)

It's better to work after marriage. If you stay at home, your husband may bully you. If you are working, you are not afraid, you are supporting yourself. (Sai Leng, 16 years old, schoolgirl)

It does not have to be said ... Rich people do not have to work after marriage, but for poor people, definitely you have to work. You don't have to ask your husband. (Hoi Chiew, 58 years old, pensioner)

You see, my husband's income is not that regular, so I have to look for ways to help supplement the family income. (Lai Yin, 39 years old, home-based tailor)

A value is assigned to the ability to work, which is associated partly with familial responsibility, partly with expediency and reality, and also partly with self-worth and identity. In deference to social norms, however, the choice to work is often couched in terms of supplementing the husband's income, and improving the family's economic conditions.

Reproductive Decision-Making

In the context of strong patriarchal norms, decision-making in a marriage appears to involve a delicate balance between verbal deference to gender norms and practical maneuvering to control resources and their own lives. All the women interviewed are active contributors to their households, yet both unmarried and married women adhere to the normative ideal of the husband as principle breadwinner and decision-maker, the wife a supplementary earner and manager of the household.

Most of the household decisions, the small things, ... are made by me. The big decisions ... are made by my husband. (Lai Yin, 39 years old, home-based tailor)

Nevertheless, the women exhibit a strong sense of entitlement when it comes to reproductive decision-making, particularly with respect to deciding the number of children they will have, and when to have them. Lai Yin, quoted above, explains further:

I am the one to make the decisions where family planning is concerned. After I decide, then I tell him ... Child rearing is not by him, his responsibility is only to bring the money back. When he comes home, he sees the children are already fed and bathed. ... He only plays with them, he does not take care of them. Getting up in the middle of the night to give them milk, taking them to the doctor when they are ill -- all this is my responsibility. He does not suffer, the suffering is all done by me. So when I tell him that we need to use the contraceptive, he cooperates.

This is echoed by others:

My husband says that later, when he has more money, he would like another child, so that it will not be so lonely at home when the others have gone ... Even if I have the money, I still think that four children is enough. ... He does not have to take care of them, he does not know how difficult it is (Kum Mooi, 35 years old, housewife).

It's difficult to take care of so many. With only one pair of hands, I have to raise them all. Once I come back from the hospital, I have to cook, to wash clothes, everything I have to do by myself. It's too difficult. I decided myself not to have anymore children, but I did ask my husband, and he agreed. (Yow Lan, 54 years old)

I myself decided all this. Because I am the one to take care of them. When they are ill, I have to take them to the doctor's. My husband goes out early in the morning, coming back late at night. Where does he bother about the home? Everything, I depend on myself. (Hoi Chiew, 58 years old)

The burden and the responsibility that is borne by the woman is therefore the basis for her rights in reproductive decision-making. Even when the women do not express this explicitly, their sense of entitlement is evident in their behaviour and actions in exercising control over their own fertility. Pek Siew, for example, had, throughout her entire marriage, made all the family planning decisions on her own.

Nobody bothers me. My husband does not check after me either. It's all up to me. (Pek Siew, 45 years old, tapioca farmer, 4 children)

In Yit Meng's case, she too makes all the decisions:

Usually, I am the one to make the decisions in this household. He will say, "... you decide" (Yit Meng, 42 years old, vegetable seller, five children)

The younger women, those who are in their twenties and thirties, are more inclined to report shared decision-making. Even so, one of the women decided on her own to have an abortion after her third child because she felt that the pregnancy was too close to her second child. Once again, we see the assertion of a woman to claim what she feels she is entitled to. And again, the action is justified by recourse to the burden and responsibility that she is unable to undertake.

My husband does not know about it. I did not tell him. When my period was ten days overdue, I suspected that I was pregnant, so I went to see the doctor. ... In those ten days, I had already decided. If I had told my husband, he would not have agreed. ... Only myself alone, how can I handle taking care of so many children? (Sin Fah, 29 years old, housewife)

Normative Value and Reality

Sometimes, tensions emerge between the dominant cultural values on the one hand, and women's own realities and aspirations on the other. The women use various strategies to negotiate this tension, and through their actions and behaviour, rather than explicit words, they express a strong sense of entitlement to regulate their own fertility. This comes out particularly clearly with respect to abortions.

In Malaysia, the law governing abortion was liberalised in 1989 following a campaign waged by women's organisations on rape, to allow abortions if the continuation of the pregnancy risks the life of the woman, or if it causes an injury to the mental or physical health of the pregnant woman that is greater than if the pregnancy is terminated. Prior to this, abortions had only been allowed if the life of the woman is at risk.

Nevertheless, there is still a great deal of moral and legal ambiguity, with many of the women not knowing that abortions may be legal under certain circumstances, and some viewing abortions as morally reprehensible. However, out of the 12 married women who were interviewed, four have had an abortion, and one have had two abortions. In each case, these women confess that the decision to abort was theirs, with only one having sought her husband's prior approval. She explains:

I decided [on having the abortion] ... but I had to discuss with my husband first. Or he will say that I do not treat him like a husband. (Kum Mooi, 35 years old, housewife)

The case of Kum Mooi illustrates clearly the tension that exists between the normative voice which finds its way in expressed opinions on the one hand and actual actions and behaviour on the other. During her first interview, she had said:

Do not waste a life. Others may do it [undergo an abortion], but I will feel that it is a waste. If I do not want a child, I will use contraceptive, I do not think of aborting, it is very wasteful. (Kum Mooi, 35 years old)

However, at a subsequent interview six months later, she confessed that she had aborted a pregnancy. She explained:

All my children are so big already. If I give birth to another one, it will be difficult for me. I will not be so free; cannot go anywhere. I ... decided that I do not want another one, but I had to discuss with my husband first. (Kum Mooi, 35 years old)

Similarly, Mei Yeng, 41 years old, a housewife with six children who had expressed disapproval of abortion at earlier interview, was later found to have aborted a pregnancy:

I thought that I cannot be pregnant anymore. Then, the other day, I got it. ... in the end, I decided to abort it. ... I did not want the last child -- old already, whenever I want to go out, I can't, with a baby around. (Mei Yeng, 41 years old)

A case may be made that the women often express the norms of their community and society, which are constrained by law, religion, and custom. The voice of authority, however, may be influencing what women say more than what they do. When they are faced with an unwanted pregnancy, they may act in such a way as to lend support to the notion that they feel entitled to controlling their own bodies and lives.

Justifications and Ethics

Besides expressing their entitlements in terms of their actions, the women also provide their own justification, or reasoning, for them. Childrearing responsibilities, not being able to cope, and the costs of having children are reasons given by the women to explain their actions. In other words, they invoke their very status as mothers, as the ones primarily responsible for nurturing and bringing up children and the ones to bear the greatest burdens and pains, to justify this entitlement.

Nevertheless, the aspirations are not only financial, as for example, in Kum Mooi and Mei Yeng's cases, but are also about their personal desire for greater mobility and freedom. In any case, these reasonings circumvent the 'larger' issues of legality and morality which are in the dominant social discourse.

Even when the women speak against abortions, for example, they talk about 'waste', as Kum Mooi did (see quote above), and as Wan Yee alludes to:

It depends on the situation. If she cannot use contraceptives, conceives, is having a difficult time, and needs to get rid of it, well, that is alright. But if it is a good pregnancy, then I do not quite agree to washing it away. (Wan Yee, 47 years old)

Likewise, the women often reflect society's normative values by considering out-of-wedlock childbearing as sinful, speaking of it in hushed tones. However, on further discussion, many speak of the social problems that unmarried mothers face rather than imputing to them any immorality. For example:

There will be a lot of gossip. Next time, people will talk about the child. It will not be good for him. ... You will receive a lot of pressure. (Hoi Chiew, 54 years old)

It may be argued that these alternative reasonings contain within them an 'alternative ethics' to the ethics of mainstream society and culture. More research and investigation needs to be carried out to listen to what women in various societies and social contexts are saying, and to explore the idea that they express the alternative ethics of a lived reality.


Although the women interviewed did not talk about their 'reproductive rights', they nevertheless assert their entitlement to decide for themselves the number of children they would have, when they would have them, and how not to have them. The interviews reveal an interesting contrast between women's public pronouncements of adherence to social and community norms, and their private actions.

The extent to which a woman is able to assert what she feels to be her entitlement to control her reproduction may be the outcome of many complex factors, including her own identification with social and cultural norms, her social status and independent economic position, as well as the existence of support networks. Yet the ability to express their entitlement explicitly and openly eludes the women in our study. Nevertheless, their hidden voices may contain the threads of an alternative ethics that need to be unravelled and understood.

Dixon-Mueller, Ruth, 1993. Population policy and women's rights: transforming reproductive choice. London: Praeger.
Gordon, Linda, 1981. The long struggle for reproductive rights. Radical America, 15:75-88.
Hartmann, Betsy, 1987. Reproductive rights and wrongs: the global politics of population control and contraceptive choice. New York: Harper and Row.
International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Programme of Action, 1994. Geneva: United Nations.
Mamdani, Mahmood, 1972. The myth of population control: family, cast, and class in an Indian village. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Third World Network, 1993.

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