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Malaysian women and girls need to be at the centre of the Covid-19 recovery

18 November 2020

Today Malaysia marks eight months of implementing the movement control order (MCO), with many states under CMCO until early December to help curb the recent uptick in Covid-19 cases.  With parliament currently in session debating the allocations and strategy of the 2021 budget, in the  midst of rising cases, economically challenged and vulnerable Malaysians are trying their best to make ends meet. 

Exactly two months ago, we marked the six-month mark of the implementation of the EMCO with an article that called for a bigger focus on the welfare and wellbeing of Malaysia’s women and girls. At the time, the numbers stood below 10,000 cases with 128 fatalities. In under a month since that article was published, the upsurge in cases and deaths doubled and as this article is being written the total number stands at 48,520 cases with 313 fatalities. 

In response, the government has increased movement restriction orders in most states, especially Sabah which in a two-month span has had more cases than any other states in Malaysia (20,000). This has led to another month of economic and social uncertainties faced by all Malaysians especially those  who are already vulnerable. 

This was further emphasised and brought to fore on October 30 as UNFPA and UNICEF  released “Families on the Edge” Report, Part 2, which is the first longitudinal study on MCO-related socioeconomic and mental wellbeing of 500 low-income households in Kuala Lumpur. 

Some of the most insightful findings revolved around the need for better support for B40, vulnerable female led households with regards to childcare, healthcare access, access to multiple devices and  data/subsidised internet to ease access to online learning for children, with a focus on community empowerment and mental health to fill in the care gaps. 

With Malaysia also currently debating Budget 2021 in Parliament, it would be even more meaningful to frame the importance of appropriate allocations and support. UNFPA Malaysia wholeheartedly supports Budget 2021’s goals, which include welfare of the people and economic resilience, as being  in line with ensuring B40 female led households are centred in the national recovery plan.

Financial uncertainty and women’s economic empowerment 

One in two households surveyed were found to be living below the absolute poverty line, with 68 per cent having  no savings, which is worse than the same time last year. Pre-existing financial challenges, reduced employment opportunities and lack of precautionary savings has made it difficult to cope with the  economic impact of Covid-19. 

Seven in 10 heads of households claimed they faced difficulties in meeting their essential expenses, including food, utility bills, education and transport. The increase in the latter two has also caused an alarming number of children from these homes to drop out of school and lose interest to study. Such financial precarity points to economic empowerment of these women being essential to ensuring overall recovery. This can be achieved through appropriate skills training and providing access to funding under the various micro and small and medium enterprises (MSME) schemes established by the government.

UNFPA Malaysia recommends comprehensive programmes to effectively reduce poverty and vulnerability, including interventions in the informal sector and labour market programs to ensure home-based productive employment, good working conditions and improved human capital development. 

This, combined with the commendable Budget 2021 cash assistance packages for B40 can decisively raise the living standards of these female led households.

Social welfare protection for vulnerable groups

Delving deeper, it is clear that Social Protection Government assistance is still needed, in particular cash and rental assistance, especially for female led households. Among those surveyed who had no savings, about one in two are not covered by EPF/Socso. The incidence is also the highest among heads of households with disabilities. All of this highlights adequate institutional arrangements as essential to secure effective financial management and administration.

Under Budget 2021’s social welfare allocation, Bantuan Prihatin Rakyat (BPR), RM6 billion has been earmarked to benefit 8.1 million people. UNFPA Malaysia is heartened to note that aid for B40 groups has been increased with allocations being in accordance with the household income along with  number of children in each household. 

However, it’s important to emphasise that given the status of women, and the multiple intersections of gender discrimination, affirmative action in the form of positive discrimination and policies deserve particular attention to further ensure inclusive societies. 

This can be achieved through applying strategic guiding principles for programmes in social insurance, social assistance, micro and area-based schemes, and or child protection. 

Support for women in care economy

Globally, women spend at least twice as much time as men on unpaid care work, including domestic or household tasks as well as care for people at home and in the community. This burden has become even heavier among female led households surveyed, particularly due to the extraordinary strains of Malaysia’s Covid-19 MCO. 

In fact, according to a 2019 World Bank report, Breaking Barriers: Toward Better Economic Opportunities for Women in Malaysia, more than half of women cited housework as their reason for not joining the labour force.

Clearly, the time and opportunity costs of unpaid care work, as well as the physical demands, have a severe and negative impact on women’s well-being and economic independence by limiting women’s access to paid employment and defining the types of jobs to which women have access to. Not to mention the opportunity cost for the Malaysian economy and recovery, particularly during this crucial  period of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Budget 2021’s allocation of RM20 million for community centres with childcare facilities meant  specifically for urban B40 working parents is a resounding step in the right direction, which can help  alleviate women’s burden in the care economy.

As women’s unpaid care work contributes from 20 to 60 per cent of National Domestic Product, its contribution to national social and economic well-being needs to be further centred through economic and social public policy. 

Indeed, according to World Bank’s report, income per capita could grow by 26.2 per cent — i.e, an  average annual income gains of RM9,400 if all economic barriers are removed for women in Malaysia. All of which can make a critical difference to Malaysia’s overall economic recovery in 2021 and beyond. 

Women and children’s mental health and reducing domestic violence 

The shadow pandemics of mental health and domestic violence are part and parcel of the Covid-19 fallout. 

One of the consequences of the Covid-19 MCO has been the loss of jobs and income, especially for B40 households. Financial uncertainty translates into stress which can manifest through aggression and violence. 

Being confined indoors in cramped living spaces without jobs and an inability to provide for the family as usual often results in mental stress, which is sometimes transferred to the children. Additionally, the constant stream of Covid-19 updates can be unnerving. Indeed, the Ministry of Health has advised the public to care for their emotional wellbeing. 

UNFPA thus welcomes the Budget 2021 allocation of RM24 million for mental health programmes as this helps health and psychosocial support services to continue being in place. Child protection services also need to adapt to ensure care is still available for the children of families who need it. 

Meanwhile, there has been a spike in calls to Talian Kasih and other helplines from women experiencing violence and abuse at home. B40 households are most vulnerable due to the rise in the unemployment rate contributing to stress within families and compounding the risk for violence. 

The Budget 2021 allocation of RM21 million to set up local social support centres for domestic violence victims is an encouraging start to tackling this critical gender gap in our society, worsened by the pandemic.

UNFPA wishes to highlight Women’s Aid Organisation’s (WAO) recent report “Budget 2021: A Better  Country for Women” that recommends RM50 million to improve existing shelters and build new ones for gender-based violence survivors, with an additional RM5 million to operate and improve 24-7 telephone crisis service in Malaysia, including both public and NGO-operated emergency hotlines. 

Women single mothers engaged in caring for other family members who are sick, have disabilities and older family relatives were surveyed to experience increased level of mental stress which sometimes may turn into irritability, aggression and inter-personal violence. Adequate funding will ensure that the social and community support necessary to reduce and avert such incidences is widely available throughout and post Covid-19 to minimise harmful impacts on society.

In conclusion, the findings of the Families on Edge report give rise to grave concern for the well-being of families living under pressure of uncertainty and hopelessness during Covid-19, with particular emphasis on female led households. 

However, there lies a golden opportunity for actionable and sensitised policy making and budgeting drawing from evidence-based data. UNFPA Malaysia commends the Malaysian government for social protection allocations earmarked through Budget 2021 and supports further efforts from all stakeholders for national economic recovery and sustainable wellbeing of everyone, including Malaysia’s most vulnerable female led households.