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Tomorrow, Malaysia marks six months of implementing the movement control order (MCO) which has recently been further extended to December 31, 2020 — and we at United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) believe it’s indeed timely to focus on addressing the gender-specific impacts on women and girls which have been coming to the fore time and time again during these past six months.

The Covid-19 pandemic has naturally dominated public policy response and resources and Malaysia’s handling of it has been and continues to be commendable.

Since the implementation of the MCO on March 18th, close collaboration of health and enforcement agencies has kept total cases at under 10,000, with 128 deaths so far. The government’s emergency economic responses and policies have also resulted in cushioning the impact of the pandemic on the livelihood of most Malaysians.

However, when it comes to the wellbeing of Malaysia’s women & girls, global studies are already showing that Covid-19 could set back gender equality gains by a generation.

Pandemic lockdowns have made women and girls more vulnerable to a range of harmful practices, including but not limited to domestic violence, unplanned pregnancies and teenage pregnancies, and increased maternal mortality due to unassisted home births.

Girls, especially, are disproportionately affected by school closures, leading to elevated rates of child sexual abuse and child marriage.

Domestic violence

Malaysian women’s groups have seen a marked increase in domestic violence cases reported through their telephone counselling services, since the beginning of the MCO. There was also a visceral reaction in July, when a popular YouTuber’s domestic violence case went viral.

These painful yet necessary discussions raised wareness about the prevalence and normalising of domestic violence in Malaysian society.

As domestic violence impacts the physical and psychological well-being of women, while negatively affecting their families, UNFPA notes there is immense opportunity for emergency response measures. This will both reduce this harmful practice and protect women better.

Strategic partnerships between women’s groups and the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (KPWKM) to educate and empower women and society are crucial. At the same time, increased access to support and shelter services through collaborative efforts is essential.

According to a 2019 Policy Brief by Women’s Aid Organisation, Malaysia currently has one shelter space for roughly every 73,000 women, when the recommended minimum ratio is 1:10,000. Adequately strengthening survivors' resilience and reducing domestic violence in the long run depends on addressing these gaps.

Access to SRHR

Back in April 3, tthe National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN) health unit head, Dr Hamizah Mohd Hassan stated that the MCO could result in a baby boom come 2021. Family planning would ensure that parents are able to properly space out births and provide adequately for their children, with regards to quality of life.

This is particularly crucial, considering the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The rates of unplanned teenage pregnancies, with an average of 18,000 every year (or 50 a day), continue to be a challenge and consequently, young women and girls are potentially at increased risk of maternal mortality and childbirth difficulties.

Additionally, an average of over 100 babies are dumped annually or one reported case every three days, according to the Royal Malaysia Police (PDRM). There have already been six recorded cases of baby dumping since the MCO began.

All of which points to the critical need for better access to information, safe and affordable contraceptive access and sexual and reproductive health services (SRHR) services.

SRHR services are essential healthcare and ever more crucial to be safely accessed during times of crisis, like the Covid-19 pandemic. UNFPA is heartened by LPPKN’s swift reopening of its clinics and facilities which ensured women and girls have access to their basic SRHR rights.

Harmful practices against girls

Startling statistics revealed by KPWKM in a recent session of parliament, highlighted that PDRM received 1,721 reports of sexual crimes committed against children from January-June 2020. Rape, incest and molestation were among the crimes reported.

UNFPA commends and fully supports both PDRM and KPWKM for the swift measures taken to combat this grave child rights issue, including the “Sahabat Bijak” child safety campaign in schools and proposed amendment of the Sexual Offences Against Children Act (SOAC) 2017 to introduce heavier sentences for offenders.

KPWKM’s statistics of 1,856 child marriages in 2018 alone, is of great concern. It’s important to acknowledge how the Covid-19 MCO places girls from marginalised communities at an even greater risk of being married off.

School closures during the early parts of the MCO, together with the economic constraints disproportionately affecting B40 families, must be addressed to protect girls from the likelihood of child marriage.

In fact, UNFPA’s State of World Population 2020 acknowledges that Covid-19’s global impact will force up to 12 million girls to marry in the coming decade.

Thankfully, strategic and urgent action to tackle the economic and social impact of Covid-19 can help reduce the impact on girls’ access to health and education outcomes due to child marriage.

Malaysia has indeed managed the Covid-19 pandemic very prudently, maintaining strict lockdown measures and SOP’s where appropriate, for the health of her people and protection of the economy.

UNFPA furthermore supports Malaysia’s immediate, short term and long term policy based responses and bottom-up, grassroots approaches to change gender-biased norms, attitudes and harmful practices.

Addressing the gender specific impacts on women and girls will require partnerships and collaboration between the government, civil society, international organisations and other stakeholders.

This is not just highly recommended, but will prove essential in ensuring that Malaysia’s national development is swifter and more equitable as we continue adjusting to life under the “new normal.”