Sumitra Visvanathan urges the government to continue its commitment to strengthen the welfare of those who have the least in society.
The pandemic has been experienced unevenly by different communities in Malaysia.
It has disproportionately affected those in vulnerable employment, unemployed youths who are new entrants to the labour market, workers in the informal sector, and at-risk women and children.
During the pandemic, the setbacks for women in Malaysia are most pronounced in some areas, including the rise in gender-based violence, a disproportionate impact on women’s employment, hindered access to rights and justice mechanisms, limited access to healthcare serving the needs of women and girls, and an increase in unpaid care work.
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We won’t just return to business as usual after the pandemic. The usual solutions will not work. Inequality gaps will widen, workers without strong labour protection will be left worse off, and those without much to begin with before the pandemic will be left further behind.
We urge the government to continue its commitment to strengthen the welfare of those who have the least in our society.
Ending domestic violence requires comprehensive interventions, including shelter space, legal protection, counselling, hotlines, and case management among others.
Malaysia sorely lacks shelter space for domestic violence survivors. Compared to international good practices, we need to increase our shelter space 10-fold. Covid-19 makes this an increasing concern.
The RM21m allocation for support centres for women facing domestic violence and abuse is welcomed. Having a specific allocation in the national budget for domestic violence shelters indicates the government recognises how critical it is to protect women from gender-based violence. We look forward to hearing how this will be allocated and implemented.
The WAO with the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development developed a toolkit and a training module for operating domestic violence shelters. The toolkit is available on our website, and we hope this will help any group currently operating or aiming to operate a shelter.
Malaysia’s ratio of social workers to population is very low – about one social worker per 9,000 persons, compared to say Singapore or the UK (around 1:3,000); and Australia (around 1:1,000). So the MySTEP programme, which would bring in 35,000 short-term public sector workers – including social welfare officers and medical workers – is also welcomed.
We also need to ensure frontline personnel are sourced and trained to handle gender-based violence cases and provide more investments in areas like national helplines.
Employment and childcare services
Gender gaps in economic life have worsened with Covid-19. Following the movement control order, the female unemployment rate worsened to 5.5%, compared to the the male unemployment rate of 4.7%. Additionally, more prime-age workers dropped out of the labour force compared to anytime in the past five years, the majority citing caregiving and family obligations.
Much of 2020’s RM30m allocation for childcare facilities in government buildings was redirected in light of Covid-19. We are thus glad to see this RM30m being reinstated in Budget 2021.
The RM20m matching grant for companies to set up childcare centres on their premises is also welcomed, and the RM20m allocation for community centres to act as childcare centres after school hours sounds encouraging.
But we observe that some previously announced initiatives, including the Women@Work incentives for hiring women reentering the workforce, were not mentioned. This is a missed opportunity as the pandemic has forced more women out of the labour force to care for their dependants. If left unaddressed, this group of women will find it harder to re-enter full-time work or will have to accept diminished pay.
To address this, it is important that the government tailor the existing technical and vocational education and training, and other formal adult education systems to the needs of women who have left the labour force. We also hope to see steps taken to encourage men to play an equal role in childcare. We hope to see for example, at least seven days of paternity leave introduced.
Social protection and welfare
Some implications here are that Malaysia is already heading towards an ageing society, and many people do not have enough savings in their Employees’ Provident Fund to sustain their retirement.
A survey by RinggitPlus found that despite the very real risk of running out of money in the near future, many Malaysians do not wish to tap into their EPF savings (directly or indirectly via the EPF’s i-Lestari platform or the reduced contribution rate). In the future, we could face a situation whereby a large number of senior citizens are financially dependent on the community.
Moreover, women in Malaysia have traditionally had lower EPF savings and are more susceptible to old-age poverty. This is because women in Malaysia are less likely to be engaged in full-time work, are paid less in their workplace, and have longer life expectancy. Dipping into their EPF savings will further widen the pension savings gender gap.
Since the movement control began this year, WAO helplines have experienced a notable increase in the number of calls and WhatsApp messages.
Mental health and substance abuse may not cause domestic violence and child abuse but they can be a trigger, and a consequence of domestic violence and child abuse. The allocation of RM24m to address this, as well as violence and injury prevention efforts, is much needed, given this period of high economic stress and uncertainty.
The government, however, needs to provide more information on what these programmes entail and how the public can benefit from them.
Sumitra Visvanathan is the executive director of the Women’s Aid Organisation