By Jacqueline Fernandez
Fiscal policy refers to the use of the government budget to achieve the socioeconomic goals of a nation.
Budgets are often perceived as a gender-neutral policy instrument not specifically targeted at either men or women; they are therefore assumed to affect both gender groups equally.
But the reality is that government budgets tend to be gender-blind: they ignore the different roles, responsibilities and needs of the two gender groups, and this often prevents women and girls from gaining access to their fair share of resources and services.
A gender-neutral or gender-blind budget is not able to solve the problem of gender inequality in society. This has given rise to gender-responsive budgeting initiatives which try to include a gender perspective in a nation’s budget.
Gender-responsive budgeting does not mean that there are separate budgets for men and women; neither does it suggest equal spending for men and women. It is an approach that applies a gender lens when designing a budget so that it addresses the needs of both men and women by ensuring a gender-equitable allocation of resources.
The introduction of gender-responsive budgeting has become an important instrument to operationalise gender equality in public finance to embody the goals of gender justice and fiscal justice.
Gender-responsive budgeting is undeniably in line with the UN’s International Women’s Day theme for 2022, which is “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”. It is increasingly seen as a tool for promoting inclusive and sustainable development, as outlined in the UN’s sustainable development goals framework, which is incorporated into the development agenda of most countries, including Malaysia.
Gender equality and social justice gained more prominence in Malaysia at the turn of the millennium. Many NGOs and activists recognise the relevance of using gender-responsive budgeting in tandem with their efforts to reduce gender inequality in society.
Although gender-responsive budgeting is a vital tool for gender mainstreaming, its implementation by the federal, state and local government bodies in Malaysia has not gained enough momentum to have lasting, widespread impacts.
Still, the gender-responsive budgeting approach has made some headway in the more recent federal government budgets. In tabling the 2022 Budget, Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz announced various measures to empower women and help correct gender imbalances in society, either directly or indirectly.
These steps include:
- the appointment of at least one female director for all public listed companies
- a RM5m allocation for women’s youth leadership and entrepreneurship programmes
- RM230m funding for women entrepreneurs
- RM6.2m set aside for the MyKasih Capital Programme that will provide basic business capital assistance, guidance and training to promote online business ventures involving 5,000 participants
- a RM30m allocation for nurseries in government buildings
- the adoption of flexible working arrangements
- individual income tax relief up to RM3,000 for payment of nursery and kindergarten fees until the 2023 year of assessment
- measures to cater to women’s health care needs (ie a RM10m allocation to provide basic personal hygiene kits to 130,000 teenage girls in the bottom 40% group and an RM11.5m allocation to give subsidies for mammograms and cervical cancer screening tests) as well as women’s safety concerns (ie an allocation of RM13m for empowerment of the police Division on Sexual, Women and Children Crime Investigation (D11) and RM10million for the Waja Squad [a women’s anti-crime squad], a provision of RM4.5m for the addition of local social support centres that protect victims of domestic violence plus an allotment of RM10m for additional special shelter houses for women)
Clearly, the government has tried to incorporate elements of gender-responsive budgeting into the 2022 Budget.
Nevertheless, the Budget has shortcomings when scrutinised in the context of the gender-responsive budgeting framework
According to Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) executive director Sumitra Visvanathan, the Budget affects gender issues on employment, safety, health and social protection in a piecemeal manner and fails to provide bold initiatives to tackle gender inequality, which escalated during the Covid pandemic.
It was implied that the budget was lacking in terms of its scope and potential to address fundamental and deep-rooted gender inequalities that pervade many aspects of life.
The views of the WAO are echoed by the Gender Budget Group, a coalition of 20 groups. It remarked that the 2022 Budget is noticeably silent about the government’s efforts to ensure that gender equality considerations are included in decisions on government spending and taxes.
The Gender Budget Group added that despite the 2022 Budget having an allocation of RM332bn – the largest national budget to date – it lacks gender-focused measures. For instance, targeted policies for key economic sectors failed to account for women in the labour force. Similarly, budgetary measures on education (which has the largest allocation of RM52.6bn), sports and mental healthcare had only a negligible gender focus.
It was said that the Budget fails to spell out measures to improve the economic wellbeing of women in binational families nor does it meet the needs of women in vulnerable groups.
Malaysia has made some inroads in reducing gender gaps in society, but it still has a long way to go.
The government can enhance efforts to promote gender equality by adopting a comprehensive approach to gender-responsive budgeting with measures that span over three different periods, ie short term, medium term and long term.
The short-term measures include making gender budget statements and gender tagging of budget programmes.
A gender budget statement is an accountability document that the government produces to show how its programmes and budget aim to promote gender equality; it can be tabled with the budget or as an internal document in the process of budget preparation.
The other short-term measure is gender budget tagging, which highlights and monitors how much money the budget allocates and disburses to achieve gender equality goals. It provides the public a means to gauge the degree to which the budget incorporates gender considerations in different areas of the budget and tracks changes in gender-related allocations in the budget over time.
Malaysia would also do well to adopt medium-term measures in the implementation of gender-responsive budgeting.
In the medium-term, Malaysia’s such budgeting initiatives should be in sync with the nation’s vision and goals for gender equality and women’s development.
The national strategies for women’s development should include measurable targets and indicators in the five-year Malaysia plans. The 12th Malaysia Plan (2021-2025) affirms the government’s efforts to reduce gender gaps but more needs to be done to align the indicators and targets in Malaysia’s five-year development plans with the targets outlined in the UN’s fifth sustainable development goal, ie gender equality.
In addition, the strategies developed by the various ministries and agencies should reflect how they propose to help fulfil the national gender equality goals.
Finally, to develop a well-conceived gender-responsive budgeting framework, the government should not overlook the long-term measure of carrying out gender-budgeting assessments.
The assessments are recommended at the initial stage, when policies are being developed (ie ex-ante gender impact assessment) and subsequently, after policies have been executed (ie ex-post gender impact assessment).
Ex-ante gender impact assessment can help identify the impact of new or proposed policies or programmes on the government’s gender-related targets. This step may prevent the adoption of programmes that may jeopardise the achievement of these targets.
This is followed by an ex-post gender impact assessment that is carried out after the implementation of policies and programmes. This assessment aims to determine to what extent the intended outcomes relating to gender equality were achieved. Such assessments provide useful lessons for future budget decisions to help improve the way the budget is used to achieve gender equality and to improve the efficacy of current policies.
In sum, Malaysia needs gender-responsive budgeting to achieve its national goals and sustainable development goals pertaining to gender equality and sustainable development.
However, efforts to adopt gender-responsive budgeting have to go beyond a piecemeal approach of simply including a few gender-related strategies and programmes in the government’s annual budget.
For it to be implemented successfully, it should be comprehensive and not limited to short-term measures and programmes. Instead, it should be part and parcel of medium and long-term government planning as well.
Lastly, the Malaysian government’s agenda to promote inclusive and sustainable development should pay heed to promoting gender equality across all ethnic groups.
This calls for the government to examine and tackle issues that women generally face and the problems encountered specifically by women who belong to minority ethnic groups due to gender discrimination and ethnic discrimination.
The government can do this by using an intersectionality analytical framework that analyses the different forms of discrimination that could afflict individuals from particular groups.
The use of gender-responsive budgeting complemented by an intersectionality framework will undoubtedly pave the way for a better future for the people of Malaysia.
Dr Jacqueline Liza Fernandez is a former lecturer in Universiti Sains Malaysia who has done research on gender-related issues. She was commissioned by the Penang Women’s Development Corporation to carry out studies on gender budgeting for the two municipal councils in Penang and for the state government