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To be poor and a woman in Malaysia today

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Malaysia needs to introduce more inclusive public policies to meet the basic needs of everyone, including women, says Veronica Anne Retnam.

Income inequality
Income inequality

MARCH 24 ― Today, Papathy, a mother and grandmother aged 62, was forced to call the police to arrest her 35-year-old alcoholic (and also drug-taking?) son for threatening the family and causing a lot of harm. He has been in and out of prison five times. To call the police to report her son was traumatic for her.

Hers has been a life of suffering.

She has dependents: her 10- and 12-year-old granddaughters who live with her as well as her 67-year-old husband who has very little mobility. Her son has not been responsible and her daughter-in-law died some years ago.

Papathy does house work to support her family together with her 23-year-old factory worker daughter. She has debts of RM3000 each with two loan sharks, incurred to meet the funeral expenses of her son (who was a good bread-winner) and their living expenses following the death of her son.

Her story

When Papathy was 13, she asked her mother why she was not sent to school while her younger siblings were school-goers. Her mother beat her and replied, “If you go to school, then who would look after your brothers and sisters?”
At 13, she helped her mother collect scrap rubber, washed clothes at the swamp nearby, cooked, and helped look after her younger siblings. Her elder sister had the privilege of staying with their grandparents, going to school (and so has a better life now).

At 22, Papathy was forced to marry, even though she tried very hard to refuse marriage. She did not want to get married as she saw so much violence in the families around her, with the men drinking alcohol and beating up their wives. This was not a life she wanted, she said.

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On the day of her wedding, a quarrel took place in the home of her husband-to-be. As she sat at the wedding dais, she was plotting to make a dash. But she did not know where to and how to run away from the crowd. Thus she began her life in another rubber plantation, where her husband was working, in Sepang.

At 23, Papathy started her journey by bus from Sepang Estate, early one morning, changing buses at Seremban at about 11.00am and walking alone, carrying her four-day-old baby boy through a lonely path in the rubber plantation in the late afternoon. Not a motorbike or bicycle passed her by.

She did not want to live with the husband she was forced to marry, and so she made this arduous journey from Selangor to Negri Sembilan to return to her parents’ house. When she arrived, her mother refused to let her stay and therefore, she was again forced into living with her husband who was an alcoholic.

Hers was a life of severe hardship, pain, economic deprivation and one almost devoid of any joy.

By 39, she had nine children and was a rubber tapper. With the construction of the KLIA, she was evicted from Sepang Estate and made her way, like some others, to Seremban, to try and eke out a living, drunken husband and seven children in tow, the youngest being seven. One son went to Singapore to make a living while her eldest son went elsewhere to work.

Her life over the years

She did various jobs in the unorganised sector mainly and only twice had jobs where EPF and Socso deductions were made. She was the sole bread-winner until her boys started doing odd jobs from when they were 15. Even then, she had to deal with her sons – all but one of whom were on the way to becoming alcoholics.

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Two sons have since died. The 35-year-old she reported to police has been in and out of jail five times. (His wife left him with her two young children for a shelter.) Only Papathy’s eldest son is economically independent, running a small cleaning service.

Her 35-year-old son had kidney problems from ages four to 12 and was denied admittance to school when she tried registering him in school. (That estate is where KLIA now stands). Only the 23-year-old daughter made it to Form Three, getting credits and passes but dropping out due to poverty.

Today’s saga with her 35-year-old son began in the late afternoon, joined by another 22-year-old son (with a son and daughter). She began calling the police from about 5.00pm. It was only at about 8.30pm, with help from others, did the police come, by which time her sons had taken flight. After making a report at the police station at 9.00pm, she came home to find out that another son had beaten up his brother, pushing him into the drain and sustaining a head injury.

This mother has been working and contributing towards the country’s wealth. So too have other women. And their children also have been doing unskilled jobs, earning paltry sums. But what do they get in return? Whose fault is it when her boys have become who they are today; not only her boys but others like them from different ethnic groups who contribute to Malaysia’s economic development (and so GDP), and who keep the country ‘going’? What are the common elements in their lives?

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These common elements are a life of poverty with the symptoms (like her sons’ alcoholism, and her husband’s too) of a society which has marginalised a sector of its society. Coupled with this poverty is the burden of a high cost of living coming from high food prices, a lack of proper housing and, transport.

If this isn’t enough, these women have to bear the pain of seeing their children occupying seats most often in the weakest classes of the school, without being able to break out of the vicious circle of poverty. If they had been to quality child care centres and had access to quality early childhood education, they may not be doing what they did this evening. But having incomes of less than RM1,000 (or even RM700), what hope do these women have? Children growing up in rough neighbourhoods, being exposed to rough lives, have very little opportunity to become ‘useful’ citizens, except perhaps for those who are resilient.

If we are supposed to become a developed nation, then our public policies must ensure that basic needs of food, housing, education, transportation must be accessible to the poor. There must be a safety net. If we fail to do this, then there will be more and more symptoms. We need to address causes of poverty correctly. Giving handouts is not the answer; neither is building jails.

Veronica Anne Retnam is an Aliran member based in Seremban.

Source: themalaysianinsider.com

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