2020 In Review For Malaysian Women And Society, And What’s Next?

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Globally, 2020 has been a glorious year for women. Many women have made their mark this year on all fronts, be it in politics, at the workplace or at home. Around the world, there has been a growing push to upend traditional power structures and spark awareness of gender inequalities. A study by the United Nation shows that women generated 37% of global GDP in 2020, despite getting paid less than men for the same job. Another study by McKinsey adds that by closing the gender gap, RM 49.6 trillion could be added to global GDP, and 240 million workers could be added to the world’s labor force, by 2025.

Now that we have a general view of the global status quo of women, I bet you are curious to know where Malaysia stands in terms of gender equality in the workplace, female participation in politics, economics and in general how 2020 has been for our women. Though Malaysia is a country that strives to achieve high-income status, the pandemic has set back a number of women at home, in education and in the workplace. Below, is a critical review of the highs and lows for Malaysian women in 2020.

The Highs

  1. WOMEN’S EMPLOYMENT RATE IN MALAYSIA GREW AT A FASTER PACE

First, let’s start with the good news. In 2020, Malaysia has entered a golden age for women in terms of employment. Women’s employment in Malaysia grew at a faster pace compared to male employment this year. Healthcare and hospitality services saw the highest rate of increase in female employment. The government has created 33,000 employment opportunities for women, which is very promising. That said, of course, Malaysia has the potential to do more. Overall, the labor participation rate for women is at 47%, which is low, in comparison to men’s participation rate of about 80%.

  1. PAID MATERNITY LEAVE IS INCREASED FROM 60 TO 90 DAYS

Another highlight for women in 2020 is the initiatives in Budget 2020 under Women@Work. Monetary incentives and income tax exemption are made available for women returning to work until 2030 and maternity leave is extended from 60 to 90 days in the private sector. This is a definite bonus, as mothers will be able to have greater time for bonding with their newborns. Among the goodies for women in the Budget 2020 is the RM500 monthly incentive for two years for women aged 30 to 50 who return to work, and a RM300 hiring incentive each month for two years for employers.

  1. WOMEN EXCEL IN PRIMARY, SECONDARY AND TERTIARY LEVEL EDUCATION

Women’s education achievement this year has surpassed men with a score of 1.053. Malaysia is ranked as one of the highest achieving countries in women’s educational attainment.

Women’s education achievement this year has surpassed men with a score of 1.053. Malaysia is ranked as one of the highest achieving countries in women’s educational attainment.

Adding to that, statistics show that young girls consistently outperform boys in standardized learning assessments, including in math and science. This shows our society understands and values the importance of education for women. However, our education system should focus more on disseminating sexual and reproductive health education materials and spatial mapping of various social issues, including teenage pregnancies.

  1. MORE AWARENESS AND ON-GOING FIGHT AGAINST CHILD MARRIAGES

The main message spotted during the #WomensMarchMY 2020 is the topic of child marriages. In Malaysia, the legal minimum age for marriage under civil law is 18. However, a girl can get married at the age of 16 or even earlier with the permission of her state’s chief minister and sharia court. Though Malaysia did pass a law on sexual offences against children, it did not criminalize child marriage. There are still seven states (Sarawak, Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, Pahang, Negeri Sembilan, and Perlis) in Malaysia that support child marriages. On a positive note, the concern and awareness of criminalizing child marriage is stronger than ever. Together, it is our responsibility to defend the fundamental rights of our children and voice out against underage children marriage!

The Lows

  1. NO COMPREHENSIVE SEXUAL HARASSMENT ACT TILL DATE

To begin with, there is no particular legislation in Malaysia that is explicitly tailored to eliminate sexual harassment despite the continuous calls for better protection. In fact, the Malaysian Penal Code and Sexual Harassment Bill consider workplace harassment as the only means of sexual harassment – WHAT?! A detailed definition is necessary to ensure that it catches all forms of sexual harassment conducts.

Below is the current definition of Sexual Harassment in Malaysia:

Under the Employment Act 1955 (“EA 1955”), sexual harassment is defined as “any unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, whether verbal, non-verbal, visual, gestural or physical, directed at a person which is offensive or humiliating or is a threat to his well-being, arising out of and in the course of his employment”.

Regardless of the overwhelming number of sexual harassment incidences in the workplace, it is also essential to acknowledge the existence of sexual harassment outside its realm. This includes sexual harassment committed at schools, colleges, at home, or any place where an individual has moral ascendency over another person. We need a sexual harassment law that is not only exclusive to work-related sexual harassment incidents, but should also protect women from all walks of life who are faced with unwelcomed and inappropriate sexual remarks or acts.

  1. A HUGE SPIKE IN THE NUMBER OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE CASES

According to the Women and Family Development Ministry, Malaysia has seen a high number of domestic violence cases following the Movement Control Order (MCO), which was imposed since March 18th this year. The ministry’s Talian Kasih hotline had seen a 57% increase (or 1,893 calls) from women in distress up to March 26th. The most common issues that were raised are financial constraints, marital problems and domestic violence. Now, this is why we need a comprehensive law that protects women from such violence. And remember that domestic violence is not a female issue, but it is a global issue!

  1. LESS WOMEN PARTICIPATION IN POLITICS COMPARED TO MEN

Did you know Malaysia is ranked at 143rd position out of 190 countries on women’s representation in the national parliament and stands third from the bottom, above Myanmar and Brunei in ASEAN?!  Though the Pakatan Harapan(PH) government brought in more female politicians to the cabinet and across key institutions, we need more women in decision-making and leadership roles! The current 30% quota for female candidates in the federal and state elections needs a constitutional amendment because women make half of the population, and hence should hold at least half of the decision-making positions for the betterment of democracy and eradicate gender inequality and social injustice issues.

Finally, What Are The Female Agendas For 2021? 

As we can see from the review above, there is much room for improvement when it comes to women issues. One of the main things that we as a society can do is to break the social norms where the responsibility of caring for a family member or raising a family is left solely on the woman. We need to encourage a more balanced relationship and 50/50 partnership in a household. Husbands and wives need to share housework and childcare equally, especially when both are employed full time. This can ease the burden from women’s shoulders and allow them to focus more on their goals and career.

We should also stand against standard gender stigmas like women should look ‘presentable’ at the office, women should ‘obey’ their husband and such!

We should also stand against standard gender stigmas like women should look ‘presentable’ at the office, women should ‘obey’ their husband and such! What’s the use in advising women to wear makeup or talk to their husbands mimicking Doraemon’s voice when the goal is to uplift them and not suppress them? Besides, cosmetics can be costly for women, especially those at the lower end of the earning scale. And by teaching women to ‘obey’ their husbands, we are encouraging silence in the course of domestic violence and abuse, which is not how it should be!

Plus, we should also focus on policies and programs to increase women’s labor force participation, such as job placements, development programs and career comeback programs for professionals. By encouraging more female participation in the workforce, we can increase the country’s annual turnover. A World Bank study shows that our country’s income per capita can grow by 26.2% if all barriers to employment for Malaysian women are removed and their participation in our economy is increased. So, together let’s break the barriers and create more opportunities for women in the workforce for the socioeconomic development and growth of the country!

Foto: Aliran

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