Budget 2021: Govt should continue its commitment to strengthen the welfare of those who have the least — Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)

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NOVEMBER 6 — 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, 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 the increase in unpaid care work.

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.

Domestic violence

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 RM21 million 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 that the government recognises the criticality of protecting women from gender-based violence. We look forward to hearing how this will be allocated and implemented.

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 worker 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 1:1000). So the MySTEP programme, which would bring in 35 thousand short-term public sector workers — including social welfare officers and medical workers — is also welcomed.

We also need to ensure frontliners are resourced and trained to handle gender-based violence cases, and more investments in areas like national helplines.

Employment and childcare services

Gender gaps in economic life have worsened with Covid-19. Following the MCO, female unemployment rate worsened to 5.5 per cent, compared to the male unemployment rate at 4.7 per cent. Additionally, more prime-age workers dropped out of the labour force compared to anytime in the pass five years — the majority cite caregiving and family obligations.

Much of 2020’s RM30 million allocation for childcare facilities in government buildings was redirected in light of Covid-19. We are thus glad to see this RM30 million being reinstated in the 2021 Budget.

The RM20 million matching grant for companies to set up child care centres on their premises is also welcomed, and the RM20 million allocation for community centres to act as for childcare after school hours sounds encouraging.

But we observe that some previously announced initiatives, including the [email protected] 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 due to care for their dependents. If left unaddressed, this group of women will find it harder to re-enter full-time work, or will have to accept a diminished pay status.

To address this, it is important that the government tailor the existing TVET 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 a more equal role in child care. We hope to see for example, at least seven days of paternity leave introduced.

Social protection & welfare

Some implications here are that Malaysia is already heading towards an ageing society and many people do not have enough savings in their EPF 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 engaged in full-time work, are paid less in their workplace, and have longer life expectancy. Dipping into one’s EPF savings will further widen the gender pension savings gap.

Mental health

Since the MCO 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/child abuse but they can be a trigger, and a consequence of domestic violence/child abuse. The allocation of 24 million 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.

*About Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)

Since 1982, Women’s Aid Organisation has provided free shelter, counselling, and crisis support to women and children who experience abuse. We help women and their children rebuild their lives, after surviving domestic violence, rape, trafficking, and other atrocities. Learning from women’s experiences, we advocate to improve public policies and shift public mindsets. Together, we change lives.

Call the WAO Hotline at 03 7956 3488 or SMS/WhatsApp TINA at 018 988 8058 if you or someone you know is experiencing abuse. For more information, visit wao.org.my.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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