APRIL 19 — March was an eventful month for Malaysian gender policy. With the annual International Women’s Day (IWD) falling on the 8th of March came a flurry of workshops, conferences, reports and launch events by both private and public entities, all with the goal of spurring conversations on creating a more gender equitable society.

Against this backdrop of heightened gender awareness, this month also saw several significant developments unfold within the policy space.

Several were welcome — this included renewed financial commitments by the government to empower women, the introduction of sexual harassment guidelines in public education institutions, and the long awaited appointment of Anti- Sexual Harassment Tribunal members.

On the other hand, less equitable developments included the recent furore over The Citizenship Bill amendments, and an earlier controversial proposal announced on IWD by the Prime Minister targeting female public servants.

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The good

Earlier in the month, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim pledged RM1 billion to the Bumiputera Micro Credit Financing Fund, which aims to support women, youth and military veterans. This is an encouraging move, as research has shed light on the positive link between access to microfinance and women’s participation in economic, public and political life. Access to finance has shown to increase the wellbeing of female recipients and their families, and act as a bulwark against poverty. In post-pandemic Malaysia where female-headed households in particular are economically vulnerable, this is an encouraging start.

Additionally, during the government’s official International Women’s Day launch on the 8th of March, Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim announced that a grant totalling RM50,000 would be distributed between 100 female leaders to fund their non-partisan community programs, events and grassroots initiatives. The grant was meant as “a catalyst to amplify women’s ideas and contributions”.

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In the realm of education, the Ministry of Education and the Prime Minister’s Department of Legal Affairs signed a Memorandum of Cooperation during the inaugural National Convention On Protection Of Students Against Sexual Exploitation. During the convention, a Ministry of Education official presented the official guide for the management of sexual misconduct in schools, which had been in development since 2022. Minister of Education Fadhlina Sidek expressed her commitment to coming down hard on any teacher found to be guilty of sexual offences, and outlined her vision of ‘safe schools’ across Malaysia.Lastly, on the 21st of March the government finally appointed 30 members for the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development’s (KPWKM) Anti-Sexual Harassment Tribunal, following the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act’s historic passing back in August 2022. The Tribunal is now fully operational, and KPWKM Minister Nancy Shukri has encouraged survivors to come forward to file complaints.

The bad

Despite some progress on several policy fronts, one fundamental Gender Inequality issue remained unresolved. Existing Malaysian mothers of overseas born children (OBC) were left dismayed after the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2024 was finally tabled on the 25th of March. The Bill has been amended to allow Malaysian mothers to automatically confer citizenship to their overseas born children — however this would only apply to children born after the Bill becomes law, leaving all existing children and adult children to apply for citizenship, unlike the automatic citizenship which OBC of Malaysian fathers have always been entitled to.

The non-retroactive nature of the Bill is a stark reminder of the unequal second class status of women in Malaysia. It’s also deeply disappointing for rights groups and Malaysian mothers with OBC who have spent years campaigning for women to be treated as equal in the eyes of the law.

Ensuring Equal Citizenship rights for all Malaysian women and existing OBC would be harmonious towards the Malaysian government’s goals of increasing female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR).

Ensuring Equal Citizenship rights for all Malaysian women and existing OBC would be harmonious towards the Malaysian government’s goals of increasing female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR). — Picture By Farhan Najib
Ensuring Equal Citizenship rights for all Malaysian women and existing OBC would be harmonious towards the Malaysian government’s goals of increasing female Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR). — Picture By Farhan Najib

In fact, according to the latest United Nations figures, 1.86 million Malaysian women live overseas, ie; 12% of the total female population of 15.6 million. That is a staggering 57% female migration rate, far higher than the global average of 48%.

Malaysia’s Unequal Citizenship laws are one further barrier which prevents qualified Malaysian women with overseas born children from returning home due to the severe socio economic and psychological barriers faced in every arena, including access to education, healthcare and life cycle opportunities.

Following the amendment, future OBC of Malaysian women would have their automatic right to Citizenship guaranteed — a commendable development Malaysia should be proud of — yet it is incongruous and puzzling that the same right will not be accorded to women who have fought tirelessly for this change to begin with, and to existing OBC, going back a few generations.

The citizenship application window for stateless individuals has also further narrowed, from the age of 21 previously, down to 18. This essentially robs OBC above the age of 18 of their current right to obtaining citizenship via application, through no fault of their own. Some of these children have had cases pending for years by virtue of an unjust system, and through this amendment they have now “aged out” of their right to apply to become Malaysian.

Further negatively impacting families and children, the amendments will remove the ability for permanent residents to register their Malaysian-born children as citizens — a decision which threatens to exacerbate statelessness. This is particularly the case for underserved and Orang Asli and Orang Asal communities living outside of urban centres, where individuals are classified as permanent residents in their country of birth, to which they are indigenous to, all due to their lack of documentation.

The only silver lining to all this is that the Citizenship Bill has not yet been passed. We urge the government to refer the Bill to a Parliamentary Special Select Committee to be refined further in order to ensure it is genuinely Gender Equitable and non discriminatory before being tabled again.

The questionable

Sometimes, policies can be well-intentioned, but lack a holistic Gender Lens. During his International Women’s Day speech, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim proposed that female civil servants be given the option to work fewer hours so they could better balance work and family duties. However with the reduction in office hours, their wages may also be revised downwards accordingly.

While this proposal highlights the very real struggle experienced by working women, especially when their “double burden” of simultaneously tending to work and home commitments significantly impacts their physical and mental wellbeing, it sidesteps one crucial component: the reality of how Unpaid Care Work (UCW) is disproportionately borne by women.

By reducing women’s working hours and their pay, the government risks further entrenching gendered Unpaid Care Work norms, and worsening the significant 33.33% Gender Pay Gap as noted by DOSM in 2023.

The now well-cited Time Use study in 2018 by Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) revealed that women devote 3.6 hours of their time to Unpaid Care Work — 63.6% more than men at just 2.2 hours.

The government has indeed expressed their commitment time and time again to empowering women and increasing female LFPR from 56% to 60% within 10 years, but the problem must be tackled at its root: Unpaid Care Work must be shared equitably between men and women, particularly while Care Industry infrastructure is still lacking. At the policy level, the government must begin to value and make visible the important role Unpaid Care Work plays in our societies and economies.

Overlooking the Gender Gap in crucial caregiving and domestic duties also means we will be unable to address gaping Economic Inequality due to Gender - whether in terms of women’s LFPR, career longevity and promotion prospects, or unequal wages and income across industries.

Unpaid Care Work is the missing link. It is important for the government to acknowledge and take action in this across economic policymaking and budgetary allocations. We must make our “Care Economies” visible, and acknowledge it as the central force driving our economic engine.

To echo the recently published report by the WHO “Fair share for health and care: gender and the undervaluation of health and care work”, to achieve true Gender Equality, we must invest in our health and care infrastructures — from strengthening our healthcare systems, to providing essential child and elderly care — all especially crucial for Malaysia’s near future demographics as birth rates fall while the population is also rapidly ageing.

Where do we go from here?

In line with this year’s theme for International Women’s Day “Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress”, we have already been seeing the government’s willingness to invest in the safety of our women and girls, through the commitment to establishing “safe schools” and the newly operational Anti-Sexual Harassment Tribunal.

However, ‘Investing In Women’ also means ensuring their fundamental constitutional rights to Equal Citizenship — both retroactively and in the future — as advocacy groups such as Family Frontiers have been tirelessly campaigning.

Finally, it is vital that the policies we implement are evidence-based and solutions oriented, tackling problems at their root, or we are merely being performative.

Often, meaningful societal change is driven by slow and difficult structural change, and for long standing issues like economic gender inequality, there are no quick-fixes.

For any government committed to achieving Gender Equality, it is crucial that this vision is shared equally between all ministries — however it is especially important for key Ministries such as the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Economy to take the lead.

With their buy-in and leadership in carving out Malaysia’s vision for a robust Care Economy and working to strengthen our health and care infrastructures, Malaysia will be taking significant steps to creating healthier gender dynamics and fostering shared duties of care — and through that, ensuring women’s equal participation in public, political and economic life.

All of which is the foundation of national development to benefit every Malaysian, not just women.

*Malaysia Women & Girls Forum (MWGF) is an annual event that brings together multiple stakeholders involved in the social and economic advancement of women and girls in Malaysia. MWGF aims to be the bridge that connects the public, civil society and policy stakeholders in rapidly advancing the necessary social, economic and political solutions needed for Malaysia’s women and girls.

Funded and supported by the UN and UNFPA Malaysia, MWGF collectively amplifies, tracks and provides proactive recommendations and solutions on the progress of advancing the rights and wellbeing of the Malaysia’s women and girls. To find out more log on to: www.mwgf.org/about.

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