Who should women vote for?

APRIL 13 – Although women make up half the population, they rarely work as a strong voting bloc in elections to advocate for their rights and interests. 

Political parties in Malaysia often campaign along racial lines instead. 

For the 14th general election, both Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Harapan (PH) have made specific pledges for women in their manifestos. 

I will compare them to see which coalition will benefit women more if they form government, but this essay excludes third parties like PAS and the Socialist Party of Malaysia because they will likely end up with only a few seats in the election.

Work

BN promises to build a women entrepreneurs’ transformation centre, to make it easier for single women to secure loans, and to ease microcredit loan requirements for women entrepreneurs who do part-time businesses. 

BN also pledges to create a women’s co-operative to offer women savings facilities and financial loans. Training and upskilling programmes, including vocational and child care provision training, are also offered for women and single mothers.

BN says it will encourage the private sector to allow pregnant mothers to leave work an hour early and to promote work-life balance, but doesn’t state how it will do so. BN also talks about flexible working hours for mothers with children aged two and below, but this should be extended to fathers too. 

Tax exemptions will be provided to companies that provide childcare centres and facilities for breastfeeding mothers. BN also promises extending the duration of tax incentives to 24 months for women who go back to the workforce.

A nice touch is giving male public sector employees 10 days unrecorded leave when their spouses give birth, as well as seven days special leave for women who care for their children or sick immediate relatives. The special leave, however, should be accorded to fathers also.

PH pledges to strengthen the legal system to promote women’s right to equal wages and to increase women’s employment rate, but doesn’t specify how. 

PH also promises to introduce gender-responsive budgeting. Like BN, PH also promises a microcredit scheme for women entrepreneurs.

PH wants to increase women’s assets, investments and savings, but doesn’t specify how. The coalition also promises to develop the domestic caregiving sector for senior citizens and postnatal mothers, but no details in the plan, besides giving incentives for employers to provide childcare facilities. 

A nice touch is an EPF scheme for housewives, with PH planning to channel a 2 per cent monthly contribution from housewives’ husband’s EPF contributions.

However, both BN and PH fail to tackle the gender wage gap (women’s mean monthly salary in 2016 was RM2,398 compared to men’s RM2,500) and the low female labour force participation rate (54.3 per cent as of 2016). 

Both BN and PH also don’t talk about how they plan to improve women’s leadership positions in the private sector. As of June 2016, women only made up 15.2 per cent of director positions in the top 100 listed companies on Bursa Malaysia. 

Based on 2015 Bursa annual returns, women accounted for just slightly over a quarter, or 26.3 per cent, of top management across all listed companies. 

One way to get women to return to work after starting a family is to create shared parental leave policies, rather than just maternity leave, to encourage men to play an equal role in child-rearing. Parents in both the private and public sectors should get six months shared parental leave, with time off specially allocated to fathers.

The less time women spend away from work, the easier it will be for them to stay on the career ladder, get promoted, and earn bigger salaries. 

Enacting legislation to curb pregnancy and gender discrimination may also go some way in preventing women from paying a motherhood penalty at work. 

Gender quotas are not necessary to improve women’s representation in the boardroom, but perhaps the government can fund diversity training or give tax incentives to corporations with women in leadership positions.

Verdict: BN wins because they have more specific pledges. 

Sex and safety

Both BN and PH pledge to enact legislation against sexual harassment. 

BN promises to establish a special court council on marriage, custody and maintenance to expedite cases of Muslim divorces, while PH pledges to set up a family law improvement committee to amend the law on divorce, maintenance and child custody. PH does not elaborate how the law should be amended, though.

PH pledges to raise awareness on reproductive health, but shies away from expanding access to abortion services or introducing sex education in schools. What the coalition should do is also give unmarried women access to birth control pills at public clinic and hospitals. 

PH promises to introduce “comprehensive gender education” starting from secondary school, but doesn’t elaborate what this entails. The coalition further pledges to set 18 as the minimum age of marriage, effectively curbing child marriage.

Although the BN and PH manifestos contain similar pledges on combatting crime, they fail to address snatch theft, which disproportionately affects women, or how to improve public safety, which goes beyond increasing CCTVs. Women feel unsafe walking on the streets of the city, day or night. 

Both manifestos also fail to tackle rape, sexual assault, child sexual abuse, or teenage pregnancy. Although PH talks about training police officers to deal with rape and sexual harassment, the reporting rate must first be increased. Malaysians, starting from young, must be aware of girls’ and women’s bodily rights and of the importance of sexual consent, which can be dealt with through sex education in school. Campuses should also have trained staff to deal with rape or sexual assault.

Teaching secondary school students about gender, sexuality, contraceptives, sexual consent, and respect for girls and women will help curb rape, teenage pregnancy, and baby dumping. It may even delay youths’ first sexual encounter. It will also help youths understand their gender and sexual identities and may improve acceptance of gay or trans people. 

It is also unfortunate that neither BN nor PH talk about abolishing laws that punish women who dress in “tight” clothing, a clear violation of our right to freedom of expression. The state has no business controlling women’s bodies.

Verdict: PH wins because they have some pledges on reproductive health and education on gender issues, unlike BN that has none.

Leadership and politics

PH says it will establish a women’s political and leadership training institute. The coalition also promises to ensure that at least 30 per cent of “policy makers” are women, besides pledging to improve the “political party selection and election party system.”

But PH does not define what kind of “policy makers” it is referring to, nor does it set any targets for the selection of election candidates or leadership positions in political parties.

BN promises to ensure that women make up at least 30 per cent of “decision makers in all sectors”,  another vague pledge like PH’s. BN also says it will institute a 30 per cent women quota in Dewan Negara by amending the Federal Constitution. Under BN governments thus far, senators have been reduced to rubber stamps, so it is pointless having more women in Dewan Negara. 

The easiest way to increase women’s representation in politics is to have women comprise at least 50 per cent of election candidates, which would likely lead to women making up at least 30 per cent of MPs and state representatives. 

Then Cabinet and state executive councils will have far more female ministers and state executive councillors than the pathetic one or two women. 

Introducing local council elections may also lead to more women representatives because women, who earn less on average than men, may be deterred from running for office at the higher state and federal level due to the extremely expensive election deposits, excluding campaigning cost.

Women who abhor politics may also lean towards running for local council because local and community issues may be considered more service-oriented and less “political."

In political parties themselves, women’s wings are not necessary because they only serve to distance women from the main power structure dominated by men. 

Parties should come up with specific programmes and organisational policies instead to attract women members and to groom them for leadership positions.

Verdict: Toss-up. Both BN and PH do not seem interested in raising more women leaders in politics.

There are a few good pledges in both the BN and PH manifestos for women, such as BN’s promises for a women’s co-operative, unrecorded leave for fathers, and special leave for mothers to care for sick children (which should be extended to fathers), as well as PH’s EPF scheme for housewives. 

Both coalitions’ promises for a law against sexual harassment is long overdue. 

But generally, the BN and PH manifestos fail to address women’s public safety and ignore the huge problem of sexual abuse and assault. BN and PH also show no serious commitment to women in their own organisations, which raises questions on just how many (or how few) female candidates both coalitions will field in the election.

So who should women vote for on May 9? If we were to go solely by BN’s and PH’s manifestos on women, we might as well toss a coin because both are terrible.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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