As the world shuts its borders to control the spread of COVID-19, concerns for women arise.
That concern comes while the uneven scales of gender equality tipped further during the pandemic to reveal a major disparity in how men and women experienced COVID-19.
Among other things, women’s responsibilities have extended beyond the stereotypical cooking and cleaning.
They now include tutoring, as children attend online classes at home following the closing of schools.
As Malaysia enters the Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO) and society adapts to the “new normal”, it is important that the nation’s road to recovery is seen as an opportunity to introduce more gender-inclusive policies in the country to ensure a step in the right direction to achieve a gender balance.
Recently, the government released the Penjana economic stimulus package.
This package has taken a step in the right direction by introducing measures that support women’s empowerment.
One of the incentives introduced included social assistance in the form of a one-off financial aid to vulnerable people that also covered single mothers.
Female entrepreneurs are also supported through the economic stimulus package, with RM50 million (about 11.7 million) allocated for them.
This is in contrast to the previous economic stimulus package introduced earlier during the Movement Control Order (MCO), which faced criticism for not being gender-sensitive enough because the financial assistance given could not easily reach women who have been abused.
There are a few key steps Malaysia must take.
Firstly, the Malaysian government needs to take a stance on gender-related issues that will stand the test of time.
At the core of the issue is to ensure that policies sufficiently support and empower women at all levels.
Key to this is to fulfill international obligations and deadlines, such as the timely submission of periodic reports to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
Unfortunately, Malaysia’s past history of submission has not been impressive and leaves much room for improvement, as highlighted in the 2019 report by Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) on women’s human rights in Malaysia.
Secondly, gender mainstreaming needs to translate into policies.
The current government is not short of recognising gender thus far. The illustration of “Mak Cik Kiah” in the implementation of the initial Prihatin Rakyat economic stimulus package evidently recognises the role as well as the contribution of women in the household.
However, the government needs to take a step further and act upon the gender difference it has recognised by crafting new policies that introduce fundamental changes to how a woman’s work is valued and compensated.
One example and an aim the government can emulate is the Hawai’i State Commission on the Status of Women’s “Feminist Economic Recovery Plan”.
It is a feminist government agency that works towards achieving equality for women and girls in the state. The policies proposed centre on how the government can introduce measures that target the Hawaiian women’s recovery. They do this by restructuring the focus away from military and tourism into personal protective equipment (PPE) manufacturing, for instance. This is just one of the many opportunities available to balance the scales.
It is important to note and realise that the advocacy of gender equality is a global struggle that even Western countries face and struggle with. As such, it is essential that the relevant authorities and key stakeholders engage in meaningful discussions and dialogues to best understand how Malaysia can progress in implementing a gendered lens in policy-making.
Thus far, Malaysia has managed to show its capabilities through the measures introduced in managing the first wave of contagion. There is no reason why it cannot continue to show its potential in achieving gender equality through the remainder of Malaysia’s COVID-19 recovery period and beyond, too.
This article first appeared in New Straits Times on 4 July 2020. Tengku Nur Qistina is a Senior Researcher, Social Policy and National Integration. Institute of Strategic and International Studies