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Heed UN and SUHAKAM calls for action to address gendered impacts of COVID-19

A policy brief published by SUHAKAM this week highlights the impact of COVID-19 on women’s human rights and makes corresponding recommendations that contextualise recently proposed actions by UN experts.

The Malaysian government should heed SUHAKAM’s recommendations, and act swiftly to address and curtail the disproportionate adverse impacts of COVID-19 on women and girls.

UN calls on states to incorporate elimination of gender-based violence and discrimination into COVID-19 recovery

A joint statement issued on Tuesday by the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and the UN Platform of Independent Expert Mechanisms on Discrimination and Violence against Women (EDVAW Platform) called on all countries to take urgent action to address gender-based violence in the home–which has been on the rise since the start of the pandemic–and to integrate the elimination of gender-based violence and discrimination into COVID-19 recovery plans.

The UN statement highlighted many of the gendered aspects of the pandemic that WAO has continued to draw attention to since the start of Malaysia’s Movement Control Order (MCO). These include the sharp rise in gender-based violence, the dramatically increased care burden imposed on women, the limited access to healthcare services serving the specific needs of women and girls, and the adverse economic impact on women resulting from women more often being employed in vulnerable employment, as well as women being increasingly forced to juggle personal and professional responsibilities and subsequently being pushed out of the workforce.

The UN experts recommended 12 key measures that governments should take to combat the gender inequalities amplified by the pandemic, including ensuring the full participation of women in response and recovery plans and ensuring the continued access of gender-based violence survivors to support services, protection mechanisms, and the justice system.

SUHAKAM brief discusses issues raised by UN experts in the context of Malaysia

SUHAKAM’s recent policy brief draws attention to many of the same gender inequalities raised in the recent UN statement, discussing these issues as they apply to Malaysia, and making corresponding recommendations to the government.

SUHAKAM’s brief highlights five key issue areas related to women’s rights in the context of COVID-19:

  1. Gender sensitivity of policies and decisions: SUHAKAM draws attention to the exacerbation of inequalities faced by women as a result of gender insensitive and discriminatory public policies that were part of the government’s pandemic response. Such policies include the decision not to designate judicial, legal, and protection services as essential during the MCO period, resulting in uncertainty and hindered access by women. WAO’s own clients faced significant issues in this regard, particularly in the earlier part of the MCO period, when many survivors were unable to obtain protection orders or gain access to government shelters.
  2. Gender-based violence: The rise in physical and online gender-based violence was also highlighted by SUHAKAM, referencing the sharp increase in enquiries related to domestic violence received by WAO since the start of the MCO period. The brief also cited the acceleration in online gender-based violence that has accompanied the shift in daily activities online, and against which there are currently no legislative protections. The increased risk of violence faced by domestic workers, who are primarily migrant women, was also highlighted, exacerbated by restrictions on their travel and mobility, as well as by language barriers and xenophobia.
  3. Forced separation and loss of maintenance: Another issue raised by SUHAKAM and that has been brought to the attention of WAO and other NGO service providers during the MCO period is the forced separation of families resulting from prohibitions on interstate travel, particularly in the case of divorced parents sharing custody of children. Additionally, these travel restrictions also hindered divorced women who do not have bank accounts and normally receive maintenance payments from their former spouses in person from receiving such payments, presenting an undue burden as they struggle to provide for themselves and their children.
  4. Access to sexual and reproductive healthcare: The limited access of women and girls to healthcare services that specifically serve their needs–including sexual and reproductive healthcare needs–was also discussed in the SUHAKAM brief. Such limited access has resulted from the closure of all National Population and Family Planning Board (LPPKN) clinics during the MCO period, as well as the restricted operation of NGO clinics, and has hindered women’s access to contraception and abortion services. This not only violates women’s and girls’ right to health, but also results in undue financial hardship in cases of unintended pregnancies of poor women.
  5. Unpaid care work: WAO has repeatedly drawn attention to the increase in the unpaid care burden on women and girls as a result of the rise in domestic and care responsibilities that has accompanied the pandemic and MCO. As SUHAKAM also highlighted, this trend is evidenced by the spike in individuals leaving the labour force as a result of unpaid care obligations, which the latest Labour Force Survey reported.
  6. Access to information and livelihood assistance: Finally, the SUHAKAM brief highlighted the further hindered access to information and livelihood assistance by women since the start of the pandemic. As WAO has previously noted, although the second round of stimulus measures were more gender responsive and included things like electricity discounts and wage and childcare subsidies for businesses and individuals, there are still accessibility issues resulting from gaps in information and digital literacy, whether resulting from women’s lack of access to bank accounts, technological devices, internet, etc.

SUHAKAM’s five recommendations that echo the UN call for action based on realities faced by women in Malaysia

In response to the areas of gender inequality discussed in its brief as having been amplified by the pandemic, SUHAKAM has made the following recommendations to the Malaysian government:

  1. Increase gender representation and sensitivity in public policymaking and public service, which would facilitate the application of a gender lens in all policymaking–both related to COVID-19 response and otherwise–and ensure women’s issues are addressed as a national concern.
  2. Lead by example and adopt zero-tolerance policy against gender-based violence, which would help reduce the normalisation of violence and discrimination against women in both the public and private sphere.
  3. Close the gender gap and digital divide, which would help ensure women’s access to critical information and resources, and also stem online gender-based violence
  4. Value unpaid care work as work, which would encourage flexible work arrangements and childcare support by employers, and thus help support women’s economic empowerment.
  5. Leverage on business and human rights by engaging with the media and private sector, which could help combat sexist portrayals and gender stereotyping, address gender-based violence and discrimination, close gender data gaps, and enhance access to information by at-risk women.         

The government should act swiftly to implement SUHAKAM’s recommendations, which are not only aligned with the recommendations of UN experts, but also grounded in the realities faced by women in Malaysia.

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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.

For more information, please contact:

Natasha Dandavati, Head of Campaigns

natasha@wao.org.my

Yap Lay Sheng, Senior Research and Advocacy Officer

laysheng@wao.org.my / 60182747042

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