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Budget 2021 must tackle the gender gaps in our society that have been worsened by the pandemic.
Our new report, Budget 2021: A Better Country for Women, outlines 3 pillars and 11 recommendations for policymakers. Safeguarding women’s safety from violence, women’s employment, and women’s and girls’ access to healthcare must be front-and-centre in Malaysia’s budgetary response to the pandemic.
First, policymakers must strengthen law enforcement and support services for gender-based violence survivors. WAO had previously reported a three-times spike in distress calls to our hotlines during the lockdown. However, there is little sign that incidences of intimate partner violence is abating, as the economic distress have aggravated the risks of violence, and widespread social distancing and work-from-home measures continue to confine survivors at home.
The government must:
- Earmark RM50 million to improve existing shelters and build new ones for gender-based violence survivors;
- Devote RM5 million to operate and improve 24-7 telephone crisis service in Malaysia, including both public and NGO-operated emergency hotlines;
- Commit to an inter-agency fund to train first-responders, including police, medical and welfare officers, and integrate these services closer for the benefit of GBV survivors.
- Ensure that a dedicated annual fund is available to combat gender-based violence in our disaster management response, including in all future healthcare crises, natural or manmade disasters.
Second, the gender gaps in employment have widened because of the pandemic. Sectors with high concentration of women workers, such as tourism, hospitality and the services industries were hardest hit due to global travel restrictions and the lockdown. In the recently released second quarter labour force survey, the female unemployment rate of 5.5% is significantly higher than the male unemployment rate at 4.7%.
At the same time, the additional unpaid care work when families were confined at home made it more difficult for women workers to devote the time required for paid work. Between fourth quarter 2019 and second quarter 2020, the labour force saw the exit of 85,000 women and 6,200 men. Without meaningful policies to address the care burdens disproportionately borne by women, we risk permanently depressing the female labour force participation rate in the country.
The Budget 2021 must address women’s participation in the labour force by:
- Prioritising subsidised adult education and lifelong learning programmes for women after their career break to close the gender gap in labour force participation rate.
- Carry out amendments to the Employment Act to prohibit discrimination against employees and job-seekers on the basis of gender, ethnicity, age and disability status, introducing a 7-day paternity leave, increasing paid maternity leave to 90-days, and enshrining workers’ right to flexible work arrangements.
- Increase public investment in the care economy, especially by increasing the publicly-operated childcare centres, and by increasing producer subsidies to operators.
- Shift away from the current regressive tax exemption childcare support, and prioritise targeted childcare subsidies for tax-ineligible households within the B40 category.
Third, we must emerge from this crisis with a stronger healthcare system for the vulnerable, especially at-risk women. This is especially so since critical public health resources have been diverted to fighting the pandemic, reducing healthcare support for at-risk communities.
- Strengthen the capacity of primary healthcare providers in responding to cases of domestic violence, and gender-based violence.
- Ensure the full and continuous functioning of all One-Stop Crisis Centers across the country, including budget for training and for adequate numbers of specialised staff.
- Design a national strategy to reduce the maternal mortality rate, as part of a long-term plan to improve the sexual and reproductive healthcare for women and girls—which has been set back by the lockdown.
The pandemic has disproportionately affected vulnerable communities, especially at-risk women. Budget 2021 must help Malaysia emerge from the pandemic as a better country for women.
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