Covid-19 Temporary Measures Bill in July must also protect women’s employment, safety and health

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Photograph: Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas/Pexels

The Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) lauds this timely short-term measure and cautions the government to also apply a gender-responsive lens to any relief policies.

Recently, the Malaysian government has announced the tabling of a RUU Pelaksanaan Langkah Sementara (Covid-19 Temporary Measures Bill) in the July parliamentary seating.

The temporary measures bill sets out to provide economic, social and welfare relief to industries, sectors and people hard hit by the pandemic. It will also outline interim measures to protect the country’s population from the pandemic.

The Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) lauds this timely short-term measure and cautions the government to also apply a gender-responsive lens to any relief policies.

The Covid-19 pandemic has eroded gender equality progress in Malaysia, and the bill must address this. The setbacks for women in Malaysia are most pronounced in the three areas of women’s employment, safety and health.

First, the rise of unpaid care burden during the pandemic, due to the disruption of care services and facilities, has fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of women. Most alarmingly, in the first quarter labour force statistics released by the Department of Statistics recently, Malaysia saw the fastest rate of increase in working-age adults dropping out of the labour force. The majority cite “family needs” as the primary reason for dropping out. If left unattended, this will reduce the already low labour force participation rates of women in Malaysia, who have traditionally borne the most unpaid care responsibilities.

Second, the pandemic has also led to a rise in gender-based violence, especially the incidence of domestic violence. Survivors trapped in the same households also face the disruption of law enforcement services that usually protect their safety.

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Finally, women’s health, including access to sexual and reproductive health, have been marginalised by health authorities who deemed such services secondary. During the movement control order, all National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN) clinics were shuttered, preventing subsidised access to family planning and reproductive health services for large swaths of women and girls.

We urge the government to adopt the following five considerations to prevent a further slide in women’s rights and welfare.

The temporary bill must mandate that judicial and legal services, as well as other applicable services designated as essential, must be made available online if lockdown measures are implemented again. During the peak of the pandemic, despite the rise in domestic violence and the critical need for protection on the part of survivors, there was a lack of clarity around the ability of domestic violence survivors to obtain protection orders during the movement control order period. We must be better prepared to protect women’s and girls’ safety in subsequent waves of infection and lockdown periods by ensuring the continued access to judicial services and critical protection mechanisms.

Currently, other services that are crucial to protecting working parents’ employment, as well as women’s health and safety, have not been formally designated as “essential services” during the movement control period and thus have faced barriers to operating or been completely suspended.

This gender-bias must be corrected by explicitly listing such services as essential:

  • family-friendly facilities such as childcare centres
  • the Industrial Court Malaysia for employees facing unlawful termination
  • crisis support services for gender-based violence survivors such as hotlines and temporary shelters
  • secondary healthcare facilities such as the LPPKN-run clinics
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Many critical government functions, including first responders to gender-based violence cases, have been inundated during the pandemic. The relief bill must provide an additional budget for auxiliary and temporary staff to rapidly expand the public sector workforce so that critical government services, including Social Welfare Department domestic violence shelters and the processing and issuance of protection orders for domestic violence survivors, can continue to operate smoothly.

The temporary bill must work towards strengthening safeguards for the employment of unpaid caregivers, who face the double burden of paid work and unpaid care. To reduce this burden, the bill must enshrine the right to flexible working arrangements for all non-essential employees during the pandemic, enforceable through the Industrial Court, if an employer does not deal with the request in a reasonable manner.

During the movement control order, restrictions orders allowing only the lone movement of individuals have disproportionately penalised those with different household configurations, including single parents with multiple children or adult children with multiple dependent parents. Any new interim movement restrictions in the future must be attentive to the needs of different people.

The pandemic has disproportionately affected the employment, health and safety of women in Malaysia. Only a gender-sensitive lens in our Covid-19 policies will ensure that our recovery is inclusive, broad-based and attentive to the needs of different segments of society.

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