Encourage public participation for national recovery plan to work

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Photo: Bassam Khawaja 2019/srpoverty.org

Malaysia’s Gender Budget Group notes the step taken by Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz in his role as coordinating minister for the national recovery plan (Pemulih) in conducting dialogues with various sectors.

We urge the minister to also host in-depth discussions with the public and civil society organisations on the ground. Cooperation across all quarters is essential to ensure nobody is left behind in Malaysia’s economic recovery.

The Gender Budget Group is a coalition of 17 organisations calling for gender-responsive budgeting. We are extremely concerned that the national recovery plan package does not meet social protection requirements for the most vulnerable in this pandemic – particularly single mothers, specifically women who are separated but not formally divorced, women employed in the informal sector, households headed by persons with disabilities, survivors of violence and those struggling with their mental health.

Over the course of a year, several movement control orders, coupled with the pandemic, have exacerbated existing gender inequalities. The number of employed women during the pandemic in Malaysia fell by 2.5% and reports of gender-based violence surged. In the first half of 2021 alone, Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) hotlines received 1,572 calls reporting domestic violence, a fourfold increase from pre-Covid calls, while the women’s ministry reported over 900 cases of domestic violence just in the first four months of 2021 alone.

It is alarming that recent statistics released by the police showed that 83.5% of suicide cases between 2019 and May 2021 were women. The current recovery plan does not sufficiently acknowledge and address these gender gaps.

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There is palpable distress in our country, which requires a recovery package that is gender-sensitive and takes into account the needs on the ground to reach the furthest left behind.

As such, we ask the government to study these critical recommendations:

Incentives that also benefit those in the informal workforce

Inclusive wage subsidy policies: Women in Malaysia make up 43.7% of the informal workforce. These women do not benefit from wage subsidy policies under the recovery plan. PenjanaKerjaya 3.0, the job hiring incentive, has lowered its wage threshold from RM1,500 to RM1,200 but this still does not reach the most vulnerable women. For example, a significant number of single mothers earn below RM980 (the old poverty line). Employment contract periods to qualify for PenjanaKerjaya 3.0 have been relaxed (from at least one year to six months) for workers who are aged 50 and above, disabled or former convicts, yet no exceptions have been made targeting women.

Ensure accessibility of schemes: Schemes such as Tekun (receiving a RM100m boost) can move women from informal work to a formal category. However, accessing these schemes remains a barrier as the majority of government interactions now take place online and there is a growing digital divide. As the government invests more in online marketing for cooperatives and the digital empowerment of entrepreneurs, more must also be done to ensure the most vulnerable are not left behind by a lack of access to government aid.

Better-serving financial aid structures

Structured disbursement of funds: Sustainable and accessible disbursement of financial assistance under the recovery plan is needed especially for single mothers, women who are separated but not formally divorced, and households headed by females and persons with disabilities.

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Account for non-digital access: As the government moves towards online disbursement, it must also ensure those without bank accounts (around 8% of the adult population in Malaysia, or 1.7 million people), of which 86% earn low or no income, are included. Of those without bank accounts, 55% are women.

Strengthen social support in Covid economic recovery

Develop psychosocial support networks: The spike in suicide rates signals an urgent public health crisis that needs to be handled with great sensitivity and care. The RM15m allocation for psychosocial support must be increased and must include awareness campaigns, especially for vulnerable groups and to subsidise community and private sector mental health practitioners. As it stands, Malaysia needs thousands more trained in psychosocial support.

Added childcare allocation: The RM3,000 Bantuan Khas Taska aid allocated to childcare and kindergarten operators is good, but it only benefits registered operators, leaving out informal home-based childcare centres that families from the bottom 40% of households depend on. The allocation should be complemented with direct subsidies to mothers and/or families to cover the cost of childcare services and essentials such as baby formula and diapers, which carry a burden of cost for families.

These recommendations are only a glimpse into the lasting gendered socioeconomic impact of the pandemic. The Gender Budget Group believes that the most beneficial, people-centred recovery plan must include participation from all sectors. To this effect, it is imperative that the recovery plan is debated and unpacked in the parliamentary session. The ministry must also ensure adequate public participation and consultation with civil society is reflected in the plan.

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We hope the minister and his office will engage in dialogue with civil society who are assisting the most vulnerable in our society as Malaysians face dire situations.

The Gender Budget Group (GBG) is a coalition of several civil society organisations spearheaded by Engender Consultancy and the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), who advocate and promote gender-responsive budgeting across all policies, programmes and resource allocations to ensure that different needs are effectively catered to in the budget. This is important particularly in a public health crisis, as so many groups are yet to be considered and planned for in our budgetary process.

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