Penang women and gender portfolios must remain visible

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Photograph: Patrizia Kramer/Flickr

The Women’s Centre for Change (WCC) commends the Penang state government for its exemplary handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

We take note of the chief minister’s recent announcement that the state government executive council portfolios have been restructured to ensure a more effective functioning of the state administration during the Covid-19 outbreak.

However, we are concerned that the women and gender portfolios are no longer specifically named, as they are now incorporated under the new and wider portfolio of social development. We believe that women and gender should remain separate portfolios.

The creation of specific portfolios within government is no minor matter. It is a direct reflection of the priority given to the issues involved and serves to reinforce the visibility of these portfolios in public consciousness and perception. Portfolios function as an important platform and rallying point for public discourse and multi-stakeholder collaboration.

Women are half the population and gender is a constant, cross-cutting concern. Women and gender should therefore be named as specific portfolios which apply across all aspects of social development. For this reason, many countries have these specific portfolios, including South Korea (Ministry of Gender Equality and Family), India (Ministry of Women and Child Development) and the Philippines (Philippine Commission on Women).

Penang has done remarkably well in its efforts to promote gender equality and women’s development. The state government set up the Penang Women’s Development Corporation, institutionalised gender-responsive budgeting, implemented a gender-inclusiveness policy, gathered sex-disaggregated data and, to this day, continues to push for greater women’s representation and participation in leadership and decision-making.

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Nonetheless, with only one woman at a time represented in the executive council since 2008 (who also happens to hold the women and gender portfolio) and the number of women councillors in local government well below 30%, we still have a long way to go towards achieving full gender parity. Ironically, by subsuming the women and gender portfolio under social development, we risk diluting the visibility and impact made to date.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected women disproportionately. Domestic violence has increased sharply, and women are the vast majority of victims. Economic gender gaps have intensified. Women, many of whom are in informal and low0income groups, shoulder the greatest burdens. The Penang state government has correctly recognised the problem through its special funding for NGOs working to curb domestic violence. Now, more than ever, is the time for us to zoom in on women and gender issues.

We call upon the Penang state government to continue its good work and to reinstate women and gender as a priority portfolio in its executive council lineup.

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