By Davina Kho
The stereotypical view of traditional gender roles remains strong in many households in Malaysia.
Many still believe that it is a woman’s responsibility to raise children and be the caregiver, and a man’s job to be the provider and protector.
When I first met my mother-in-law in 2017, she said quietly, “I do not care whom my son is marrying. But my daughter-in-law must cook and clean and serve her husband.”
I was mortified.
Recently, I was appalled to come across a heart-wrenching news report on my Instagram feed. The report featured a recent viral TikTok video of a Malaysian man who was fired from his job for requesting paternity leave.
This is alarming, as paternity leave in Malaysia was increased to seven days when the Employment Act was amended last year.
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Scrolling through the reactions on social media, I felt disheartened to find some men making negative comments. They mocked the issue with some blatantly rejecting paternity leave. Some employers viewed such leave as a loss for business.
Clearly, many do not see paternity leave, which grants fathers paid time off from work following the birth of a child, as a means to strengthen family bonds.
Unfortunately, studies have found that men who take parental leave may face a backlash and be seen as weak or lacking work commitment.
Undeniably, in our everyday work to sustain ourselves and our families, we have often overlooked the ‘invisible army’ toiling tirelessly behind the scenes – the unpaid caregivers.
Unpaid care work – also known as the care economy, the core economy and the reproductive economy – typically involves individuals spending their time cooking, cleaning and caring for children, the ill and older adults. These duties are essential for the functioning of society and are carried out without monetary compensation.
So, traditional societal expectations that place the burden of caregiving solely on women need to be challenged.
Globally, women spend a disproportionate amount of time on unpaid care work. They handle 75% of daily unpaid care work in their households and communities, although men also contribute.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) reveals that women around the world perform four hours and 25 minutes of unpaid care work every day compared to one hour and 23 minutes for men.
This suggests that women shoulder more responsibility for unpaid care despite working almost the same number of hours as men in paid work.
Due to the “double burden” or “second shift” faced by these women in unpaid care work after office hours, gender inequalities in the labour market also widen because this burden often influences women’s decisions to stay out of the workforce.
Indeed, a study by Khazanah Research Institute in 2019 found that unpaid care work often influences women’s decision to drop out of the workforce.
A 2022 ILO report “The gender gap in employment: What’s holding women back?” revealed that just under 47% of women participate in the global labour force compared to 72% of men.
In Malaysia, the participation rate of women in the workforce is still relatively low: only 53% of women in Malaysia were in the labour force in 2022. That’s well behind Cambodia 70%, Vietnam 69%, Singapore 63% and Thailand 59%.
Why are we not openly acknowledging the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work on women?
Do we not know that restricting women’s ability to engage in paid employment will lead to reduced economic productivity and potential income loss?
Many women are forced to forego career advancement opportunities or work part-time, which often comes with limited benefits and job security. This perpetuates the gender wage gap and hinders economic growth at both individual and national levels.
This situation poses several perplexing questions.
Is unpaid care work not a pressing issue for the nation?
Why are we not striving to address this phenomenon?
Why are we staying dead silent, sweeping the issue under the rug as if it never existed?
Has any initiative been taken to tackle the gendered nature of care work effectively?
Despite the development over the years in Malaysia, the burden of unpaid care work weighs heavily on women.
To promote gender equality, as stated in UN sustainable development goal 5, the government should fully support and value the care economy. It should push for gender mainstreaming in its practical intervention policies.
One crucial aspect of achieving gender equality is by acknowledging and supporting the role of fathers in caregiving.
So, in placing due importance on parental leave, we can ease the burden of unpaid care work. Paid parental leave is critical if the nation is to challenge traditional gender roles and fostering a fairer distribution of caregiving responsibilities.
To narrow existing gender gaps, Malaysia must move further away from traditional norms by challenging gender stereotypes. Both boys and men should be educated on care work to ensure equal participation at home. We need to encourage all men to be actively involved in caregiving.
As trivial as it may seem, paternity leave is one more significant step towards a more gender-balanced society.
Davina Kho, a postgraduate student at the University of Malaya, is interested in writing about human rights, digital media, culture and feminist politics. She loves reading and dotes on her pet cat named Fish.
She wrote this piece at a writers’ workshop “Writing for Change” organised by the Department of International and Strategic Studies of the University of Malaya, the university’s International Relations Society, and Aliran