Budget 2014: Women’s fundamental challenges not addressed

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In 2008, before Najib became PM, Malaysia ranked no. 96 in the Global Gender Gap Report. Since then, Malaysia has fallen to no. 102, observes Steven Sim.

Organisers and participants of a gender mainstreaming conference in Penang
Organisers and participants of a gender mainstreaming conference in Penang

I debated in Parliament on 28 October with Azalina Othman, the Umno MP for Pengerang on Budget 2014 and questioned her on the issue of women and jobs as well as the fate of women who choose to be homemakers and stay-at-home mothers.

Instead of answering me, she sarcastically said that I took up “woman’s quota” in Parliament by replacing my predecessor and political situ, YB Chong Eng.

I stood my ground and said that men in Pakatan Rakyat could also defend and uphold gender equality – and that was more important. I also joked that Chong Eng had been promoted to be a state government ExCo member.

Incidentally, just before the engagement with Azalina, I, together with my colleague Alice Lau, the MP for Lanang, gave a press conference on the Budget and women.

While Budget 2014 has more money for Women, Family and Community Development Ministry – RM2.2bn compared to RM1.9bn in 2013, the bulk of the money goes to handouts programmes. It seems as if the Ministry has chosen to focus on charity and welfare for women rather than women empowerment.

The fundamental challenges which women face in public life are not addressed. Among others, these include, as my colleague Alice and I pointed out:

Firstly, a culture of discrimination especially gender discrimination prevails and this is not addressed. For example, contrary to popular belief, out of 155,600 women who are unemployed, 86.3 per cent are not married nor divorced nor widowed (Source: Tenth Malaysia Plan report). Hence, the majority of women are not in the job market not because of marriage. There are other factors namely, salary disparities, lack of opportunities especially in job promotion, and inconducive job environments. In other words, discrimination in the work place.

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In 2003, the government piloted a programme to implement gender responsive budgeting (GRB) spearheaded by the Ministry for Women, Family and Community Development and in partnership with the UNDP. Subsequently the selected Ministries were instructed to continue to implement GRB in 2006 for other agencies to follow suit. The GRB project aims to empower women and give a voice to women in the allocation of resources in all areas of the government, not just seeing women as the beneficiaries of charity .

Now 10 years have passed since 2003, and despite several Treasury circulars to call for the implementation of GRB and its components, we have not seen the adoption of GRB at a comprehensive level. In his 2014 Budget speech,the Prime Minister said that the government would shift towards an Outcome Based Budgeting (OBB). On its own, this is commendable but what happened to GRB and its objectives as stated by former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, “to narrow existing disparities and re-orient public expenditure to reflect the concerns for all its citizens”?

Secondly, there is no systematic strategy to increase women’s labour force participation rate (LFPR), which has stagnated around 46-47 per cent in the last 23 years since 1990, to the targeted 55 per cent by 2015 as stipulated by the 10th Malaysian Plan (RMK10).

The half-time, part-time, flexi-time, work=from-home arrangement proposal in Budget 2014 were all mentioned back in the Sixth Malaysia Plan 23 years ago. The Work Regulations (Part-Time Workers) was enforced in October 2010 at the start of the Tenth Malayia Plan; yet, we have not seen any substantial improvement to the current situation.

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The childcare assistance is limited to 1) civil servants and 2) families earning below RM900; hence its coverage is not wide enough compared to the Pakatan Rakyat Alternative Budget, which proposed RM1,200 annual assistance to all working mothers as childcare assistance for children under 12 of age.

Thirdly, there is no good news for women who choose to be stay-at-home mothers or homemakers. This category of women will receive no acknowledgement, incentive and security under Najib’s 2014 Budget. In comparison, the Pakatan Rakyat Alternative Budget, in line with the PR GE13 manifesto, proposed a National Women’s Contribution Scheme (NWCS) as a social safety net for homemakers under which the government would contribute RM600 per annum to homemakers to be complemented by contributions from the spouse at a minimum of RM120 upto RM1,200pa.

Fourthly, the introduction of GST at 6 per cent will gravely affect women, especially those from single-head households as well as low- and middle-income households. According to statistics, in 2010, there were 831,860 single mothers. They will be badly hit by the ripple effect of the sudden withdrawal of subsidies and the introduction of GST. I highlighted earlier a study by the Penang Institute which shows that while high-income households (with monthly earning above RM30,000) would pay GST at about 1.32 per cent of their income (GSTI), low-income households (earning about RM600 monthly) and middle-income households (about RM2500 monthly) would pay 2.35% GSTI and 2.67% GSTI respectively.

I am disappointed that Prime Minister Najib Razak has consistently refused to be a bold statesman and cross partisan lines to embrace the good policies highlighted in the Pakatan Rakyat Manifesto and our Alternative 2014 Budget especially on women’s affairs. The fact is, under Prime Minister Najib Razak, gender inequality has worsened. In 2008, before Najib became PM, Malaysia ranked no. 96 in the Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum. Today, four years into his premiership, Malaysia has fallen to no. 102.

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“There can never be social equality without gender equality” – Chong Eng

Steven Sim is the MP for Bukit Mertajam.

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