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New Report Underscores Role Of Women, Girls In Advancing Sabah’s Socioeconomic Development

The Demographic and Socioeconomic Changes in Sabah report was developed to support a thorough benchmark and review of gender equality, and sexual and reproductive health and rights indicators in Sabah.

(From left to right) Representatives from Universiti Malaysia Sabah, Economic Planning Unit Sabah (UPEN), Women's Affairs Department Sabah (Jhewa), UNFPA Malaysia, and the Sabah state government (development) at the launch of the Demographic and Socioeconomic Changes in Sabah report. Photo courtesy of UNFPA Malaysia.

KOTA KINABALU, Nov 14 – A new report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in collaboration with the Population Studies Unit, University of Malaya (UM), and Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) aims to help ensure that Sabah’s women and girls are an essential part of the state’s socioeconomic development. 

The “Demographic and Socioeconomic Changes in Sabah” report, which was launched last November 6 in Tanjung Aru, Kota Kinabalu, was developed to support a thorough benchmark and review of gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights indicators as key enablers in advancing the socioeconomic and sustainable development of women and girls in Sabah.  

“The core purpose of the study was to measure key metrics regarding gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR)-related factors,” said Asa Torkelsson, UNFPA country representative for Malaysia and country director for Thailand at the launch of the report. 

“Reviewing these going forward can allow measures to be devised and offer an opportunity to measure changes in Sabah. Together, this can then chart the way forward in advancing Sabah’s journey towards the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals,” she added. 

Haslina Ismail, director of the Women’s Affairs Department Sabah, who delivered the keynote speech at the launch of the report on behalf of James Ratib, Minister of Community Development and People’s Wellbeing (KPMKR) Sabah, said the report reveals how the state’s population and demographic dynamics are undergoing significant shifts, and commended the report’s strong focus on the issue of socioeconomic equity for Sabah’s women and girls. 

“Our development as a state and a nation will always be limited as long as there continues to be structural and social barriers that hold women back from being full participants in the economy and public life more broadly,” she said.

Extremely Hostile Environment Keeps Female LFPR Low

In the keynote speech, Haslina said that the barriers that prevent women from joining the workforce should be explored and addressed, given the low rates of female labour force participation.

“Discrimination, harassment, the motherhood penalty – all of this and more contribute to an extremely hostile environment that keeps the female labour force participation rate (LFPR) as low as it is.

“This, coupled with gender norms keeping women almost solely in charge of child care, caregiving and household tasks also contributes to keeping them out of the workforce.

“When women cannot work – not due to personal choice, but from societal barriers and obligations – they are denied their own agency and the ability to take charge of their own destiny,” she said.

Panel Discussion On Gender Gap And SRHR

(From left to right): Tehmina Kaoosji (moderator), Celestina Aron, Dr Halimatul Aris, Tengku Aira Tengku Razif, Dr John Teo, and Janice Nga. Photo courtesy of UNFPA Malaysia.

The launch of the report included a panel discussion on Sabah’s demographic changes and its impact on the state’s socioeconomic wellbeing, moderated by independent broadcast journalist Tehmina Kaoosji.

Celestina Aron, deputy director (Policy Division), Economic Planning Unit (UPEN) Sabah, said that Sabah currently has a population of 3.6 million, 60 per cent of which are in the productive working force.

The report has shown a six-fold increase in the state’s population since the 1970s.

Sabah’s changing age structure is of great interest in development planning, as it directly impacts the dependency burden.

This age structural shift resulted in a decline in the overall dependency ratio from about 69 per cent in 2000 to 37 per cent in 2018.

The window of opportunity resulting from the age structural changes is called the demographic dividend. 

She cited the centrality of the Sabah Maju Jaya Roadmap (2021-2025) in taking advantage of Sabah’s current demographic dividend.

Areas of focus included the creation of jobs through investments in agriculture, industrial development, and tourism, alongside ensuring adequate health care in the face of the state’s ageing population.

Celestina also said that the Sabah state government had allocated RM5.83 billion to upskill women, and expressed hope that the grants given to women under the Sabah Maju Jaya Roadmap would contribute to the government’s efforts to increase overall female LFPR from 55 per cent to 60 per cent.

Affordability, Access Main Barriers To SRH Services For Marginalised Women

Dr John Teo, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, drew on his experience working with the undocumented migrant population to highlight the barriers faced by marginalised women in obtaining sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services.

According to his experience on the ground, the main barriers they faced included affordability and access.

He said that ensuring access to maternal health services and family planning should be freely available for all, much like the policy that is currently in place for the treatment of infectious diseases. 

“If you can prevent unintended pregnancies, you can prevent all the consequences of unsafe deliveries.

“The cost of treating women on humanitarian grounds would be much more than the cost of providing preventive measures such as contraception, which is very cheap,” he said.

Stereotyping, Gender Discrimination Main Drivers Behind Gender Gap

Janice Nga, associate professor, Faculty of Business, Economics and Accountancy, UMS, cited stereotyping and gender discrimination as the main drivers behind the gender gap in Sabah, and Malaysia more broadly.

She emphasised the necessity of awareness programmes to correct this at all levels, and how there must be equal access to opportunities for both genders, not only for education but in policymaking too. “If you don’t have women candidates, how can you have state assemblywomen?” 

Tehmina pointed out that in the most recent Sabah state elections in 2020, only 43 out of a total 447 candidates were women (less than 10%).

Industry Practices That Are Supportive Of Reproductive Rights

In highlighting the importance of increasing the female LFPR towards ensuring equitable economic growth, Tengku Aira Tengku Razif, assistant representative, UNFPA Malaysia, maintained that this can only be achieved through ensuring the reproductive rights of women and girls. 

“If we equip young people with comprehensive sexuality education, and they know their reproductive rights, they will be able to decide when to have children and how to plan their future,” she said.

“If we provide industry practices that are supportive of reproductive rights, for example child care policies, universal access to sexual and reproductive health, flexible working arrangements and programmes supporting women to re-enter the workforce, we will then have more women in the labour force.”

Shift From Maternal And Paternal Leave To Parental Leave

On the subject of parental leave, Tengku Aira said shifting away from maternity and paternity leave would enable the adoption of a more equitable dynamic.

“If we have high maternity leave and low paternity leave, we are still assuming that the majority of the role at home needs to be carried by women. 

“We should promote shared responsibility, and parental leave gives the opportunity to promote this.” 

She said that adopting parental leave policies in Europe had shown positive outcomes, including increased sharing parental responsibilities at home, increase in child wellbeing and an increase in fertility rates.

Acknowledge Unique, Localised Barriers For Family Planning

As head of clinical and medical officers of the National Population and Family Development Board (NPFDB/LPPKN Sabah) Sabah, Dr Halimatul Aris shared her insights on transforming social attitudes and family planning across Sabah. 

She said that for effective change, NPFDB Sabah carries out interventions that acknowledge the unique, localised barriers for family planning in any given area. 

“At NPFDB, we believe that social and behavioural change is the intervention that we should follow. 

“In Sabah itself, there are many ethnicities. It might be that the women of one district have a different barrier for why they do not want to seek family planning, as compared to women in other districts.

“It’s important to understand the barriers they’re having, their fears, they’re women from different backgrounds that you’re seeing,” she said.

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