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UNFPA: Reproductive Rights Ensure Women Have Flexibility In Strategising Their Workforce Participation

Reduce the gender gap in pay leave, use media campaigns to challenge social norms and provide women with financial control through digital bank accounts are some of the recommended ways to address Malaysia’s low FLFPR.

Davide De Beni, health economist, UNFPA, Asia and the Pacific giving his presentation at MWGF 2022.

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 19 – The Malaysia Women & Girls Forum (MWGF) 2022, which was held last Thursday concluded with six key resolutions for expanding women’s rights through economic equity in Malaysia.

In its third edition, the forum featured 24 panellists and speakers who examined barriers to female economic equity including access to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) across the life cycle, gendered stereotypes around unpaid care work and the impact on women’s labour force participation rates (LFPR), while highlighting youth and social perspectives for changing these harmful practices.

The event included the soft launch of a special report: Enhancing Human Capital Through Sexual & Reproductive Health Investments & Family Support Policies in Malaysia by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Malaysia, Economic Planning Unit (EPU) Malaysia and Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health. 

Davide De Beni, health economist at UNFPA, Asia and the Pacific regional office provided an introduction and overview of the report’s findings at the forum. “Human capital is the bedrock of economic growth for any country, and therefore our focus on sexual and reproductive health and how to improve them is key to improving Malaysia’s economy,” he said.

Unplanned and Unintended Pregnancies Reduce Women’s Workforce Participation

De Beni explained that Malaysian women do not participate in the labour force mainly because of family related responsibilities, quoting a 2018 labour force survey where 60.2 per cent of women respondents said they do not participate in the labour force because of their obligations to provide child care and elder care at home. In contrast, most men responded they did not work because of lack of education.

He said that reproductive rights ensure that women engaged in the economy have the flexibility of strategising their participation in the economy. Unplanned and unintended pregnancies and the ensuing child care obligations contribute to a decrease in women’s presence in the workforce.

Over 12,000 registered live births by adolescent girls aged 10 to 19 occur in Malaysia every year, which contributes to significant numbers of girls dropping out of school, especially in cases of unintended pregnancies.

This would lead to future life cycle impacts, including lack of economic equity as education is the prime factor in ensuring economic empowerment.

Women’s economic empowerment and autonomy is essential for shielding them from an uncertain future, he said. 

Greater accumulation of personal savings reduces women’s dependence on social protection, especially in old age, which also lightens the load on governmental obligations to welfare support.

 Malaysia Ranked Seventh in ASEAN FLFPR

Despite being the third largest economy in ASEAN in terms of GDP per capita, Malaysia has among the lowest rates of female labour force participation in the region, said Saizi Xiao, assistant professor at the School of Economics, University of Nottingham who delivered the forum’s second keynote address.

 Among ASEAN countries, Malaysia ranked seventh in female labour force participation rate (FLFPR), above only Myanmar and Philippines. Malaysia is also ranked third in terms of labour force participation gap in ASEAN.

The Covid-19 pandemic had a disproportionate economic impact on women because they held less secure jobs and were more often employed in the informal sector, said Xiao.

She said Malaysian working women also suffered from a “double-burden syndrome”, where they are expected to take on the responsibility of domestic work and other unpaid care.

In a survey, 63.3 per cent of women cited taking care of children and family members as reasons they ceased to participate in the labour force. Another 8.84 per cent of the women surveyed indicated they quit working due to their husband’s objections.

Reduce Gender Gap In Pay Leave

Xiao said one of the ways to address the problem is to reduce the gender gap in paid family leave. This will allow flexible allocation of parental leaves between the couples, encourage fathers’ involvement in childcare, alter traditional gendered patterns of household work, therefore changing employers’ attitude when making gendered decisions. 

Although Malaysia raised its full-pay maternity leave entitlement for female employees to 98 days from 60 days and introduced full-pay seven-day paternity leave entitlement for married male employees this year, these numbers are still significantly below the global average.

By 2021, among 114 countries, the global averaged maternity leave for mothers is 191 days, while paternity leave for fathers is 21 days, she said.

According to the World Bank in 2022, in East Asia and Pacific, smaller gaps in the number of days allocated to each parent, resulted in higher FLFPR, Xiao said in her presentation.

Changing Norms And Behaviours Via Media Campaigns

She also recommended shifting norms and behaviours via media campaigns,citing the UNFPA report How Changing Social Norms is Crucial in Achieving Gender Equality. “Among the solutions and policy recommendations listed in this report, is to utilise the impact of social media.”

Research findings based on media experiments from developing countries indicate more gender-equitable behavior (i.e. increased interaction with the opposite sex, sharing household work, and mobility for girls) after the media campaign, Xiao said.

“Both the public and private sector in Malaysia are doing a lot on how to use social media to push forward better and equal social norms in Malaysia but we haven’t seen much impact analysis based research on these media campaigns on challenging social norms.”

Financial Control Through Digital Bank Accounts

Finally, Xiao recommended affording women more financial control via digital accounts. “Generally, we see the use of digital wallets in Malaysia has increased a lot in the past few years but digital account ownership when we compare female versus male, female ownership is quite low at about 43 per cent against 57 per cent for men,” she said.

Xiao maintained that providing women with more financial control via digital accounts will help improve women’s independent decision-making power over their assets and financial resources within the family, as mobile money is less visible and less accessible to other household members.

“The motivation to give women more financial control via digital accounts will not just help them become entrepreneurs and increase their profits as small business owners, but also will help them increase their bargaining and decision-making power within the family versus the husband.”

In her presentation, Xiao shared that research has shown that setting up individual bank accounts for women have benefits for female employment in developing countries. Additionally, research has shown that receiving a loan via mobile money leads to higher business profits for female small entrepreneurs.

“In the future, some of our cash assistance not only from the public sector but also the private sector can be done through the digital account, which will help enable increasing digital literacy skills among women,” she said. “This is important to help women grow bigger and better in the post pandemic era.”

Six Key Resolutions

The six key resolutions as read by MWGF head of secretariat, Tehmina Kaoosji, at the end of the forum are as follows:

1. Enhance women’s economic equity and economic independence to improve Malaysia’s female labour force participation rate and subsequently its GDP growth and recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. 

2. Invest in comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), to reduce unintended pregnancies which will allow girls to continue their right to education and economic opportunities. 

3. Invest in the care industry to address unpaid care work that disproportionately burdens women.

4. Reform laws to mandate equal parental leave, which will shape the next generation’s approach to gender roles in parenting.

5. Address gender-stereotyping attitudes at home, work and within politics that impede women’s participation in the labour force. 

6. Gender-responsive budgeting and economic decisions must include the lived realities of marginalised communities and the disabled.

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