What do low-income urban families in Malaysia really want?


Lending a helping hand: Nethra, 13, one of the children who took part in the UNICEF-UNFPA study, and her sibling helping their younger neighbour to study. Photo: UNICEF

A study by Unicef and UNFPA reveals that low-income urban families - although deeply impacted by the pandemic and need help urgently - are more resilient and responsible than most think: they just want the chance to earn a living for themselves and to live a life of dignity.

Ten children from B40 families living in low-cost flats in Kuala Lumpur were given a smartphone each and asked to document, through photos and videos, their lives during the Covid-19 pandemic and movement control order (MCO) from their perspective.

This was part of a study by UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) and UNFPO (United Nations Population Fund) in collaboration with DM Analytics, and resulted in the Families On The Edge report released this month.

The study, which also surveyed 500 low-income urban households in Malaysia about their financial situation, revealed that although these households were already desperately impoverished before, their situation got expectedly worse during the pandemic.

But there were also some surprising revelations.

While many often assume that low-income families just want handouts, that couldn’t be further from the truth, the study showed.

DM Analytics managing director Dr Muhammed Abdul Khalid. Photo: THE STAR/Samuel OngDM Analytics managing director Dr Muhammed Abdul Khalid. Photo: THE STAR/Samuel Ong

“Rather than one-off cash handouts, these low-income families prefer sustainable assistance. All they want is the chance to earn a living for themselves and live a life of dignity, ” says DM Analytics managing director Dr Muhammed Abdul Khalid.

“They prefer work opportunities, business opportunities such as capital, space and equipment, and long-term aid so that they can carve out a life for themselves, ” he says.

Malaysia’s UNFPA representative Marcela Suazo says that the study also revealed the resilience and dignity of these low-income families.

Malaysia's UNFPA representative Marcela Suazo. Photo: THE STAR/Samuel OngMalaysia's UNFPA representative Marcela Suazo. Photo: THE STAR/Samuel Ong

“Many of them expressed a strong desire to rebuild their livelihood and there has been an increase in sharing of responsibilities at home, ” says Suazo.

These households have experienced a strengthening of connections within their families and communities, and an increase in helping one another during this time. Caregiving (for the elderly, disabled, chronically ill and children out of school) and household chores are shared equally with the partner or other family members.

Hanson, 13, one of the children who took part in the UNICEF-UNFPA study, photographs his younger brothers eating the lunch cooked by him. Photo: UNICEFHanson, 13, one of the children who took part in the UNICEF-UNFPA study, photographs his younger brothers eating the lunch cooked by him. Photo: UNICEF

These households also do take responsibility for their lives and the lives of their children.

“Even though many of them may not be highly-educated, they place great importance on education, ” Dr Muhammed cites as an example.

“Parents of low-income households have been supervising their children’s studies at home during the pandemic.

“When they aren’t able to, they assign their older children to supervise the studies of the younger ones, ” he reveals.

Furthermore, unlike public perception, not all low-income families have many children.

“Over half of these households (65%) have a maximum of two children, which is rather similar to the rest of the population, ” Dr Muhammed says.

Can’t cope, no savings

UNICEF Malaysia's chief of social policy Stephen Barrett. Photo: THE STAR/Samuel OngUNICEF Malaysia's chief of social policy Stephen Barrett. Photo: THE STAR/Samuel Ong

UNICEF Malaysia’s chief of social policy Stephen Barrett points out that many of the households are less able to cope with the pandemic because of low savings, limited access to employment-based social protection (such as EPF, Socso and EIS), and people in need of care such as the elderly, or persons with disabilities or chronic illnesses in these households.

Hanson, 13, one of the 10 children who participated in the UNICEF-UNFPA study, photographs his father cooking dinner for the family at home. Photo: UNICEFHanson, 13, one of the 10 children who participated in the UNICEF-UNFPA study, photographs his father cooking dinner for the family at home. Photo: UNICEFAccording to the report, 25% of heads of households are unemployed, compared to 5.3% at national level (as at May 2020); 31% of the heads of households also faced cuts in their working hours during the MCO, and 30% of the households found it difficult to access healthcare services during the MCO, with poorer households being the most affected.

KL-based 48-year-old Noriza who has an unemployed husband, and was a small business owner before the MCO, says: “It feels really hard thinking about job loss or having no income, because our lives are so hard right now.”

One 46-year-old online merchant (who wanted only to be known as Ms R) went out looking for jobs, anything she could do to earn an income, but found it impossible. “God it’s really hard! We’re gravely affected!” she says.

One in six households (17%) reported that their savings could only last them for a month. Furthermore, over half (52%) of the heads of households were not protected by EPF or Socso and 8% of the households have members with disabilities or chronic illnesses.

Fifty-one-year-old Mr N, unemployed due to the MCO, says: “I’ve to borrow from loan sharks to pay for my mother’s medical bills. I’ve borrowed around RM2,000 and don’t have anything to pawn anymore!”

Women, children affected the hardest

Family matters, as seen through the eyes of 13-year-old Batrisyah, one of the 10 children who participated in the Unicef-UNFPA study. Batrisyah photographs her grandfather’s birthday celebration at home in the PPR flats in Seri Semarak, KL. Photo: UNICEFFamily matters, as seen through the eyes of 13-year-old Batrisyah, one of the 10 children who participated in the Unicef-UNFPA study. Batrisyah photographs her grandfather’s birthday celebration at home in the PPR flats in Seri Semarak, KL. Photo: UNICEFThe study also surveyed 30 low-income urban households (mainly single-mothers or where women are the head of the household) about their general well-being.

It was discovered that female-headed households are especially vulnerable: 32% of the female heads of households are unemployed while 57% of them also have no access to employment social protection (EPF, SOCSO or JKM social welfare financial assistance).

There are also increased concerns about food and nutrition in these households during the pandemic. Children had to adopt a less than healthy diet and risk being malnourished: 52% of these households consumed more eggs during the MCO (as it is the cheapest source of protein), while 40% consumed more instant noodles than before because of the lack of income and depleting savings.

Children from these low-income households also face challenges accessing home-based online learning: 21% of the households are not engaged in any home-based online learning, while 42% have no equipment for e-learning, with a higher incidence among female-headed households (56%).

Zuraini, 49, unemployed due to the MCO laments: “I’m trying to make sure my children continue their schooling online, but internet connectivity such is a big challenge and my children’s education is jeopardised.”

“The pandemic has changed all our lives, but more so those of lower-income families, women and children, who are the focus of the study, ” says Malaysia’s UNICEF representative Dr Rashed Mustafa Sarwar.

“All this suggests that Malaysia’s social protection system needs to be re-evaluated to prevent the pandemic from aggravating the effects of pre-existing poverty, inequality and social exclusion, ” he adds.

Malaysia's UNICEF representative Dr Rashed Mustafa Sarwar. Photo: THE STAR/Samuel OngMalaysia's UNICEF representative Dr Rashed Mustafa Sarwar. Photo: THE STAR/Samuel Ong

Sustained support needed

Temporary Covid-19 mitigation measures have helped, with over half (55%) of those interviewed finding Bantuan Prihatin Nasional (BPN) the most useful assistance during the MCO.

However, when questioned further, some households revealed that they could not access assistance due to a variety of issues such as illiteracy, logistics, difficult procedures, and disqualification due to various grounds.

“While policy interventions such as Penjana (Short-Term Economic Recovery Plan) have helped, there is still a need for more sustained support.

“The pandemic is a tragic reminder of how deeply connected we are, and combating it requires us to ‘work together as one human family’ as UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres says, ” concludes Suazo.

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