Women make up 50% of Malaysia’s population, yet the country has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates (LFPR) among upper middle income countries, highlights United Nations resident coordinator for Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam & Singapore Karima El Korri.
“Malaysia’s female labour force participation rate stands at 55.6% (as at July 2022) while male labour force participation rate is 82.5%.
“The World Economic Forum World Gender Gap Index which assesses countries on how well they distribute opportunities among their male and female population has also ranked Malaysia 103rd out of 146 countries,” she says.
El Korri was speaking at the third Malaysia Women & Girls Forum (MWGF 2022) organised by United Nations Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam and UNFPA Malaysia.
Themed “Expanding women’s rights through economic equity”, the forum aims to identify barriers, understand causes and outline solutions and opportunities that can accelerate Malaysia’s female labour force participation rate, economic equity and boost post-pandemic economic recovery. Doing so will propel the country towards achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
El Korri says that Malaysia has the means to perform better by deconstructing legislative and social obstacles that women and girls face every day and which suffocate their potential for economic progress.
She adds that addressing these economic inequalities goes beyond labour market policies and promotes female participation.
“It starts at the structural level by addressing myriad interlocked issues ranging from legal protection, to unpaid care work, gender based discrimination, access to finance, social protection, sexual and reproductive health, and harmful practices,” she says.
Crisis within the crisis
UNFPA Malaysia representative Dr Asa Torkellson notes that the challenges from the Covid-19 pandemic worldwide have been more pronounced for women and girls and have resulted in a “shadow pandemic” or “crisis within the crisis” impacting their health and economic well-being, bringing on additional care duties and increased gender-based violence, including domestic violence and child marriage.
A study by UNFPA and Unicef in Malaysia shows that urban poverty has had a more severe impact on women and girls following the Covid-19 pandemic. In Malaysia, there is a gap of 27% between women and men’s labour force participation, that of women being one of the lowest in the region.
“UNFPA's abundant research shows that investing in the health, well-being and potential of women and girls is an investment into the health, well-being and prosperity of the country, its presence and its future,” she says.
Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri says that ensuring the well-being and economic equity of women is essential to ensure full pandemic economic recovery.
“This would be possible through a whole of society approach in encouraging women and girls’ full participation,” says Datuk Seri Nancy.
The special report on “Enhancing Human Capital Through Sexual & Reproductive Health Investments & Family Support Policies in Malaysia” was also launched at MWGF 2022.
Jointly conducted by UNFPA, the Prime Minister’s Department’s Economic Planning Unit and the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, the report studies the contribution of sexual and reproductive health interventions and family support policies to the development of human capital for Malaysia.
Four vital sexual and reproductive health investments and their return on investment are identified: comprehensive reproductive health and social education, human papillomavirus (HPV) screening and elimination of cervical cancer by 2070, integrated family planning and family support policies, and satisfying all unmet needs for modern contraception within a year
The report also outlines the pathway towards greater human capital development, gender equality, and economic well being for Malaysia.
One of the key aspects the report focuses is how the low female workforce participation in Malaysia is a barrier to the country progressing to become a high-income country and socio-economic development, highlights UNFPA Asia & Pacific Regional Office Health Economist Davide De Beni.
Improving the services will increase female workforce participation and spur socio-economic development, he adds.
The report also provides policy recommendations, including increasing female labour force participation, advancing female educational attainment, lowering depreciation of female human capital through increasing/improving job experience and productivity, improving the health of women and their children, greater accumulation of savings and family support policies.
“Women don’t participate in the labour force mainly because of family-related responsibilities,” says De Beni.
According to the Labour Force Survey Report 2018, 60.2% of women aren’t in the labour force because of unpaid care duties, which include childcare, eldercare, and housework, while the main reason why men aren’t in the labour force is education.
“Childcare and other family support policies such as parental leave for fathers, coupled with access to voluntary rights-based contraceptive services that improve women’s control over the time and space of births are effective ways to improve women’s work-family balance, thereby increasing female labour force participation and satisfaction of labour force preferences,” he says.
De Beni highlights that education attainment impacts women’s participation in the labour force.
A World Bank study reveals that an additional year of schooling in Malaysia increases wages by 12% on average for women compared to 9% for men.
“Returns to education are very high in Malaysia, especially for women but even though secondary school completion rates are higher for girls, over 12,000 live births are registered by adolescents aged 10-19 annually. This leads to school dropouts and lower educational attainment, especially among girls with unintended pregnancies,” he explains.
“Increasing educational attainment and expected wages, comprehensive sexuality education and family planning, can help break the cycle of poverty for adolescents and women from low income backgrounds who are at higher risk for unintended pregnancies or HIV/STIs,” he says.
De Beni says that women’s labour productivity and potential earnings depend on three factors: educational attainment, health and on-the-job experience.
“In Malaysia, women have higher educational attainment than men – almost 40% of employed females have tertiary education, compared to about 23% of the male workforce.
“However, the time spent out of the labour force because of childcare duties inevitably diminishes the actual experience of a female worker compared to a male one with the same level of education, health and age,” he highlights.
“Reductions in mis-timed fertility can prevent the depreciation of female human capital that results from unintended interruptions (pregnancies) in the labour market experience. If a woman can freely decide the time and space of births, she can also minimise the negative impact of fertility on her accumulation of human capital, and as a consequence, on her potential level of earnings,” he says.
“Furthermore, unintended adolescent pregnancies and short inter-pregnancy intervals have been associated with increased risks of adverse maternal, perinatal and infant outcomes,” he adds.
Since cervical cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer death among women, reductions in HPV infections can also achieve considerable health benefits for Malaysian women, says De Beni.
“Direct investments in maternal health, family planning, gender-based and intimate partner violence prevention and response, comprehensive sexuality education and Human papillomavirus (HPV) screening/prevention can yield sizeable health benefits for infants, mothers and women in general,” he says.
Within the next decade, approximately 10% of the population is projected to be 65 years and older. Taking a life course approach to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research (SRH) investments is particularly relevant and timely in the context of Malaysia’s ageing population, highlights De Beni.
“SRH investments can increase monetary savings for individuals/families via: reduction in unintended expenditures on mistimed pregnancies; reduction in out of pocket medical costs associated with maternal/infant health conditions; HPV infections and cervical cancer; and potential increases in labour income due to increased female educational attainment, labour force participation and productivity,” he says.
“Every girl and woman should be able to complete her education, pursue her dream and make a living that protects her from poverty and vulnerability,” concludes De Beni.