All the single ladies!

With a bigger percentage of single women in Malaysia today, Sunday Star celebrates the contribution of these ladies to nation-building and economic growth.

AS the country advances, women in Malaysia are marching forward together with it and are playing increasingly important roles in the economy today.

But with the number of single women rising in the country – over three million and counting – more credit should be given to this group that is often overlooked by policymakers.

Nowadays, there are many programmes and financial aid for families and single mothers that are much needed and welcomed. However, rarely do we hear of policies tailormade for single women.

According to the Inland Revenue Board, the total income tax paid by single women amounted to RM3.461bil in the 2013 to 2015 assessment years.

This constitutes 5.3% of the total RM65.5bil income tax paid in those three years of assessment.

The growing number of single women means there are more households led by single females, yet, there are no specific policies for singletons, points out Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) Assoc Prof Dr Azman Azwan Azmawati.

Quoting data from the Department of Statistics Malaysia, she highlights that there is a higher percentage of single women in the country compared with previous decades.

“In 2010, 13.6% of women aged 25 and above in Malaysia were unmarried. The corresponding percentage for 2000 was lower, 10.4%,” Dr Azwan says.

The proportion of single women aged 35 to 39 within the country’s population has also risen, from 7.8% in 2000 to 10.8% in 2010.

Unlike single mothers, unmarried women who don’t have children receive no help despite the fact that they usually play a prominent role in the family and society.

With more women receiving higher education and entering the job market, Malaysia is seeing a rise in those opting to stay unmarried or becoming single mothers.

Also, working single women are increasingly expected to shoulder greater responsibilities, says Dr Azwan.

“The realities of life for single, or never married, women are important aspects to be studied. They may face discrimination rising from deep sociocultural structures around them.”

Single women need certain kinds of assistance – special considerations for loan eligibility, for example, because they sometimes can’t find guarantors to obtain credit. Singles in these circumstances may face social safety net issues in their senior years because they can’t own a home without first securing a bank loan, she says.

Although still a minority group, the Government must be sensitive to the needs and wants of single women.

There must be clear policies – especially in the banking sector – that assist singles in the lower income bracket and those running their own businesses.

From professionals and skilled workers to small business operators, single women – because of their sole income earner status – are seeing their work-life balance thrown off by rising living costs, she says, noting a lack of sensitivity among policy makers when it comes to these women.

To top it off, single women are also faced with negative societal perceptions.

“The Government doesn’t give single women due consideration when coming up with policies. For example, singles, unlike married women, can’t apply for a domestic helper. But single women have parents or grandparents to care for. And what about single women with adopted kids? Who will care for these dependants when they’re at work?”

And singles are usually left to care for the ageing parents because their married siblings have to look after their own children. Dr Azwan is disturbed by such stereotypical mindsets. Just because you’re single, people think you have no responsibilities and so must be able to take care of aged parents or siblings who are sick or disabled, she says with a sigh.

“This mindset was created by society, and it must change. It’s wrong. Children, regardless of their marital status, must band together to care for the parents who raised them.”

Dr Azwan is the principal researcher for USM’s single women and single mothers study grant which resulted in two articles published in the Édition Diffusion Presse (EDP) Sciences journal last year: “Don’t Marry, Be Happy! – How Single Women in Malaysia View Marriage” and “Formal and Informal Support Systems for Single Women and Single Mothers in Malaysia”.

Dr Azwan, who is also a board member at USM’s Centre for Research on Women and Gender (Kanita), believes that with women becoming more educated as well as financially, economically and emotionally more independent, their participation in the labour force will increase. She also expects a rise in the number of unmarried women.

Currently, Malaysian families face many demographic trend challenges such as a changing age-structure, declining fertility rates, delaying marriage and population mobility.

Socioeconomic growth is closely linked to the development and modernisation process that leads to more women delaying their marriage to study and become freer in managing their lives and careers.

The mean age of the first marriage of Malaysian women is 28.6, says Dr Azwan. But staying single is a problem because we’re a culture that places so much importance on marriage, she feels.

How do single Malaysian women feel about marriage? Respondents in her studies believe that:

> Marriage is required by religion.

> Marriage is for life.

> Divorce must be avoided.

> Domestic issues must be kept as a secret.

> All decisions about children’s well-being must be discussed between husband and wife.

These findings suggest that single women see marriage as sacred and will do whatever it takes to make it last, says Dr Azwan.

But as much as single women believe in the sacredness of a marriage, they believe in equal partnership. They don’t think a divorcee has to quickly find a partner, or that the husband alone should play a major role in the family’s well-being, chores, attending Parent-Teacher Association meetings and contributing to the family’s finances.

“Single Malaysian women are very independent, they value their freedom to make choices, and are satisfied and happy with their lifestyles. They aren’t traumatised by their relationship status.

“They decide what’s best for themselves and don’t feel pressured into complying with society’s expectations. Through education, they achieve economic independence which, in turn, contributes to their self-identity.

“So they’re able to challenge dominant social identities, which mostly subscribe to the idea that a woman’s life is incomplete without marriage,” Dr Azwan explains.

Though most are fine with being single, they haven’t ruled out marriage because they want:

> A family of their own.

> Companionship.

> Someone to take care of them.

> Someone to complete their lives.

> To fulfil a religious requirement.

The majority, though, say that finding a suitable partner is a problem. Ideal characteristics of a partner include kindness, sincerity, responsibility and maturity. Those with no plans to get married say it’s because they’re either already too old or they like their current lives, Dr Azwan says.

“Families and those around them, however, expect them to get married eventually.

“And many of them think their lives will be easier and happier if they have a spouse. These findings verify the traditional perception that marriage completes a woman,” she feels.

Single women, stresses Kanita director Assoc Prof Dr Noraida Endut, contribute to the economy in many different of ways, both directly and indirectly.

Caring for the elderly, for example, is contributing to the economy even though the woman isn’t “officially at work”.

“By staying home to care for the elderly, her other family members can pursue economic activities. So such women are also contributing to the economy.”

Sometimes, single women give up promotions at work to spend more time caring for their elderly or sickly parents because it’s expected of them to do so.

They lose out a little bit on economic opportunities and wealth acquisition. But when they themselves get old or sick, many don’t receive much support or care from their siblings or extended families. This issue needs addressing.

What can the state offer in terms of the welfare of single women – or men, for that matter – when they are old, she asks.

As for society’s perception of single women, Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) communications officer Tan Heang-Lee says Malaysian women have generally become more independent and autonomous over the years, but they may still be pressured to conform to certain social expectations.

She laments that our society generally still expects single women to get married and settle down by a certain age.

“Men generally do not experience the weight of these social expectations as much as women do.

“We need to view women – whether single or married – as whole individuals, individuals who do not need to be completed by a significant other. Women are so much more than their marital status.

“Women have the right to decide when to marry, to whom, and whether to marry at all.

“We shouldn’t be obsessed with the marital status of women,” Tan stresses.

While women as a whole have always played a big role in nation building, she says legal protection against gender discrimination is still lacking in Malaysia. For insance, according to a 2016 study by WAO, 40% of pregnant women are discriminated against at work.

“We urge the Government to enact a Gender Equality Act,” Tan says, further noting that the target to have 30% of top positions filled by women has yet to be achieved, adding that women are still underrepresented in politics and in the public or private sector in Malaysia.

She says policies and laws should be created to address the reasons why the target has yet to be met.

While the Government has yet to formulate any specific policies for single women, it recognises the importance of the roles played by the fairer sex as a whole, be they married or not.

“We assist women regardless of their marital status,” says Deputy Women, Family and Community Minister Datin Paduka Chew Mei Fun.

At present, the legal minimum age for marriage is 18 in Malaysia but it is 16 for Muslim girls. Muslim girls aged below 16 can marry with the consent of the Syariah Court.

Based on data from 2010, there are 3,106,673 women aged 16 and above who have not been married, while another 111,729 are divorced or separated from their spouse.

“A total of 5,746,896 women are in marriages while 697,058 are widows,” Chew says.

Acknowledging the contribution of single women in the country, Deputy Human Resources Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Abdul Muttalib describes them as prominent driving forces in the growing Malaysian economy.

And at a time when more focus is given to enhancing the roles of women – especially in top decision-making positions – single women are a significant part of the equation along with those who have tied the knot.

He says some married women, especially mothers, could face extra pressure over their family matters, with some leaving their jobs to tend to their children.

“Sometimes, the women who leave the workforce are very skilled and experienced but choose to be stay-at-home mothers.

“These women are latent talents and we want more of them to return to work,” Ismail says.

While it isn’t a bad thing to choose family over work, Ismail points out that single women simply do not have certain responsibilities that their married counterparts have.

“It cannot be denied that this group of women do bring significant contributions to the nation’s economy. But, if possible, we want more women – single or married – to contribute to our nation’s develop­ment,” he says.

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