TOMORROW is International Women’s Day (IWD), a day when the world comes together to recognise the achievements of women while pushing for greater equality.
Typically, the day is marked by gatherings and marches around the world, celebrating women while also highlighting gaps in policy that continue to isolate women and keep them from enjoying equality at home, in the workplace and in society.
Because of the pandemic, there won’t be any marches or gatherings this year, not in a way that can make a visible impact.
Which is unfortunate because the disparity between the genders has become more apparent because of the pandemic.
The pandemic has affected everyone, regardless of gender, age or geographical location.
However, in addition to pre-existing social and systemic barriers that women face, new barriers have emerged in the past year since Covid-19 first emerged.
United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres in his IWD address warned that the pandemic has not only worsened “already deep inequalities” but it has also erased years of progress towards gender equality.
And we see this in Malaysia, too.
There has been an increase in domestic violence, putting women and children in danger while confined at home during the various stages of movement restrictions and lockdowns.
While hotlines, offered by both the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry and civil society groups, have extended services to those in need, we need more proactive measures to protect victims, primarily women, from violence as well as inequality.
Studies worldwide have shown that unemployment due to the pandemic has affected women more.
And while women have always been kin-keepers of a family, they have been overwhelmed since the pandemic, having to juggle work along with supervising their children’s virtual learning, seeing to their home and family needs all day and every day as work-from-home continues to be our new normal.
A recent Universiti Malaya study pointed to a need for mental health intervention by the government, with close to 40% of the women surveyed suffering from emotional distress since the pandemic began.
How do we address all these?
Well, for starters, women must be included in the formulation and implementation of policies and programmes in all areas of the country’s pandemic recovery.
And while recovering economically from the pandemic is a great concern, the government needs to make sure that not only does the country emerge from the crisis stronger on that front but also that we come out of this with a more equal society.
To do this, policies and programmes that safeguard the rights, livelihoods and well-being of women cannot be ignored or neglected.
We could begin by pushing through the proposed Sexual Harassment Bill which rights activists have been working on for two decades.
The proposed Gender Equality Bill – in the works for the past decade – and the Anti-Stalking Bill as well as amendments to the Employment Act that mandate seven days of paternity leave have not seen much progress and are still waiting to see the light of day.
We all, men as well as women, need to play our part, too.
We need to call out discrimination when we encounter or witness it whether in the real world or the virtual one online – so many comments on social media and chat groups are rife with misogynist, hateful words aimed at women.
In fact, with social media, we have never had greater access to our government representatives and we need to hold them accountable and make sure that everyone in society can progress in equal measure, and that no one is left behind just because of their gender.