SOCIAL activists and NGOs championing the empowerment of women would have ushered 2018 in with an optimistic outlook buoyed by the Government’s declaration of this year as the year for Empowerment of Women.
To achieve the desired goal and impact, the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry (WFCDM) should collaborate with women’s groups and NGOs to prioritise issues that need urgent attention.
The most crucial of these is the economic empowerment of poor women. The Economic Planning Unit’s (EPU) 2016 household income report showed that the share of total income for B40 households fell from 16.8% in 2014 to 16.4% in 2016. In line with the policy of social inclusiveness, underprivileged households headed by single mothers should be accorded top priority in the empowerment of women agenda. There are more than 83,000 single mothers registered with the WFCDM, and the number may be bigger if we include unregistered single mothers.
It is imperative that economic empowerment is implemented to uplift the livelihood of women who are socially and economically disadvantaged due to their limited access to resources and opportunities. While the WFCDM provides social services and welfare benefits to poor women and single mothers, there are those in this group who are still productive workers and should be given the opportunity to participate in income-generating activities, thereby empowering them to be economically independent and self-reliant.
Concerted efforts to enhance women’s political participation and leadership and economic empowerment are key drivers in creating the tangible change and transformation that will ensure women and girls have equal rights in all areas – from reducing poverty to promoting greater accessibility to health and education, and ensuring their protection and wellbeing. Gender equality is a fundamental human right, and advancing this right is critical to building a healthy and progressive society for women.
In the Global Gender Gap Report 2017, Malaysia is ranked 104 out of the 144 countries surveyed by the World Economic Forum. In Asean, the Philippines tops the list at 10th, followed by Laos (64), Singapore (65), Vietnam (69), Thailand (75), Indonesia (84), Cambodia (99) and Brunei (102).
This ranking is based on data compiled on four variables – economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political power. Malaysia performed remarkably well in economic participation and opportunity (87), educational attainment (77), and health and survival (53) but did poorly in political power (113). Currently, there are 222 parliamentary constituencies but we have fewer than 30 women parliamentarians. At state level, there are 65 state assemblywomen out of 587 state legislative seats.
Political empowerment is required to ensure that this lop-sided representation will change in this coming general election. The public has recognised and accepted women as political leaders; what is needed now is for every political party to “walk the talk” by selecting more women as candidates.
Under the Eleventh Malaysia Plan (2016 to 2020), the Government aims to increase women’s participation in the work force to 59% by the year 2020. Overall, the participation rate of women in the work force has increased from 46.8% in 2010 to 49.5% in 2012 and rose to 52.4% in 2013 and 54.5% in 2016.
Despite the fact that their participation in the work force is projected to increase in the future, few women are being appointed as board members or promoted to senior managerial positions as well as the C-suite (chief executive officer, chief financial officer, chief operating officer, etc.)
This lack of gender diversity is truly a great loss to organisations, as a study conducted for the Peterson Institute for International Economics shows that there is a positive correlation between the presence of women in corporate leadership and performance of organisations.
The gender diversity study based on data collected from 21,980 firms in 91 countries concludes that a higher rate of diversity throughout the organisation has a positive impact on corporate performance.
Another study by MSCI World Index shows that firms with strong female leadership generated return on equity of 10.1% versus 7.4% for those organisations without women at leadership and senior managerial positions.
In Malaysia, about 19.1% of board members of the top 100 public-listed companies are women. Participation of women is expected to further increase with the bold initiative undertaken by the Government to require all public-listed companies to have at least 30% women as board members by 2020. This initiative is premised on the existence of a big pool of gifted and educated women brimming with confidence and belief that they have leadership qualities and managerial acumen to lead and be game-changers.
But the 30% target should not be considered mandatory and only talented and competent women should be appointed as board members or promoted to helm decision-making positions in the organisation.
In 1993, the United Nations adopted the Declaration On Elimination Of Violence Against Women. But more than 25 years later, it is estimated that one in three women still experiences physical violence or sexual harassment. Sexual misconduct against women is due to lack of respect for them. It is rooted in the patriarchal culture of our society that has created gender stereotyping based on a dichotomy of roles and strengths to divide men and women, such as masculine and feminine, active and passive, independent and dependent or rough and gentle. Consequently, in a masculine-feminine culture, it is common to hear inappropriate statements or sexist jokes that are demeaning to woman as well as unwanted behaviour that degrades and humiliates them.
The Government has undertaken various initiatives to eliminate any form of violence against women through constant improvement of policies, legislations and institutional frameworks and programmes. The legislations include the Penal Code, Employment Act 1955, Domestic Violence Act 1994 and Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act 2007.
But the existing laws have glaring deficiencies and limitations. For example, Section 509 of the Penal Code does not mention sexual harassment explicitly and there is a high burden of proof in court for victims who have to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt. In the end, the victims do not get justice while perpetrators are not punished and continue to act with impunity. Therefore, the tabling of the Sexual Harassment Bill in Parliament must be expedited to ensure women who are vulnerable to sexual harassment will get better legal protection.
Let us strive to make 2018 a truly great year for the women.
DATUK WEE BENG EE