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LETTER | Make Malaysia a better country for women

LETTER | On this National Women's Day 2020, our country stands at a critical crossroads. The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified existing gender inequalities and threatens to erode the progress we’ve made towards eliminating gender-based violence and discrimination.

However, the pandemic and the movement control order (MCO) have also shed light on how we may not only recover - but through swift and bold action - come out of this crisis more equal and economically stronger.

The Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), therefore, urge the government to do these four things:

1. Pass the Sexual Harassment Bill

Sexual harassment can affect women’s economic empowerment in a multitude of ways, from adversely impacting their employment status or selection for a promotion; to hindering their education, such as when sexual harassment is experienced in the university context; to prevent them from engaging in income-generating activities online as a result of cyberviolence.

The effects of sexual harassment are not isolated to the specific incident or instances of harassment but are far-reaching to every aspect of a survivor’s life.

The Sexual Harassment Bill, which is slated to be tabled in Parliament later this year, is a critical measure towards addressing sexual harassment that occurs in any context, ensuring survivors have access to redress, and driving organisations to take a more proactive stance towards preventing sexual harassment and countering its normalisation in our society.

2. Make stalking an offence in the Penal Code

Stalking is currently not a crime in Malaysia, which means that if someone were to repeatedly contact you, follow you, or show up at places you frequent - classic forms of stalking - there is little that the authorities can do. Researchers at the University of Toronto found that stalking can lead to a host of mental health consequences, including anxiety, depression, and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. Stalking can also escalate into more severe forms of violence - in Canada and the United States, 90 percent of women who were murdered by their partners had been stalked.

The anti-stalking law would protect against both offline and online stalking and harassment, including various forms of gender-based cyberviolence like harassment, spying, and doxing, and would also make available protection orders for survivors.

3. Amend the Employment Act

The amendments to the Employment Act that the Human Resources Ministry has committed to tabling in Parliament this year include the introduction of three days of paternity leave, the extension of paid maternity leave to 90 days, the ability to request flexible working hours, and the introduction of anti-discrimination protections for employees on the basis of gender, race, and religion.

WAO has urged the government to introduce at least seven days of paid paternity leave for fathers working in the private sector, as three days is simply not enough. Seven days of paid paternity leave would send the message that caregiving is a shared responsibility, enable fathers to play a more active role when their child is born and has also been found to reduce the gender wage gap within households.

Additionally, the proposed anti-discrimination provisions must be extended to job seekers. In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, women are increasingly burdened with unpaid care work and forced to further juggle personal and professional responsibilities. Without protections for job seekers against discrimination based on gender and pregnancy, it is likely that many women who are seeking employment will be excluded from the workforce.

4. Table an inclusive Budget 2021

An inclusive Budget 2021 that accounts for and adequately resources the needs of women is critical to creating an enabling environment for women’s economic participation and economic growth.

An inclusive Budget 2021 will help stem the erosion of gender equality progress caused by the pandemic in Malaysia by addressing setbacks for women in the three key areas: gender-based violence response, women’s employment, and women’s health.

Among the key provisions that must be included in Budget 2021 is a greater budget allocation for crisis shelters specifically serving survivors of gender-based violence, increasing public investment in the care economy, such as through subsidies for childcare providers, and ensuring adequate budget for specialised training and the full and continuous functioning of One-Stop Crisis Centres throughout the country.

Now is the time for big and bold action towards making Malaysia a better country for women, and thus towards creating a better Malaysia for everyone.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini. 

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