Female HoHs ‘exceptionally vulnerable’ to Covid-19 crisis

by RAHIMI YUNUS/ pic by RAZAK GHAZALI

HOUSEHOLDS headed by females in low-income urban families in Malaysia are found to be “exceptionally vulnerable” to socio-economic impacts of the Covid-19 crisis.

Female heads of household (HoHs) are facing higher rates of unemployment and lower rates of access to social protection compared to the total HoHs, according to a study jointly commissioned by the Unicef and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in partnership with DM-Analytics Sdn Bhd, a Malaysia-based public policy and research.

Known as the Families on the Edge (FoE) study, it reported that female HoH has higher rates of unemployment at 32% compared to 25% of total HoHs.

Moreover, 57% of female HoHs have no access to labour market protection such as the Employees Provident Fund and Social Security Organisation, which is higher compared to 52% among total HoHs.

The report, the first in a series under the FoE project, also showed that children living in these households are at risk of deteriorating dietary quality due to changes in their food consumption and a worsening education outcome due to challenges in accessing home-based online learning.

Fifty-two percent of households are found to have consumed more eggs and 40% of households consumed more instant noodles during the Movement Control Order (MCO) period.

The study revealed that 21% of households are not engaged in home-based online learning, while 42% of households reported having no equipment for e-learning, with a higher incidence among female HoHs (56%).

UNFPA representative in Malaysia Marcela Suazo said at the launch of the report in Kuala Lumpur (KL) yesterday that the report shows how low-income households headed by women have higher rates of unemployment and with a far more pessimistic outlook on prospects for recovery in the next six months.

The FoE study will be implemented over six months from May to November 2020 involving a socio-economic study, wellbeing interviews and a photography and videography component on 500 families with children living in low-cost flats in KL.

The first study assessed changes in a range of indicators between December 2019 (which was before the emergence of Covid-19 in Malaysia) and towards the end of the MCO in May 2020.

The study also showed that 25% of HoHs are unemployed compared to 5.3% at the national level as of May 2020, while 31% of HoHs faced cuts in their working hours during the MCO.

Thirty percent of households reportedly found it difficult to access healthcare services during the MCO, with the poorer households being the most affected.

The FoE study also found that this low-income group has a constrained capacity to cope with the Covid-19 crisis in terms of savings, social protection and access to healthcare.

For instance, one in six households (17%) reported that their savings could only last them for one month.

More than half or 55% of the surveyed families found the Bantuan Prihatin Nasional to be the most useful assistance during the MCO.

Some of the households, however, could not access assistance due to issues such as illiteracy, procedural issues, disqualified due to the Companies Commission of Malaysia registration and logistical issues.

Despite the economic challenges, the report found that these low-income households have adopted the new normal and remained resilient.

The report’s lead author, DM-Analytics MD Dr Muhammed Abdul Khalid, said many of the aids on their wish list are to generate income and not to reduce costs.

“They wish for financial help to start a small business in the range of RM3,000 to RM5,000, for example, to buy new equipment or assistance to get a space to set up a business,” he said.

The report highlighted key takeaways including a need to strengthen access to mental and physical health services for the low-income group and enhance social protection framework for workers in the informal sectors and gig economy, in which many of these people are involved.

The FoE study is aimed at adapting its methodology over the coming months to generate further insights on these issues and provide a platform for stakeholder dialogue on potential policy solutions.