Sustainable action plan crucial for B40 women HoHs

It should consist of capacity building, entrepreneurship development programmes

pic by TMR FILE

AMONG the vulnerable groups impacted by the imposition of the Movement Control Order (MCO) due to the unprecedented health crisis are households headed by women in low-income groups (the bottom 40% or B40) in Malaysia, which have appeared to be at social and economic disadvantages, relatively to households in general.

By definition, a female head of household (HoH) refers to a household in which an adult female is the main or the only income earner and decision-maker.

Unfortunately, there is no official statistics to display the overall percentage of women-headed households in the country. So, why does such an issue need to be raised?

It caught my attention after the release of Unicef-United Nations Population Fund report entitled “Families on the Edge”, conducted in May-June 2020 on 500 families living in low-cost flats (Program Perumahan Rakyat or PPR) located in the capital, focusing on the impact of Covid-19 crisis on the wellbeing of women and children in urban poor families.

Let’s go through some of the revealed statistics which can prove my point.

In this study, whereby 40% are single mothers, the majority of the women-headed households (50%) were expecting worse financial condition in the next six months; 31% were uncertain; while only 2% of the respondents thought their financial status would be better off.

In terms of unemployment among PPR residents, women-headed households recorded a significant double-digit figure of 32% compared to the national unemployment rate of 5.3% in May!

This was much higher than last year’s unemployment rate of 9% for women-headed households.

To make it worse, a large share of women-headed households lacked social protection — Employees Provident Fund and Social Security Organisation — to help them cushion against economic shocks (57%) based on the data in 2019.

For this year, the study showed that only 21% of the total respondents, who lost their job and had access to employment protection, were female.

Furthermore, when it comes to savings, more than half of the women-headed households were unable to save and even if 24% of them said they were able to save, half of them were only able to keep their savings in less than a month and the remaining 30% could only save for a month.

For the children in this type of household, there remains to be an education barrier in the middle of the education sector transitioning to online learning during the MCO — 56% of respondents said they had no equipment, while 45% had no Internet access.

So, these gloomy statistics based on the ground reality suggest that there must be actions taken to try to cushion the difficulties experienced by this vulnerable group.

In the short-term National Economic Recovery Plan, it cannot be denied that there are stimulus measures which have benefitted this group, particularly the direct cash assistance such as childcare subsidies, Bantuan Prihatin Nasional payouts, and the targeted one-off cash assistance for single mothers, but these are all again, short-term support for the group.

What is needed now is a longterm and sustainable solution for them to sustain their livelihoods and it includes providing food on the table for their children. But how?

A wish list was included in the report based on the respondents’ feedback with regard to the possible solutions — full-time employment, increase in the quantum of assistance and other channels of long-term assistance.

Therefore, the government’s next initiative, perhaps, should revolve around the wish list and to be announced in Budget 2021 in November.

Using data provided by the Statistics Department, one way to go about it is by introducing a women-headed household empowerment programme targeted for the B40 group. This initiative can be spearheaded by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development and parked under the National Women Policy.

It should consist of capacity building programmes to fully tap on their potentials, while providing them education such as upskilling and reskilling programmes, as well as entrepreneurship development programmes.

Special working opportunities designated for the eligible recipients can also be provided through the programme.

Besides that, incentives should be given to those who are setting up new businesses and the microcredit loan requirements should also be eased for entrepreneurs.

Finally, with the ability of the HoHs to earn incomes, then only it will help with the education gap for children of the household — parents can afford to purchase digital devices for e-learning or they can subscribe to broadbands for Internet access.

This should be one of the action plans considered by the government and it could also involve other stakeholders. Hopefully, it can be as successful as the Women-headed Household Empowerment Programme, or Pekka, pioneered by Indonesia since 2001.

At the end of the day, women do make significant contributions to society and the nation by earning a living for their household as employed wage earners, creating jobs as an entrepreneur, and holding big responsibilities in taking care of the children and elderly.

Sofea Azahar,
Research analyst,
EMIR Research

The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.