Budget must account for diverse needs of Malaysian women

Fiza, a single mother of two, wakes up every day at 5am.

She uses the morning quiet time to do laundry and household chores, prepare lunch for her son and daughter, and cook dinner.

Fiza leaves home by 7.30am, drops her children to school, and goes to work. On some days, Fiza’s neighbour, whose daughter is in the same class as Fiza’s son, picks up the children from school and watches them until Fiza gets home.

On other days, the children stay in the school’s after-hours daycare, and Fiza picks them up. The childcare providers are often waiting for Fiza to arrive before they can lock up and go home for the day.

After Fiza gives the children dinner, checks their homework, presses their uniforms for the next day, and cleans the kitchen, she collapses into bed around 9pm, barely able to keep her eyes open as her head hits the pillow.

This was before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

During the pandemic, Fiza’s children’s school closed for several months. Fiza’s employer had to make staff cuts, and while Fiza was lucky enough to keep her job, her workload increased as a result of having to take on the work of one of her teammates.

Fiza was grateful to still have her income and fearful of losing this if she didn’t meet her employer’s expectations – her savings would only be enough to provide for herself and her children for a few months.

A friend of Fiza’s, a single mother who was self-employed, lost her business after the start of the pandemic, and she and her children had to relocate to her hometown to live with her parents.

Without any affordable childcare options in her area, Fiza had to juggle her increased workload and all of the household tasks, in addition to overseeing the home-based lesson plans and assignments her children were given by their teachers each week.

She began waking up an hour earlier every morning to ensure she could finish everything she needed to.

When the government passed the Prihatin stimulus package, Fiza was grateful to receive a payment. Fiza’s friend who had lost her business did not receive any aid, since she was not formally employed.

When Fiza asked her neighbour, who is not a Malaysian citizen, about whether her family had received a stimulus payment, she said she did not know, since she didn’t have her own bank account and her husband controlled the finances.

This struck Fiza as being strange, and she thought about this more in the context of the loud arguments she occasionally heard through the thin walls of her apartment.

The experiences of Fiza, her friend, and her neighbour are not based on any individual woman, but that of countless women – whether single or married, local or foreign, employed or unemployed – who have sought assistance from Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) in the aftermath of the pandemic.

With the unpaid care burden that has seen so many women juggling personal and professional responsibilities to an even greater extent than before, it is more critical now that our national budget accounts for the diverse needs of women in Malaysia.

Among other allocations, the budget must comprehensively and consistently provide for affordable childcare through provider and consumer subsidies; social security nets for female-headed households to mitigate the effects of income loss or instability; and specialised crisis shelters and hotlines for survivors of domestic violence, regardless of nationality, to ensure every survivor gets the help she needs.

As illustrated by the experiences of women like Fiza, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed many shortcomings and inequalities in our society, but it has also presented an opportunity to remedy these cracks and emerge stronger.

We can work towards this vision by viewing our national budget as a catalyst to drive widespread change, and ensure that no women fall through the cracks.

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