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IWD 2014: Equality for women, equality for all women – stop the invisible discrimination against homemakers and mothers

This year’s United Nations’ theme for International Women’s Day is “Equality for women is progress for all”. My predecessor, former MP for Bukit Mertajam and DAP Wanita chief, Chong Eng used to say, “There is no social equality without gender equality”. The betterment of women is the betterment of humankind. Yet today, the second class treatment of women is still very much prevalent; from violence against women to unfair treatment in the marketplace to the lack of recognition for the care work by homemakers and mothers (and in some case fathers). These are but the manifestations of the culture of gender discrimination in our society.

However, women’s rights movement has come a long way, even for Malaysia. While we have yet to achieve full equality, there are many victories which we can celebrate. For example, the federal government has put in more focus to increase women’s labour force participation rate and last year, we passed the 50% mark at 51.1% with a further aim to achieve  55% by 2015. In terms of education, 62.9% of graduates (all levels of education) from public universities in Malaysia are women. Except at the PhD level, there are more women graduates than men at every level of education in our public universities.

Level of education

Male (%)

Female (%)

Diploma

37.9

62.1

Bachelor’s Degree

35.0

65.0

Master

42.0

58.0

PhD

62.3

36.8

Table 1: Percentage of graduates according to gender at different levels of education in public universities in 2012.

Yes, women still face discrimination in public life, but at the very least, most of the time, these are very visible issues which received wide-ranging advocacy and support.

Those who are shielded behind the privacy of home life, however, are less fortunate. These, the homemakers, who are typically women in our context, and mothers, continue to be the invisible victims of invisible discrimination in our society. Homemakers and mothers are expected to be altruistic and not put their self interests before their role as caregivers in the family. Consequently, they ended up having little or no tangible reward for their care work, are deemed credit unworthy with no social insurance, and having to be a dependant throughout their life. Often, these are not perceive as discrimination or its results but rather, a given in our culture or worst, something to be celebrated due to the said altruism.

Care economy: The multi-billion Ringgit invisible economy

The invisibility of homemakers and mothers is reflected in the exclusion of their contribution in how we look at our country’s progress. For so long, the government measures progress by how much each of us produce and earn. The language of GDP and GNI dominate how we look at the progress, prosperity, and strength of our country. A citizen’s worth is then valued by how much he or she contributes from that perspective.

Such measurement however continues to ignore the quiet contributions of homemakers and parents, especially mothers. Because the works of a mother, from giving birth to caring for family members, do not add to the GDP or the GNI, they are not given due recognition for their equally important contributions. In other words, care economy does not matter in the conventional economy.

But does it?

According to a press report published in 2011, the Human Resources Ministry estimated that out of the 9.57 million women in the working age group, 4.98 million of them are outside the labour force and out of this number, 3.37 million are homemakers. Risking oversimplification, just by calculating based on the minimum wage of RM900 a month set by the federal government, we are looking at an annual contribution of RM36.4 billion by these homemakers alone. This is the “homemaker tax” or “mommy tax”, homemakers in Malaysia, predominantly women, have to pay in lost income when they chose to be stay-home mothers or housewives.

To put things in perspective, in 2012, the federal government’s tax revenue totalled about RM151.6  billion, out of which RM23 billion came from individual income tax and RM51.3 billion from corporate tax. The upcoming Goods and Services Tax (GST) is expected to bring in up to RM30 billion for the federal coffer.

Equality must start at home

In order to inculcate a culture of respect, just like charity, equality must start at home, especially when no one’s looking. Or rather, precisely because no one’s looking, we must give form to the invisible discrimination happening behind the veil of home life.

The Penang State Government recently launched the “Ibu Emas” programme to appreciate the role of mothers in nation-building. Stay-home mothers below the age of 60 years old will receive RM100 a year from the state government. This is a variation of the National Women’s Contribution Scheme (NWCS) advocated in the Pakatan Rakyat 13th General Election Manifesto. The NWCS is a social security net for homemakers in which the government contributes RM600 per annum to a homemaker’s pension fund to be complemented by contribution from the spouse at a minimum of RM120 up to RM1,200 a year.

The “Ibu Emas” programme was to complement other family-friendly policies implemented by the Penang State Government since 2008. To name a few, these policies include, “Anak Emas” Incentive where new parents receive RM200, state-sponsored child care facilities providing low-cost quality service for working parents, “Warga Emas” Appreciation Programme where senior citizens age 60 years old and above receive RM100 a year and family members of deceased senior citizens receive RM1,000 contribution for funeral expenses (“khairat kematian”).

Recognise care economy, start with NWCS

The NWCS is avant-garde among the other cash-transfer and family welfare programmes. This is because it is the first of its kind recognition given to homemakers in this country for the importance of their care work not just in the conventional filial piety sense but also in the political and socio-economic sense.

The biggest chunk of the 2014 federal budget, 21% of it,  goes to education which received RM54.6 billion. Out of the amount, RM1.2 billion was allocated for early education. This shows how important and vital it is to nurture our children in the course of nation-building.

However, one of the most pivotal components of the nurturing takes place at home through parenting, in the context of family and often by mothers. It is high time the government recognises this point. Enough of lips service to the importance of care work and the value of parenting.

There are many things to be done to be sure, from defining and quantifying care economy to setting up a more formal approach to manage care economy as well as introducing family friendly policies from cradle to grave. But for a start, the government has to put money where its mouth is. The Pakatan Rakyat 2014 Alternative Budget proposed RM3 billion be allocated for NWCS. The federal government should adopt this policy. This will be the first step towards exposing and finally ending the invisible discrimination against the hand that rocks the cradle.

This is my wish for this year’s International Women’s Day. Let us remove the cloak of invisibility from the discrimination against homemakers and mothers. And then let us make the first move towards ending it. Equality for women, equality for all women.

Happy International Women’s Day.

Steven Sim Chee Keong is the Member of Parliament for Bukit Mertajam. He also sits on the Penang State Government’s Women, Family and Community Development Committee.

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