There’s a vital force in our society that is often left out of the bigger picture – the homemakers. It is time the invisible discrimination against them is eradicated.
This year’s UN theme for International Women’s Day is “Equality for women is progress for all”. Yet second class treatment of women is still very much prevalent today – from violence against women to unfair treatment in the marketplace to the lack of recognition for the care work by homemakers and mothers. These are but the manifestations of the culture of gender discrimination in our society.
However, the women’s rights movement has come a long way, even in Malaysia. While we have yet to achieve full equality, there are many victories which we can celebrate. For example, the federal government has given more focus to increasing the labour force participation rate for women – last year we passed the 50% mark at 51.1% and there is 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.
Indubitably, women still face discrimination in public life, but most of the time, this is over very visible issues which receive wide-ranging advocacy and support.
Those women who live most of their day in the privacy of home life, however, are less fortunate. Homemakers, typically women, continue to be the unseen 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 end up having little or no tangible reward for their care work, are deemed credit unworthy with no social insurance and have to be a dependent throughout their life. Often, this is not perceived as discrimination – it is seen as the reality in our culture, or worse, something to be celebrated due to said altruism.
Care economy: The multi-billion ringgit invisible economy
The invisibility of homemakers and mothers is reflected in the exclusion of their contribution when we look at our country’s progress. For so long, the government measures progress by looking at how much each of us produces and earns. The language of GDP and GNI dominates how we look at the progress, prosperity and strength of our country. A citizen's worth is valued by how much he or she contributes from that monetary perspective.
Such measurements, however, continue to ignore the quiet contributions of homemakers and parents, especially mothers. Because the work of a mother, from giving birth to caring for family members, does not add to the GDP or the GNI, she is not given due recognition for her equally important contributions. In other words, the care economy does not matter to the conventional economy.
Or 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 were outside the labour force. Out of this number, 3.37 million were homemakers.
At the risk of 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 RM36.4bil by these homemakers alone! This is the “homemaker tax” or “mummy tax” that homemakers in Malaysia, predominantly women, pay in lost income when they choose to be stay-at-home mothers or housewives. To put things in perspective, in 2012, the federal government’s tax revenue totalled about RM151.6bil, out of which RM23bil came from individual income taxes and RM51.3bil from corporate taxes. The upcoming GST is expected to bring in up to RM30bil to the federal coffers.
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-at-home mothers below the age of 60 will receive RM100 a year from the state government. This is a variation of the National Women’s Contribution Scheme (NWCS) that was advocated in Pakatan’s 13th General Election Manifesto. The NWCS is a social security net for homemakers where 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 state government since 2008. To name a few, these policies include the “Anak Emas” incentive where new parents receive RM200, state-sponsored childcare facilities providing low cost quality service for working parents, “Warga Emas” appreciation programme where senior citizens aged 60 and above receive RM100 a year and “Khairat Kematian” where family members of deceased senior citizens receive RM1,000 contribution for funeral expenses.
Recognise care economy, start with NWCS
The NWCS is avant-garde among other cash-transfer and family welfare programmes – it is the first of its kind to give recognition to homemakers for their care work, not just in the traditional filial piety sense, but also in the political and socioeconomic sense.
Twenty-one per cent of the 2014 federal budget, or RM54.6bil, was allocated to education. Of that, RM1.2bil was allocated for early education. This shows how important and vital it is to nurture our children as part of nation-building.
However, one of the most pivotal components of this nurturing takes place at home through parenting, and often by mothers.
There are many things to be done at the governmental level, for sure, from defining and quantifying care economy to setting up a more formal approach in managing care economy and introducing holistic family-friendly policies. But for a start, a government has to put its money where its mouth is. The Pakatan 2014 Alternative Budget proposed that RM3bil be allocated for NWCS. The federal government should adopt a similar policy. This will be the first step towards exposing and finally stopping the unseen 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 and discrimination from homemakers and mothers. Let us make the first move towards ending it.
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.