Right time, right place and some luck

On January 2, 2012 a new state-initiated body emerged – the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC) – as the result of the Chief Minister's 2012 budget speech when the state announced it had tripled the budget for women’s development. In the space of four whirlwind months, the PWDC came into existence. No mean feat indeed, so how did this happen?

A little background

When Pakatan Rakyat took over the reins of the Penang state government after the March 8, 2008 General Elections, it was widely assumed that the various state departments would continue to work with the new state government. While most did, this was not the case with the Women’s Development Department ( Jabatan Pembangunan Wanita) which withdrew its support both in terms of finance and personnel several months down the line. This left the state executive councillor for Youth and Sports, Women, Family and Community Development, Lydia Ong Kok Fooi, high and dry and with only RM200,000 from the state budget.

With no machinery in place and no federal funds to drive the much-needed programmes, Ong quickly established an advisory group consisting of various women’s and community non-governmental organisations (NGOs) under her portfolio – the Penang State Committee on Youth and Sports, Women, Family and Community Development (MMK Pembangunan Belia, Sukan, Wanita, Keluarga dan Komuniti). Currently this Committee, with, Chong Eng (Member of Parliament for Bukit Mertajam) as advisor, comprises some 19 members representing both government and non-governmental bodies. The secretariat is the State Economic Planning Unit (UPEN).

Serving the community

An increase in the budget allocation to RM800,000 per annum for women’s development from 2009 onwards allowed the Committee to fund the implementation of various projects including the setting up of the Pusat Perkhidmatan Wanita (PPW), Seberang Perai; the establishment of two childcare centres in Rifle Range and Berapit and the formation of an NGO known as the Good Governance and Gender Equality Society, Penang (3Gs).

In addition, the Committee also provided funding to other NGOs and organised successful International Women’s Day (IWD) programmes. These efforts have led to various awareness campaigns on violence against women and children. For example, the 2011 International Women’s Day celebration saw the participation of about 25 NGOs and another 800 participants from all walks of life as part of a year-long campaign to end sexual crimes against children.

Slowly but surely, MMK Pembangunan Belia, Sukan, Wanita, Keluarga dan Komuniti broadened its base through various awareness raising training on gender equality and women’s leadership (led by 3Gs)and commissioned a UPEN-funded research to the Women’s Development Research Centre (KANITA), Universiti Sains Malaysia on women’s participation in the public and private sectors (2009-2010). It was also important to work with other women-related research agencies in the state, which is where the collaboration between 3Gs and Kanita, started with various gender sensitive trainings for both women and men from the public and private sector, and the conceptualisation of a gender responsive budgeting (GRB) project for Penang began in late 2010.

Why is GRB important for Penang?

More than 40 countries round the world have implemented GRB in their development plans, and the numbers are growing. The rationale behind GRB is that there are significant differences in the needs of men and women, girls and boys, including those from different income groups, etc. in any society. GRB Right time, right place and some luck PWDC in the making recognises that people need different services and therefore a different approach to budgeting is needed to meet these needs. GRB interventions are identified to address these different requirements which can then be reflected in specific government policies, planning and budgets.

KANITA's research with the state and local governments received an enthusiastic response, especially from some local authority officers, about the possibility of engaging with GRB at the local level. 2011 was a busy year in formulating a strategy on how GRB could be implemented in Penang.

Two workshops were organised – one at an introductory level and another advanced GRB workshop in June 2011 – with 3Gs and KANITA as co-organisers. Participants came from different stakeholder groups – state and local council officers, NGOs, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Malaysia, academics and councillors. An inclusive GRB Task Force was set up comprising representatives from Penang’s two local councils, 3Gs and KANITA; and a Gender and OKU ad hoc Committee was established in the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP) to examine how gender and GRB concerns could be addressed.

Towards the end of 2011, a scoping exercise on GRB was conducted and a local consultant was commissioned to come up with a three-year pilot GRB project document. In between a group consisting of several members from the GRB Task Force and officers from the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development visited the city state of Berlin in October 2011 to "learn" how Berlin implemented its GRB programmes, now in its eighth year.

The concerns at this point became, with such grandiose future plans where would the funding come from? Which agency would drive such a long-term project? It became clearer that political will was needed to set up a new body, not just to drive GRB but to organise programmes and activities around women’s empowerment and gender justice in a more systematic manner.

Mohd Hairay Yusof, Finance Director, MPSP (Seberang Perai Municipal Council) a strong supporter of Gender Responsive Budgeting.

Lobbying the state: the PWDC begins to take shape

It became crystal clear that a state machinery was needed to further enhance the various programmes of the Committee and to acknowledge women’s contributions in Penang. A gender mainstreaming conference organised by 3Gs in mid-2010 and attended by some 200 participants saw a declaration and various recommendations (including one on GRB) put forth to achieve gender justice in Penang.

It was important to catch the attention of the state authorities, especially the ears of the state executive councillors and the Chief Minister himself. Sustained lobbying efforts, both formal and informal, went into overdrive; speaking to the Chief Minister at various functions, bringing up gender issues at executive council meetings and even chasing after the Chief Minister along the corridors of power!

Finally in mid-2011 it was “all systems go” as the Chief Minister agreed to the formation of such a body and also agreed to provide RM200,000 annually for the implementation of GRB in Penang. It was a flurry of activities to register the new PWDC, to conceptualise its framework and programmes, to come up with a working budget, to set up its board of directors and to recruit staff, among others. After the state government decided to commit RM200,000 annually, MPSP matched this funding with an additional RM200,000 annually for a three-year pilot scheme, while the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP) provided RM63,000 for similar but toned down project activities.

Penang is the first state in Malaysia to adopt GRB and the PWDC will have its work cut out raising awareness as well as implementing and integrating its various programmes in both public and private sector initiatives. With the commitment of the state government and two local councils and its tagline of "women and men for good governance", PWDC has certainly paved the way for a new, focused approach to gender issues for both women and men. A huge challenge – but an exciting one which bodes well for the future.

Cecilia Ng is an independent researcher and women's rights advocate. She is currently an honorary consultant at the Women's Development Research Centre (KANITA), Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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