Gender equality and the Millennium Development Goals


Statistics give a varied picture of gender inequality in Malaysia. The educational level of women has certainly improved over the last few decades, but their participation in the workforce has not. Why is that? Is the glass ceiling stopping them?

Malaysia: The Millennium Development Goals at 2010 paints a general but holistic picture of the status of Malaysia since the midterm review in 2005. I was impressed by the balance and the objectivity of the reporting, which highlights the good while outlining Malaysia’s shortcomings in its commitments to achieve the next milestone in 2015, with the support of concrete statistical data.

Though many might find the book to be lacking in in-depth analyses, it is still a very important initiative to keep track of the effectiveness of the government’s policies and its achievements.

From the report, Malaysia had definitely excelled in providing ample educational opportunities for women. The literacy rate for women aged 15-24 years has been continuously rising and the recorded ratio of females to males in tertiary education rose dramatically from 1.08:1 in 1990 to 1.6:1 in 2009. On one hand, the data collected painted a rosy picture of more women receiving a formal education, so much so that they have exceeded the number of men. On the other hand, however, it poses a question: where are these Malaysian women in the public sphere?

The Millennium Development Goals continuously highlights the “missing” women, starting with the labour force. Women’s labour force participation in Malaysia has never surpassed the 50% mark, while the rate for men remained at more than 70% between 1990 and 2008. In managerial and decisionmaking positions, the data demonstrated that a significant glass ceiling still exists, with the participation rates of women in top public service managerial positions stuck at below 30%. Though the number of women elected to Parliament doubled from 1990 to 1999, it has remained at around 10% since.

The report also indicates that the imbalance in monthly basic wages persisted between both sexes. Senior officials and managers had the highest wage ratio of male and female (1.70) for 2008. Women business owners still earn significantly less than employed women, and in both of these categories, earnings are lower when compared with male counterparts. The data also indicates that the odds of femaleheaded households being poor were higher than for maleheaded households.

One might think that an effective way out of poverty for women would be to participate in the labour force, yet the sex-segregated data of the labour force participation rates defies this presumption. As of 2009, the Department of Statistics recorded 78.9% of men against 46.4% of women in the labour force. Not only was women’s participation lower, their dropout rates increased significantly as they got older.

Many perceive a formal education as the ticket for both women and men to venture further in their careers, but as the figures indicated, a formal education alone is still insufficient for women to break through patriarchal social norms. Women’s roles and responsibilities as daughters, wives and mothers are often perceived as obligations that need to be prioritised.

The social obligations of women have been identified as one of the possible factors for the high dropout rate of women in the labour force, i.e. to get married and start a new family. This point is not new, yet it remains a major obstacle as such social obligations are not only imposed by men on women, but are deeply rooted within women as well.

Studies have shown that women who shun any leadership or decision-making position tend to do so due to social responsibilities. These women often lack effective and efficient support systems from their families and society at large. These studies go on to say that the numbers themselves have little implication as long as awareness of gender equality (and inequality) is lacking in society. Policymakers need to be conscious of this, especially when drafting new policies that are assumed to help women in the labour force, such as the minimum wage policy.

Under the fifth goal, Improve Maternal Health, the report indicates that the federal government’s efforts to reduce the maternal mortality rates (MMR) have proved to be effective, and high quality family planning and information have also helped improve maternal health. The report also notes that contraceptive prevalence rates have plateaued at about 50% since 1984. The stagnant prevalence rates raise questions about possible root factors such as the religiosity of the society.

Furthermore, the report has repeatedly stressed the need to acknowledge the presence of sexual activity among unmarried couples so that the scope of contraceptive prevalence rate data can be more inclusive of unmarried women. Such data is essential if we are to properly assess the health situation of women in Malaysia holistically.

Malaysia has received a fair review of its achievements to meet the targeted milestones in The Millennium Development Goals so far. But, the report left plenty of space for qualitative research inputs, which are crucial to a thorough comprehension of the current situation. The government has to start thinking of sustainable strategies to meet the gaps in order to achieve the targets set for 2015. As the report has repeatedly indicated, Malaysia has a long way to go in order to achieve gender equality in both the public and private spheres.

Women in Penang

Since the change of government in the state, Penang has been a leader in efforts to achieve gender equality. Not only is Penang the first state to enforce the 90-day maternity leave rule, the state government is working towards gender responsive policies by initiating a gender responsive budgeting policy in the Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP). The Penang Women’s Development Corporation was recently established to advise the state government on policies for gender and social equality, and to promote good governance.

Such initiatives suggest that the Penang government means business when it comes to issues of gender equality. However, it is still too early to judge the effectiveness of the strategies, and The Millennium Development Goals shows that Penang still has a long way to go to achieve gender equality in society. Nonetheless, it is always a welcoming sight to see the government making a serious effort to make the vision a reality.

Teo Sue Ann is a research analyst at the Penang Institute.

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