In January this year, the Penang state government announced that it had tabled and passed a Gender Inclusiveness Policy aimed at building an inclusive society in the state and promoting substantive gender equality, committing at the same time to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The SDGs is a unifying agenda, applicable to all countries, nations, territories, genders and demographic groups.1 It pledges to end poverty and hunger; reduce inequalities within and among countries; build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; protect and promote human rights; and ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources.
The concept of gender inclusiveness is strongly inspired by the SDGs, specifically by Goal 5: Gender Equality and Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities. As a simple and illustrative indication of gender inequality, globally, there are 122 women aged 25-34 living in extreme poverty for every 100 men in the same age group. According to reports from the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), the absence of gender equality jeopardises the SDGs – it is not plausible to eradicate poverty when men and women do not have equal access to and control over economic resources.
Gender equality is crucially linked to other forms of equalities, such as those based on age, ethnicity and marital status. For example, a divorced woman is more than twice as likely to be poor compared to a divorced man.2 Also, efforts to establish a just and inclusive society will be futile when men and women do not have equal representation in political and economic decision-making processes.
The Mid-term Review of the Eleventh Malaysia Plan 2016-2020: New Priorities and Emphases, released by the Ministry of Economic Affairs in October 2018, highlights the fact that the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has been incorporated into the 11th Malaysia Plan; and national strategies and initiatives have been aligned to support the SDGs.
The introduction of the Gender Inclusiveness Policy is Penang’s effort at echoing the national aligning of governance to the principles of the SDGs.
What then is the core connection between the concept of gender inclusiveness and the SDGs; and what are the challenges that lie ahead?
Gender Inclusiveness 101
Gender inclusiveness refers to an environment where everyone’s diverse needs and rights are equally accepted, respected and understood. While inclusiveness encompasses all spheres of society, the core of gender inclusiveness is to advocate substantive gender equality, emphasising not just women’s rights, but equitable outcomes and equal opportunities for disadvantaged and marginalised groups in society.
The latest Malaysian Gender Gap Index (MGGI) released by the Department of Statistics in November 2018 has shown that while Malaysia has managed to close its gender gap in the spheres of education and health, it is still struggling in terms of economic participation and political empowerment, scoring only 0.726 and 0.061 out of the full score of 1.3
Penang’s Gender Inclusiveness Policy takes gender perspectives into consideration in decision-making, planning and administration processes. It emphasises the importance of a gender-balanced management within the state and local governments to ensure that equal opportunities are open to both men and women. If properly adhered to, the policy should result in an increase of women in decision-making roles within the state government.4
And good governance can be achieved through active and equal civic participation. Gender inclusiveness is not a top-down approach – it is a mixture of top-down, middle-up, middle-down and bottom-up processes that can be initiated by the top (government), the middle (civil society) and the bottom (grassroots). For example, decision-makers could institutionalise and technocratise gender inclusiveness through policies and legal approaches; civil society could advocate between the authorities and the people; and the grassroots could start their own gender inclusive movement within their communities.
Gender approaches adopted by the Penang state government date back to 2012 with Gender Responsive and Participatory Budgeting (GRPB).5 This is a responsive process that ensures gender-sensitive allocation of resources to reduce social and economic inequalities.
The Gender Inclusiveness Policy uses GRPB as its main mechanism. GRPB approaches include focus group discussions and local surveys, providing room for the community – together with agencies and all levels of government – to participate in decision-making and public expenditures issues; it is effective in identifying different needs from diverse individuals, and minimising cases of marginalisation or isolation.
Getting the Public Involved
While gender inclusivity is a strategic approach to achieve gender equality and social justice, its incorporation could spell challenges ahead: it is a relatively new concept, and gender-related issues are generally mistaken for women’s issues, to be solved by women only. Such a mentality hinders the buy-in and acceptance of men on gender issues and topics, resulting in societal polarisation.
In addition, the concept of substantive equality is often misunderstood as linear equality, which often refers to a “50:50 for all” formula. The true meaning of substantive equality emphasises equality for achieving equal results for basic human rights, opportunities and access to goods and services. It entails special measures for all groups – with their different identities, needs and backgrounds – instead of a candid approach of equal sharing based on the assumption of similar needs.
The situation is further compromised when irrelevant approaches are taken to introduce the concepts of “gender”, “gender equality” and “gender inclusiveness” to the people. For instance, using professional and technical terms that only subject matter experts can understand will create a disconnect with the public; recipients will gradually lose interest and even generate resistance when approached again.
Despite various efforts to position the SDGs as a major national agenda, progress has been slow. Failure to understand the SDGs in the Malaysian context has prevented any further advancement, and efforts to associate gender inclusiveness with the SDGs without considering the local context will only produce adverse results.
Furthermore, the Gender Inclusiveness Policy does not have any legal or binding effects; it remains as a set of guidelines for the government. Its implementation requires and depends mainly on individual commitment and political will. As such, enthusiasm might easily fade in time with insufficient budget allocation and inconsistent monitoring.6
The latest Malaysian Gender Gap Index shows that Malaysia has managed to close its gender gap in the spheres of education and health.
Critical engagement with the masses will generate a wider ripple effect within the state and help to accelerate the process. It is crucial that public awareness programmes and projects are tailored to the local context, allowing society to gain a clear understanding of the concept. Information dissemination should cut across all generations and avoid appearing only favourable to a certain set of the target group. Stakeholders need to develop creative ways to raise public awareness.
On the other hand, the state government needs to convince stakeholders about the importance of the Gender Inclusiveness Policy and to make it relatable to their daily tasks. The policy should also capture the hearts and minds of its implementers and build a pool of champions to further the cause.
Finally, internal capacity building, programmes and projects should be designed according to different stakeholders’ needs. The importance of evaluation and monitoring through regular updates from stakeholders should be noted.
As fanfare for the 2030 Agenda gradually wanes in some better-resourced countries, Penang’s Gender Inclusiveness Policy has provided hope and reason for optimism. It does however require a cultural and mind-set shift, as well as time and tremendous effort from all layers of society. Hard work is needed, but the results will benefit all Penangites.
Chan Xin Ying was until recently a research analyst with the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.
Hasanah Akhir was a programme officer with the Women’s Centre for Change (WCC) Penang.
1The SDGs highlight the universal, integrated and inclusive values not emphasised in the previous UN Millennium Development Goals. However, there are criticisms that the goals are too wide-ranging, cumbersome and packaged into sound bites.
2Statistics derived from UN Women, retrieved on http://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/multimedia/2018/7/infographic-why-gender-equality-matters-to-achieving-all-17-sdgs.
3A full score of 1 indicates an ideal situation where the gender gap is closed.
4Currently, the Penang state government only has one female out of 11 exco members.
5Gender Responsive and Participatory Budgeting (GRPB) was implemented in 2012 at the local level and also by the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP) and Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP). In 2017 the Housing Department also adopted GRPB as a mechanism to increase the liveability of residents living in people’s housing projects (PPR). In October 2018 GRPB Penang received the UN-Habitat Scroll of Honour Award. The Gender Inclusiveness Policy was developed to institutionalise GRPB and to ensure systematic practice of GRPB in the state and local governments.
6GRPB remained project-based before the Gender Inclusiveness Policy was formulated. The main challenge is that there is no relevant policy or circular from appropriate authorities for systemic implementation of GRPB.