Suhakam Reveals Pandemic’s Disproportionate Impact On Women, Children

Suhakam’s 2020 report spotlights child arrests for MCO violations, and how Covid lockdowns affected reproductive health services and access to justice for divorced women, besides increasing women’s caregiving burden as health services shifted to Covid.

KUALA LUMPUR, June 8 – The Covid-19 pandemic had a disproportionate effect on women and children, according to the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia’s (Suhakam) recently published 2020 annual report.

According to Suhakam, issues affecting women and children’s rights during the pandemic included gender insensitivity in the government’s Covid response, the closure of essential reproductive health care and childcare centres, inadequate support for domestic violence victims, limited access to justice, and the unequal burden of unpaid care and domestic work falling on women.

Suhakam said the implementation of Movement Control Orders (MCO) demonstrated a failure to address the specific needs and rights of women and children. The Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) reported an increase in calls related to domestic violence during the MCO period, indicating a distressing surge in abuse cases.

In April 2020 alone, the women’s rights group received 89,865 calls concerning domestic violence – a threefold increase compared to the 25,066 calls received in February 2020. 

Suhakam added that the exclusion of judicial and legal services from the list of essential services curtailed women’s access to justice. 

“There were many reports of divorced women in Malaysia who encountered difficulty securing child maintenance from their former spouses and so applied for a court order. The MCO interrupted these proceedings as the court was not classified as an essential service to continue operations during the MCO. 

“As a result, divorced mothers who have custody of children may encounter difficulty securing child support from their former spouses and have to cover all their children’s expenses.”

The closure of National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN) clinics providing affordable reproductive health care services also limited women’s access to essential services, which led to increased risk of unplanned pregnancies and illegal abortions.

“This may have long-term implications since many families have fallen into the B40 category during the MCO, including nationals and migrant workers in Malaysia,” Suhakam noted. 

Travel restrictions imposed during the MCO also saw many divorced parents unable to visit their children, whose custody they share with their former spouse. Malaysian women whose foreign spouses and children live abroad were also prevented from travelling to reunite with their families as international borders closed.

Suhakam also highlighted the plight of single mothers, many of whom were already struggling to make ends meet even before the pandemic struck. The commission noted that while some single mothers managing small businesses successfully pivoted to online platforms to promote and sell their products, others, particularly those from the older generation, faced difficulties due to their limited technological proficiency.

The MCO also increased unpaid care work, especially for women. Suhakam pointed out that the increased burden of unpaid care and domestic work mostly fell on women during the MCO. 

“In addition, shifted priorities of health care services to deal with Covid-19 meant that women’s caregiving responsibilities of elderly, ill spouses and disabled persons at home are intensified. Accumulatively, these have impacted the physical and mental health of women,” Suhakam’s report stated.

According to a study conducted by the Khazanah Research Institute in 2019, women dedicate an average of 3.6 hours per day to unpaid care work within their households, whereas men contribute only 2.2 hours per day. Additionally, women spend 6.6 hours per day on paid employment, which is just 0.3 hours less than the time allocated by men.

To address these concerns, Suhakam recommended various measures, including gender-sensitive government responses, increased protection for victims of domestic violence, accessibility to reproductive health care, and recognition of women’s caregiving responsibilities.

One of its key proposals was to increase gender representation and sensitivity in public policymaking and public service. 

“The disproportionate impacts of gender insensitive responses to Covid-19 on women’s civil and political rights and socioeconomic rights in Malaysia demonstrate why women’s representation in public policymaking and gender sensitisation is crucial. 

“At the moment, the Minister of Women, Family and Community Development is not a regular member of, nor is there any female member in the National Security Council (NSC) who is tasked with managing the Covid-19 measures,” Suhakam said.

Another proposal was to adopt a zero-tolerance policy against gender-based violence. 

“At the minimum, government, political and social influencers and public service messages should refrain from sexism and gender stereotyping against women and men, including in their private spheres. 

“Public and private sector employers and organisations, regardless of size, capacity and core activity, should also adopt and implement zero-tolerance policies and measures in order to eliminate and prevent gender-based violence and harassment in all public spaces – online and offline, regardless of identity i.e. nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, age, and disability.”

Suhakam Casts Spotlight On Children’s Arrests, Child Abuse During MCO

Suhakam’s report also brought attention to the distressing situation where some children were arrested and taken to court for violating the MCO, which may have caused potential trauma. 

Suhakam stated that a separate set of guidelines should be established for law enforcement agencies to handle minors who breach the standard operating procedures.

While parents play a role in advising their children to comply with the MCO regulations, Suhakam said the government should consider releasing detained children found contravening the MCO regulation. 

Suhakam added that arrests of undocumented children should also be suspended. While awaiting release, authorities should ensure that places where children are being detained adhere to MOH and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) guidelines in terms of hygiene, screening, and isolation practices.

Suhakam said that the overcrowding in detention centres made social distancing difficult to achieve, making it difficult to safely isolate sick detainees and creating an ideal condition for Covid-19 to spread. 

The commission’s report also highlighted a concerning rise in child abuse cases during the MCO. NGO hotlines experienced a significant surge in calls related to child abuse, particularly in the initial two weeks of the lockdown. 

The Talian Kasih 15999 hotline, overwhelmed by the influx of calls reporting child abuse, also received numerous inquiries regarding domestic violence incidents and requests for food assistance, the report stated.

Suhakam recommended that the Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development establish and promote a child-centred 24-hour helpline staffed by child-friendly operators whose services are accessible to all children without discrimination.

The commission also raised concerns regarding the impact of travel restrictions on single parents. Particularly, single parents responsible for young children found it impractical to adhere to the government’s regulation of allowing only one person per car during travel. With the closure of nurseries during the MCO, sending children to childcare centres was not a viable option. 

Consequently, single parents faced significant challenges in purchasing essential items like food and groceries, as they couldn’t leave their young children unattended at home or bring them along in the car.

In such circumstances, it is crucial for authorities to exercise discretion and flexibility, considering the difficulties faced by single parents, Suhakam said. 

This would allow affected individuals to leave their homes to acquire daily necessities while ensuring the safety of their children. 

This situation presented an additional hurdle for frontline workers who are parents. Many of them were compelled to engage the services of unregistered childminders to care for their children while they continued their work during the pandemic.

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