We must continue to acknowledge survivors of gender-based violence and
address the ‘pandemic within the pandemic’

Even as this year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence--framed by 25th November’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and 10th December’s Human Rights Day--come to a close, we must continue to acknowledge the many survivors of gender-based violence who have been enduring what has been aptly referred to as a ‘pandemic within a pandemic.’

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed and exacerbated existing gender inequalities in a variety of ways, from disproportionately impacting women’s employment through the increased unpaid care burden, to diverting resources away from sexual and reproductive healthcare, but perhaps the starkest impact has been with regards to gender-based violence.

A joint statement issued in July by the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and the UN Platform of Independent Expert Mechanisms on Discrimination and Violence against Women (EDVAW Platform) called on all countries to take urgent action to address gender-based violence in the home– which has been on the rise since the start of the pandemic–and to integrate the elimination of gender-based violence and discrimination into COVID-19 recovery plans.

During the initial Movement Control Order (MCO), which was vital to curbing the spread of COVID-19, Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) saw a spike of 3.4 times in calls and enquiries to our 24-7 crisis support hotline as compared to pre-MCO levels. This was precipitated by the isolation of domestic violence survivors at home with their abusers, which simultaneously cut off survivors from social support networks and services. While not the cause of domestic violence, aggravators such as uncertainty and stress around finances and health, as well as increased household care responsibilities, likely also contributed to an increase in domestic violence.

At the same time, with the closure or limited availability of social services such as crisis shelters, as well as uncertainty around protocols for accessing help during the MCO, many survivors were unable to access critical protection mechanisms at a time when they needed them most. This underscores the need for disaster planning for future waves of the COVID-19 pandemic and other crises to provide for continuous-and even fortified--response for gender-based violence, which history has shown is often exacerbated in crises situations.

Despite the inequalities and gaps in our social framework that have been revealed or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, there are also opportunities that allow us to emerge from this crisis as a more equal society. The allocation of RM 21 million for domestic violence ‘local social support centres’ in the national Budget 2021 is a prime example of this. Such allocations and planning can help ensure that critical support services such as shelters and hotlines are always available to survivors of gender-based violence who need them, especially in times of crises.

In addition to allocations specific to gender-based violence support infrastructure, allocations for gender-based violence response is also critical, including ensuring adequate resources for the police, JKM, and hospital staff, who are typically the frontliners assisting survivors of violence.

Beyond allocations related to gender-based violence, it is also critical for the national budget and all policy decisions to adopt a gender perspective, taking into account the disparate impact of the pandemic on women and girls, including in relation to employment. With the pandemic, there has been a rise in the unpaid care burden due to the disruption of care services and facilities, and this has fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of women. In the first quarter labour force statistics released by the Department of Statistics Malaysia, we saw the country’s fastest rate of increase in working-age adults dropping out of the labour force, with the majority citing ‘family needs’ as the primary reason for dropping out. The implication of these statistics is that many women have been forced to leave the labour force.

If left unattended, this will reduce the already low labour force participation rates of women in Malaysia; however, by taking measures such as expanding provider and consumer subsidies for childcare, the government can help ensure that women are able to stay in the workforce. In turn, keeping more women in the workforce also helps ensure that less women are economically dependent and at-risk of gender-based violence or unable to escape abusive situations.

Ultimately, we should use the lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic as a catalyst for change to make Malaysia a better country for women and a more equal society.


Events with CPD points