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Gender and Poverty in Malaysia: Towards Gender Sensitivity


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Gender and Poverty in Malaysia: Towards Gender Sensitivity


in Lasallian Education
Cecilia Ng and Lucy Ratnam 1

Introduction
This paper seeks to understand the nature of gender and poverty in Malaysia, highlight a critical issue affecting the safety of women and girls, and from there discuss the role of Lasallian education in transforming its vision and mission towards a holistic and gender sensitive education for boys and girls.
Poverty in Malaysia
Malaysia seems to have made impressive gains in fighting poverty as poverty rates have declined dramatically since the 1970s. The incidence of poverty plunged from 52.4 percent in 1970 to 5.1 percent in 2002. The latest figures for 2009 disclose that the incidence of poverty stands at 3.8 percent with the target of the Tenth Malaysia Plan (2011-2015:396) to further reduce this figure to 2.8 percent. Hardcore poverty also decreased from 1.2 percent in 2004 to 0.7 percent in 2009 with the Government intending to eradicate hardcore poverty by 2010. However the poverty gap in the rural areas is more than three times that in the urban areas (7.1 percent compared to 2.0 percent in 2007), with higher incidences in the east coast states and East Malaysia. Sabah, in particular, registered a poverty rate of 19.2 percent.
Poverty studies measure both absolute and relative poverty as high income inequality has the potential to lead to social conflict in society. The Ninth Malaysia Plan points out that income inequality actually increased during this period. The share of the bottom 40 percent of the populace declined from 14.5 percent in 1990 to 13.5 percent in 2004, while the share of the top 20 percent increased from 50 to 51.2 percent. As such, the national Gini co-efficient worsened from 0.442 in 1990 to 0.462 in 2004 – one of the highest in the region. This was brought down to 0.441 in 2007. Much of the inequality is accounted for by the ‘intra’ or ‘within group’ component with a smaller proportion in the ‘inter’ or ‘between group’ portion.
While there is a breakdown of the poverty data by rural and urban location and by ethnicity, there is no similar breakdown by gender, nor is there information on the various categories of poor/vulnerable women. Yet, it is well-known that poverty has a ‘female’ face and the feminisation of poverty has been a critical agenda in development circles for the past several decades. In other words, where are the sites of female poverty in both rural and urban areas, between states and within the rural areas such as those in the plantation sector as well as among indigenous communities? Data at the global level also reveal that many poor women are in women-headed households, both in the urban and rural areas. In 2007, there were 267,700 women in the labour force who were widowed or divorced compared to 102,200 men. Fortunately, some figures, albeit limited and not updated, are available as the recently unveiled National Policy on Women revealed that poverty among women-headed households has decreased from 12.5 percent in 2002 to 11.5 percent in 2004.
Information is needed as to why and how many of these women fall within the poverty line and how much access and control over economic resources they do or do not have. For example, among rural communities, access to and control over land resources is critical for survival. However, mainstream ideology that men are the natural heads of households and that land titles are therefore their domain, suggests that women have less access to such resources and ancillary services e.g. technology, credit and extension services. However, macro-level information on rural women, especially on poor rural women, is not available from the ministries dealing with the rural/agriculture sector. The few localised studies focus on specific issues or on specific groups of rural women. A study on indigenous women pointed out how the impact of the state and market has changed gender roles and power relations in two villages in Pulau Carey. It concluded that the shift from subsistence production to palm oil monoculture has adversely affected the position of women. In 2004, a survey of 11 oil palm plantations by the Consumers’ Association of Penang found that women workers are paid between RM15 to RM18 per day, while herbicide sprayers earn about RM350 – RM450 a month. Many of them suffered from ill health as a result of the toxic nature of the chemicals used as well as the lack of protective gear.
Recent commercialisation of land in rural and peripheral semi-urban areas for various purposes such as the commoditisation of agriculture, housing, industrial and dam development has left the poor in estates and indigenous communities in the lurch, many times driving them from their place of origin to more urban centres. Not having the necessary skills and education they fill the ranks of the urban poor. Research needs to be done to identify these new poverty groups, and the extent to which women are adversely affected. A study of dam projects and the resettlement of indigenous groups within the affected area show how indigenous communities not only lost access to natural resources, but were also resettled under alien conditions, resulting in an inability to cope with their new surroundings. The study concluded that the involuntary resettlement of these communities led to a greater loss of access to land and rights for women as compared to men.
Interestingly, the Federal Territories Minister recently announced that the Government has now decided to set RM3,000 a month as the poverty line for the urban poor. He noted that “the number of urban poor and slum dwellers in the cities is rising. There is no social safety net for such people, including single parents with three to five children living in low-cost flats”.2 A recent study of low-income single mothers (1,486 respondents) in the urban areas of 11 states found that 80 percent of them earned less than RM500 a month. A similar investigation by SUHAKAM (2008) in two public housing flats found that 47 percent of the 100 respondents were single mothers. A similar percentage earned a monthly income below the urban poverty line income of RM663. The SUHAKAM study revealed that the respondents were dissatisfied with the facilities at the flats. In terms of well-being, some claimed that they could not pay for healthcare services; others reported discrimination due to poverty, while many could not afford to send their children to school.
Safety Issues
Safety and security are also two important concerns faced by women and children, especially those from vulnerable groups such as the poor, refugee and migrant women. Of particular significance is gender-based violence. Violence against Women (VAW) has been defined by the United Nations as any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.
Recognising that violence against women is a universal problem that stems from and continues to be perpetrated due to unequal power relations between women and men, women’s movements all over the world have been lobbying against VAW violations which are against the human rights of women and are a strong impediment to achieving gender equality. As a result of these struggles, the 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women at the United Nations General Assembly is the first international human rights instrument to explicitly address the issue of violence against women. Women’s rights are now recognised as human rights.
The Malaysian Government has responded by taking various actions to protect the (usually women) ‘victims’ and survivors of violence. These include collection of statistics, reform of the laws regarding rape (1989), establishment of a Domestic Violence Act (1994) and launching a Code of Practice on the Elimination of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace (1999). The Code was extended to the public sector in 2005. Despite these efforts, incidents of VAW in all forms continue (Table 1). These are only cases reported to the police. It is well-known that only 10 percent of VAW incidents are reported due to reasons such as shame, culture and inaccessibility of reporting procedures (due to poverty). Table 2 shows the key safety issues in Penang.

Table 1: Violence against Women Cases in Malaysia (2000-2007)




YEAR

Total

2000

2001

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

1. Domestic Violence

3,468

3,107

2,755

2,555

3,101

3,093

3,264

3,756

25,099

2. Rape

1,217

1,386

1,431

1,479

1,760

1,931

2,431

3,098

14,733

3. Incest

213

246

306

254

335

295

352

360

2,341

4. Sodomy

133

141

135

154

177

202

180

231

1,353

5. Outrage of Modesty

1,234

1,393

1,522

1,399

1,661

1,746

1,972

2,243

13,170



Table 2: Key Safety Issues that Impact Women, Men, Girls and Boys in Penang


Malaysians

Foreign Residents

Women

Men

Girls

Boys

Women

Men

Property Crimes

Domestic Violence

Rape

Outrage of Modesty



Sexual Harassment

Snatch Thefts

Road Accidents


Property Crimes

Road Accidents

Drug Abuse


Rape

Outrage of Modesty

Sexual Harassment

Snatch Thefts

Road Accidents

Bullying in School

Child Abuse

Abduction



Drug Abuse

Mat Rempitism

Child Abuse

Abduction

Bullying in School


Rape

Outrage of Modesty

Sexual Harassment

Snatch Thefts

Human Trafficking

Abuse at the Work

Abuse by Authorities


Abuse at Work

Human Trafficking

Abuse by Authorities

False Accusations



Oftentimes, perpetrators of acts of violence against women continue to commit these acts with impunity because of the ineffectiveness of measures to bring them to account for their acts. If these acts are unpunished and continue to remain unpunished, they become directly or indirectly acceptable. The State has an affirmative obligation to prevent violence against women becoming acceptable by defining violence against women and exercising due diligence to prevent such violence.


In this rights-based approach, the Government is duty-bound to provide a safe environment for women and girls and protect them as women and girls are more vulnerable to violations against their person. In Malaysia, women’s groups have been struggling since the 1980s to highlight the issues of rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment.
Whilst formulating and implementing laws is important, it is crucial also to effect a change in the social-cultural perception and the acceptance of violence against women and girls through education and awareness-raising. A change in the mindset (e.g. zero tolerance of violence against women) could ensure that they are able to access legal processes as well as other services created by the State and civil societies. Sexist and stereotyped attitudes that women confront in attempting to utilise the institutions as well as women’s lack of financial independence, mobility and exposure in dealing with public institutions are but some of the barriers that require State intervention. Experiences at the women’s shelters, set up by women’s NGOs (since the 1980s) for survivors/victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse (including child sexual abuse), show that women who gathered enough courage to arrest and address the violence perpetrated against them need assurance that they and their children would not suffer immediate poverty and indignity in the process.

Domestic Violence and Rape
Domestic Violence is a form of power where one partner attempts to dominate the other through violent acts such as physical battering, psychological or emotional torture, and sexual abuse. As mentioned above, domestic violence cases have been increasing through the years as shown in Table 32 where the breakdown by states is provided.
Table 32: Domestic Violence Cases from 2000-2006

STATES

2000

2001

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

PERLIS

39

27

39

32

53

21

42

KEDAH

177

179

177

179

264

328

261

P/PINANG

399

431

269

231

255

272

307

PERAK

269

185

135

123

85

186

261

SELANGOR

877

855

942

805

932

845

795

K/LUMPUR

264

162

131

96

95

71

88

N/SEMBILAN

349

318

242

301

262

253

281

MELAKA

92

56

67

68

104

159

176

JOHOR

377

379

187

234

465

320

377

PAHANG

150

161

202

188

206

167

171

TERENGGANU

24

29

10

9

21

23

33

KELANTAN

33

36

47

19

27

80

88

SABAH

102

86

85

69

124

114

81

SARAWAK

316

203

222

201

208

254

303

TOTAL

3,468

3,107

2,755

2,555

3,101

3,093

3,264

Source: Royal Malaysian Police, 2007
Similarly, rape is another heinous crime against women where sexual assault is used as a weapon, often to dominate and humiliate the survivor. Although women’s groups have been conducting continuous awareness and education programmes since the mid-1980s to de-escalate the incidences of rape in the country, reports of rape continue to be on the increase.3 The number of rape cases has doubled in the last four years, from 1,479 cases in 2003 to 3,098 in 2007 (The Star, 7 May 2009; Table 43). Out of the 3,098 incidents of rape, 1,653 (53 percent) of the victims were below 16 years of age – a grave cause for concern.
Table 43: Rape cases in Malaysia from 2000 - 2007

STATES

2000

2001

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

PERLIS

12

10

13

11

21

26

28

27

KEDAH

110

123

132

119

127

163

221

313

P/PINANG

61

75

73

70

89

71

115

161

PERAK

91

79

100

118

121

148

183

226

SELANGOR

216

269

253

280

289

368

421

562

K. LUMPUR

67

97

120

77

116

111

142

221

N. SEMBILAN

59

82

62

69

89

97

103

153

MELAKA

43

43

57

67

100

77

125

139

JOHOR

194

234

235

312

323

324

343

473

PAHANG

74

79

79

70

102

84

143

194

TERENGGANU

48

48

45

38

58

99

127

130

KELANTAN

52

74

70

66

82

90

152

167

SABAH

109

94

115

111

149

156

199

196

SARAWAK

81

79

77

71

94

117

129

136

TOTAL

1217

1386

1431

1479

1760

1931

2431

3098

A 2004 memorandum submitted by women’s groups (Anti-Rape Task Force) noted these issues:




  1. Only one in ten rape survivors reports rape;

  2. 67 percent of the rapes occur in places that are supposedly ‘safe’ for women;

  3. In 2001, there were 161 reported cases of child rape, out of which 83 percent of the accused were known to the survivor; only about 10 percent of the rape cases reported in the Federal Territory ended in conviction;

  4. There are also some disturbing trends in reported cases:

  1. More and more assailants are of younger ages;

  2. Young girls are increasingly targeted for rape;

  3. Increased number of reported cases of rape against children of tender age;

  4. Rape of women in custody;

  5. Rape of girls and women by people in positions of trust, e.g. by bomoh, medical doctor, and religious teacher and;

  6. Extreme violence being used in rape cases, with rapists sometimes resorting to murder.

The above are two critical issues faced by women and girls in Malaysia. While many recommendations have been made to overcome these issues, a major area is in the area of education. The question for us in this Symposium is: what is the role of Lasallian Education to promote gender sensitivity as part of transformative Lasallian Education in Malaysia? The next section discusses some of the arenas of work undertaken in Malaysia.


Background to Lasallian Education in Malaysia
The Malaysian Lasallian Education (MLEC) has over the past five years been engaged in implementing our vision of “Being Lasallians in Malaysia” that was articulated at the Malaysian Lasallian Education Assembly in October 2007. The six Regional Lasallian Education Councils (Penang, Perak, Klang Valley, Negri-Melaka-Johor, Sabah and Sarawak) have been exploring various ways of addressing the three Priority Concerns, namely the Revitalisation of Existing Schools, setting up of New Lasallian Educational Institutions and Programmes, and the Projects for the Educational Service of the Poor. The three participants in Malaysia come from three out of six Regions. We had also identified that our challenge to identify “radically new strategies, relevant approaches and a participatory pedagogy” as our unique Lasallian contribution to our young and our nations that calls for a process of placing importance on Regionalisation. The situation of the Lasallian Schools and Mission although sharing a common heritage will depend on the unique situation in each of these Regions. The onus is on us to look into the future based on our current realities and the challenges that we are facing today. Our responses to girls and women has to be regional based but in the context of the overarching concerns of the Lasallian Family in Malaysia.
While the majority of the Lasallian Family is dealing with boys, we have also a few initial experiences with girls and young women in many of our La Salle Learning Centres in a number of places. It is also interesting to note that we also have one co-ed primary school, La Salle Jinjang, Kuala Lumpur.
Reality of Lasallian Schools in Malaysia
All Lasallian schools in Malaysia are part of the national education system with students coming from all socio-economic backgrounds, diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. Most of these schools are located in urban areas. Our Lasallian schools enrol girls in Form Six (Pre-University) classes. Most students who take up Form 6 come from middle-class or lower income backgrounds. They may have done well in their Form 5 examination (equivalent to ‘O’ Levels), but cannot afford to continue their pre-university education at private institutions of higher learning. Pre-U courses at public colleges and universities are reserved mainly for Bumiputras. As such, poorer students from other ethnic groups (namely the Chinese and Indians and the Orang Asal) have little alternative. Almost all Lasallian schools in Malaysia offer Form 6 classes, so we are in fact giving these students an opportunity to complete the programme free-of-charge, as education is free in all government schools.
The percentage of girls who enrol in Form 6 classes may differ in different schools. In SMK St Paul, Seremban for example, the majority of Form 6 students are girls, who come from other government schools. Their tendency to be more diligent and studious, in a way, challenges the boys do better academically. Furthermore, the female approach in managing school activities and programmes gives room for variety in an all-boys environment.
Reality of Education in Malaysia
The percentage of female students has exceeded that of male students in Malaysia. In 2008, statistics showed that 65.9% of the total student population in secondary schools were females compared to only 34.1% of males. This situation could be demographic, but there is a trend for male students to drop out of school earlier, both in rural and urban areas.
The education system in Malaysia tends to suit the female gender better as emphasis is more on academic performance and diligent learning. Young boys who would perform better through skill-based and experiential learning lag behind. Some schools do offer vocational courses for both girls and boys, and those who are not academically- inclined are channelled to these streams. Unfortunately, these courses are only available to a selected few. Lasallian schools are not included in these programmes as they are not fully aided by the government.
With this scenario in mind, there has been much debate on the effectiveness of the Malaysian education system in producing a society that meets the needs of the nation. We have created a generations of people who are “bookish” with minimal innovative and problem-solving skills. We lack skilled and semi-skilled labour, resulting in a high dependency on foreign work force. This is especially evident among females, as vocational training and related job opportunities are more readily available for males.
Incidentally, the student intake at public universities shows a trend more favourable to females. Nevertheless, the vast number of girls who do not make it to tertiary education make up a large part of labour force (mostly semi and unskilled jobs). The question remains is whether our education system has prepared them well for the labour market. Have we taught them the necessary skills to contribute effectively to the economy and to society? Many of them lag behind in effective communication, especially those come from vernacular schools (Chinese and Tamil). Their learning environment (both in school and at home) does not encourage the practical usage of the Malay and English Languages, which are essential for employment. Therefore they are at a disadvantage in a job market which is becoming more global. If remuneration is based on skills and output, then they will remain at the lower rungs of the income scale.
A major transformation process of our education system is in the pipeline, with discussions and consultation being considered from all its stakeholders. Our Lasallian schools and institutions of learning must also state their case in more concrete terms so that we are relevant in today’s context. We have to reconsider the effectiveness of our current role as formal educational institutions.
Our Vision of Lasallian Schools
Based on our experiences and in view of the priorities of the Lasallian Family in Malaysia that have been identified for 2012 -2015 we see the need to bring transformation to our schools as an integral part of the national education system. The focus has to be promoting a holistic education that is both “free” (gratuitous) and has quality (relevant). This is based on our understanding that Lasallian education has to incorporate the three constitutive dimensions of interfaith, gender sensitivity and respect for the integrity of creation. We at the same time envisage the transformation of Lasallian Schools to be “Dual Tracked”: to give priority to Academic Excellence” as well as to promote Vocational and Living Skills for Employment. We also see the need to look into the area of Children with Learning Difficulties and those on the margins including those among the indigenous communities (Orang Asli and Orang Asal), children of migrants and refugees and children from single parent families.

Besides our 44 formal educational institutions, our expressed priority has been for the development of Projects for the Educational Service of the Poor including girls and young women in our La Salle Learning Centres and School for Migrant Children including girls. This outreach has already been identified as one of our Core Priorities.


The Way Forward for Integrated Lasallian Education in Malaysia
Redefining the Core Principles of Lasallian Education in Malaysia
Lasallian Schools have always emphasised the need for Community Based Education in Association: this is based on our understanding that the emerging network of learning relationships among Brothers, Administrators, and Teachers, Parents and Alumni and the larger Community. It is this community that gives a new priority to the vital role of equal gender relations both at the inter-personal and institutional level. It is this new ethos of a gender distinctive relational life that will give credibility to Lasallian education, understood as the human and spiritual development of the young, both boys and girls, in and through the school. This is possible when we:


  1. Focus on the need for the transformation of individuals to allow them to link knowledge that is acquired with the need for the development of personhood and community.

  2. Develop the capacity for problem-solving through cooperation, care, inquiry, and dialogue.

  3. Allow the young to have the freedom to seek their own identity and character as persons based on the notion of gender sensitivity/equality and respect that is grounded in the deeper meanings of life purpose.

  4. Align learning, assessment, and evaluation of acquisition of knowledge and the development of personal, social and technological skills.

All these will be possible when education is seen as the journey of each learner within a community to see to the co-constructing of the future well being of the educational community to which the person belongs.


After 160 years of Lasallian education in Malaysia we hope to identify not only ways to transform our education system and the lives of the young but also to offer them hope to work together as empowered boys and girls, and young men and women to build a better world for all.


1 We would like to thank Bro. Anthony Rogers for his valuable contribution to this table conversation and for his support to our participation in this symposium.

2 The poverty line income (PLI) for the urban area in Peninsular Malaysia is RM663 (Ninth Malaysia Plan: 328). The Mid-Term Review of the Ninth Malaysia Plan has increased the PLI to RM720 (p.58) which is actually rather low, considering today’s spiralling cost of living. This has apparently been revised to RM800 per month. The announcement of RM3,000 as the poverty line for the urban poor is rather startling. If this is indeed the case, the incidence of poverty will increase in a substantial manner as at least 50 percent of the households in Malaysia earn less than RM3,000 a month. This matter needs to be further investigated as with the rising cost of living today, it would be very difficult for a household of 4.4 members to survive on the monthly PLI of RM800 calculated on the basis of eight components, viz food, clothing, rent/utilities, furniture, medical/health, transport/communication, education and recreation.

3 There is a known discrepancy between the incidents of violence and reports of violence. Research generally shows that only 1 in 10 cases are reported. Police statistics reveal that the number of reported cases is increasing. Hence, research needs to be conducted to find out whether there is indeed a rise in incidence of violence against women, or merely a rise in the rate of reporting.





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