“Domestic Violence is more prevalent than ever before with the stay-at-home measures as the world fights the COVID-19 pandemic. The Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) recorded a staggering four-fold increase in the number of calls received compared to the number before the MCO was imposed “, writes Tengku Nur Qistina, a Senior Research Associate at ISIS Malaysia.
The COVID-19 health crisis has had a major impact on the world, disrupting numerous areas, including the economy, politics, social life as well as gender relations. Indeed, COVID-19 has brought to the forefront and exposed longstanding gender tensions and inequalities as the world struggles to contain the spread of the novel Coronavirus.
This blog will look into how women are affected by COVID-19 in Malaysia. It will focus on the community’s role in providing help and assistance to women during an unprecedented health crisis during a unique political transaction in the country. The political background of the nation yielded a variety of government responses in the few incidents that occurred during the Movement Control Order (MCO), Malaysia’s version of quarantine and lockdown, as voids and holes in the system and policies transpired during the MCO.
The community’s outreach in response to this unfolded on both online and offline platforms as Malaysians and various non-governmental organisations like the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), who work with domestic violence and advocate a gendered perspective on matters in Malaysia, rose to the occasion. The MCO also brought upon new and innovative efforts, seeking to fill the needs and gaps left unmet through online platforms, as governments and other established institutions scrambled to ramp up and pivot their capacities towards dealing with the pandemic. The non-governmental initiatives have indeed led to some issues gaining the attention of many. So much so that the government responded and took note of the issues highlighted by the civil society such as the issue of domestic violence and women’s burden of care.
It has come to light that community-based organisations and their efforts have played a major role in self-sustaining the community during the pandemic. The government’s limitation in being able to engage Malaysian residents has been obvious in light of the pandemic. Moving forward, the pandemic has proven that the community-based efforts in Malaysia need to be further empowered and strengthened to allow it to serve the nation and its residents where the government cannot.
Domestic Violence is more prevalent than ever before with the stay-at-home measures as the world fights the COVID-19 pandemic. The Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) recorded a staggering four-fold increase in the number of calls received compared to the number before the MCO was imposed (Bernama, 2020). The increasing occurrence of domestic violence is recognised globally, as the UN Secretary-General himself recognised the issues and called for governments to make the prevention of gender-based violence a key part of the government’s response to COVID-19. The UN Secretary-General also suggested governments to improve the prevention causes by increasing the government’s investments in online services and supporting the civil society on top of declaring shelters an essential service and setting up emergency warning systems in pharmacies and grocery stores to better improve the victim’s accessibility to help monitor and manage the expected rise in gender-based violence following the pandemic. (UN, 2020).
The rise in reported cases of domestic violence is attributed to the stress brought upon by the lockdown measures of the pandemic. Increased anxiety from the financial stress, resulting from the economic crisis the pandemic has brought, has “set the stage” for an exacerbated domestic violence crisis. Research has also shown that economic insecurity and negative coping strategies lead to stress, which may trigger violence (Peterman et al, 2020). Given the rise of unemployment in Malaysia, with the unemployment rate increasing from 3.3 percent in May 2019 to 5.3 percent in May 2020 in Malaysia (Department of Statistics Malaysia, 2020), the likelihood of domestic violence occurring in Malaysia is a definite cause for social concern.
Physical distancing and quarantine measures introduced by government health officials to curb contagion have also become contributing factors to the increase in domestic violence (Cambell, 2020). It has also allowed violence to become a coping mechanism for perpetrators who feel a loss of control of their lives (Peterman et al, 2020).
Part of this is due to reduced access to support systems, as lockdown and curfews confine victims to their homes, limit contact with persons outside their household, postpone court hearings or counselling services on domestic issues, and also allow perpetrators to more easily restrict the victim’s access to support hotlines and other services. Additionally, victims face struggles in detaching themselves and escaping abuse due to the uncertainty the pandemic brings. Women may opt to stay with abusive partners for a host of reasons and matters are exacerbated with the onset of the pandemic (Peterman et al, 2020). In providing government economic assistance, the Malaysian government introduced the first economic stimulus package, “PRIHATIN”. Unfortunately, the PRIHATIN economic stimulus package lacks the ability to empower women, who are most likely the victims of domestic abuse (statistic show that 91 percent victims are female in Malaysia) (Yuen and Chung, 2019) in the wake of a pandemic. The PRIHATIN package provides that cash transfers are given. However, they are handed to the head of households, who are predominantly men in Malaysia as research has shown that 80% of households in Malaysia are headed by men while only 20% are headed by women (UNICEF, 2020). This situation worsens for women as they are left trapped in their homes and lack financial support to escape abuse as their worries are heightened.
Fortunately, organisations like Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), Sister in Islam (SiS), Women’s Centre for Change (WCC Penang) and others under the Joint Action Group (JAG) in Gender Equality, a coalition of 13 women’s rights organisations in Malaysia, have been at the forefront of advocating and protecting women’s interest as they lend gendered perspectives during the pandemic. The organisation has been especially active both in highlighting the challenges with regard to domestic violence and in providing various support services, from raising awareness to providing support for trapped women through help with shelter homes and advocating for better support and social protection for women (Women’s Aid Organisation, 2020).
The lockdown measures that were introduced to curb the contagion of the pandemic have brought many things to light, of which include how NGOs have a role to play in the intervention of domestic violence in Malaysia. While Malaysia has developed its legal instruments to better protect victims of domestic violence through the Domestic Violence Act (Amendment) 2018, it has not been extensive enough to provide victims with protection during the pandemic due to various novel reasons. Building awareness in communities to collectively protect victims from domestic violence should be the first step in ensuring that the occurrence of domestic violence lessens during a health crisis like this.
Politics and Policies
In the height of the global pandemic in early March 2020, Malaysia went through a political crisis. The Pakatan Harapan government was ousted after 21 months. As a result, the nation went through a change of the federal government without holding a general election. The new government is now being ruled by the Perikatan Nasional coalition (“National Alliance”) formed by a few parties including the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) – one of the parties in the previous coalition government, which was in power since the nation’s birth in 1963. The Perikatan Nasional coalition is now more right-wing compared to the previous Pakatan Harapan government, which had a more progressive political stance on social issues, especially those relating to gender.
The change in government led to confusion in policies, lack of coordination and miscommunication that resulted in a string of backlash by the communities. This may be attributed to the fact that Prime Minister Muhyiddin lacked political support in Parliament when the MCO was first implemented in March 2020 (Lee, 2020).
The following are incidents during the MCO that question the Perikatan Nasional government’s gender sensitivity and awareness in light of the lockdown:
The first incident involved the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development’s publication on a set of recommendations and infographics that aimed at advising women on the management of their households to maintain peace and harmony at home. However, the message, which includes imitating “Doraemon voices” and giggling coyly (Low, 2020) did not receive positive response from the community and led to the ministry’s removal and apology of its publication (Palansamy, 2020). The All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), a non-governmental organisation called the ministry out for its “sexist” tips through a series of tweets that condone the “recommendations” (Low, 2020).
Crisis Hotline suspension
Another incident was the temporary suspension of the government’s crisis hotline, “Talian Kasih”. When the MCO was first implemented on the 18 March 2020, the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry announced a suspension of the hotline, as non-essential services in the country were suspended for an initial period of two weeks. The criticism this invited led to the suspension to be reversed, as fellow lawmakers and politicians from both the opposition and current government cited the dangers quarantine measures posed for women and the communities, which made the crisis hotline even more important and essential to be made available. (Emmanual, 2020).
Crisis Hotline Data
Data obtained from calls received through the crisis hotlines provided by the WAO reported a staggering 44% increase throughout the first month of the MCO. Contrastingly, the government’s crisis hotline recorded a different data on the occurrence of domestic violence in the nation, as the official data published on the official government website recorded just a “slight increase” in the occurrence of domestic violence in the country.
While the data obtain from NGOs and government do not necessarily coincide with the government’s data, this is less to do with the government’s capabilities in providing aid. Instead, it is more reflective of the preference the society has with engaging NGOs rather than government officials, as engaging NGOs can be less intimidating and confrontational than engagement with official government agencies (Sabanayagam, 2020).
Burden of Care
Organisations have also shed light on women’s burden of care. Women are unequally affected by increasing burden of care during the MCO. As families observe quarantine, schools and daycares are closed. Women are forced to juggle their responsibilities in taking care of families – children and/or the elderly. This is on top of the housework that women do – such as cooking and cleaning. Normally, domestic helpers assist to lessen the burden, but with the imposition of quarantine orders, some families no longer have domestic helpers that come daily as daily movement is limited. (Hisamudin, 2020). This further solidifies a report by Khazanah Research Institute on women’s unpaid work in Malaysia published in 2019. The time-use survey highlights the gender disparity in relation to the burden of care in Malaysian society where women shoulder more responsibilities than men despite attending to a professional life at the same time, hence the term, “double burden” (Chong et al., 2019).
The effort of NGOs effort in highlighting this issue has highlighted the women’s problems nationally. Issues akin to women’s “burden of care” were previously not recognised and the society and nation’s awareness of it did not transpire. The effort in highlighting this itself can be said to have resulted in the government’s subsequent economic stimulus packages that address the need to provide childcare services in the “PENJANA” economic stimulus package. However, the relationship between civil society and the new Malaysian government has been responsive. This is seen as subsequent government economic stimulus packages like PENJANA have incorporated a gendered perspective that is able to empower women and families. In early June 2020, the PENJANA economic stimulus package was introduced during the country’s Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO) that began on 9 June 2020. The burden of care faced by women has been recognised as childcare support services were provided for in the new economic stimulus package. The government has allocated a total of RM200 million for childcare services to encourage and support parents in getting back into work in the PENJANA economic stimulus package. This is a positive response to the initial government’s actions that have been highlighted by the civil society to lack focus on gender issues.
Malaysia’s experience of handling COVID-19 crisis coincided with several other historical political events in the country. The newly formed government’s policy left much room for civil society and non-governmental organisations to step in and aid on policies relating to domestic violence and gendered perspectives. The struggle to put forward a more gender-sensitive government is a time consuming and wide-reaching one. But, to the government’s credit, progress has been made with subsequent policies introduced like childcare subsidies and flexible work arrangements that have been well received by the CSOs and community. This further emphasises the importance of community responses in supporting and complementing the government’s efforts.
 This directly translates to “Care” in the Malay language.
 They left the coalition in July 2020, but continues to lend its support and remains a part of the federal government.
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* The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.