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Advancing status of women

The annual budget consultation held last week saw the participation of many private sector organisations, civil society organisations, universities, statutory bodies and government agencies.

Since the 1980s, women have enjoyed the many provisions accorded them in the annual budgets. Women were recognised as individuals in their own right when separate income tax assessment was approved. This was followed by pension privileges after the demise of the spouse.

The many tax reliefs for dependent relatives and people with disabilities have helped women who usually undertake care-giving responsibilities.

Women’s right to participate and benefit from national development has been enhanced by the substantial allocation for education and skills training, health and business opportunities.

The combination of policies, tax incentives and arrangements to encourage flexible work arrangements and child care services have helped women achieve work-life balance and encouraged them to remain or return to the workforce.

Women in low-income households were assisted with subsidies and capacity building programmes.

The 2015 Budget will be the last in the 10th Malaysia Plan. This is the Plan that categorically stated “empowering women will be the key agenda of the Plan, where the Government will increase its efforts towards addressing issues confronting women to enable them to realise their full potential and participate more effectively in the economic and social development of the country.”

The Government is to be congratulated for laying the foundation to increase the participation of women in the workforce to at least 55% by 2015.

It is estimated that this target will increase the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2% annually, thus setting Malaysia on the path to reach the transformation goal by 2020 in the 11th Malaysia Plan. The target can be surpassed with the continuation of the work-life balanced policies and incentives in the budget.

To its credit, the Government has also recognised that gender diversity at top leadership optimises the contribution of women and enhances the organisational and financial performance of institutions and corporations. This has been proven by many reputable studies.

Harnessing women’s productivity and perspectives in decision-making is a crucial element not to be underestimated in the transformation process. As such a non-mandatory target of at least 30% women in decision-making positions in the public and private sectors by 2015 has been set.

The Government is to be lauded for achieving the target in some public sector positions such as secretary-general of ministries. A little bit more effort is required for other positions such as director-general, CEOs of statutory bodies and government linked corporations (GLCs) as well membership of boards of statutory bodies, including local councils.

On the private sector side the Securities Commission of Malaysia has taken the laudable step of requiring listed companies to disclose their strategies on gender diversity at board level and their efforts in achieving the target.

With this move, it is hoped that the progress for women in the private sector will be faster.

Despite the directors training programme conducted by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry to prepare women for appointments to corporate boards, not much progress has been made since the 2011 study by McKinsey which revealed that only 11% Malaysian women are at the middle to senior level management and only 5% are CEOs of companies.

Perhaps Malaysia need to look at mandatory measures adopted in Norway and the European Union countries.

Self reliance is another aspect to be emphasised. Women understand that there will be less subsidies and these have to be targeted to those who really need them. Subsidies must go hand in hand with capacity building.

As such NCWO has embarked on a nationwide Jom Niaga campaign in collaboration with SMECorp and the office of the Adviser to the Prime Minister on the development of women professionals and entrepreneurs to encourage women to register their businesses and to avail themselves of the government programmes for small and medium enterprises.

By reducing the informal sector and increasing the number of start-ups, women will contribute to the economic transformation programme. The budget should provide for a step up of similar programmes.

All of the progress made by the country will come to naught if we do not take legal and other steps to curb the actions of extremists who incite hatred which threatens interfaith and interethnic relations in the country.

The 1Malaysia and moderation approach espoused by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak are fully supported by NCWO which comprises women of all ethnicity, religion and political ideology.

For the last 51 years all these women have come together to advance the status of women. National unity is a common cause and NCWO will stand up and readily support the Government.

DR SHARIFAH HAPSAH SYED HASAN SHAHABUDIN

President, National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO)

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