Empowering Single Mothers in Malaysia

lady and tradeIn Malaysia, single mothers are in their predicament mostly as a result of spousal death, spousal abandonment or divorce. Many face financial challenges and the majority of single mothers that hail from rural areas usually lack specialized job skills, as well as the education required to get proper employment. | Photo: UNDP Malaysia

Life can be challenging for single mothers anywhere in the world, more so for those who are living in poverty. In Malaysia, single mothers are in their predicament mostly as a result of spousal death, spousal abandonment or divorce. Many face financial challenges and the majority of single mothers that hail from rural areas usually lack specialized job skills, as well as the education required to get proper employment.

Faced with these barriers, many of these single mothers face no option other than accepting poorly paid, low-level jobs in generally unfavourable working conditions, with an unfortunate few resorting to the sex trade to make ends meet. Unofficial data indicates that Malaysian single mothers in the rural areas have on average five or more children. Unable to afford childcare and often saddled with the additional burden of caring for extended family members, many more single mothers are housebound and forced to rely on modest government assistance to even put food on the table.

Financial independence is what single mothers are struggling to achieve. | Photo: UNDP Malaysia

“Financial independence is what single mothers are struggling to achieve,” said Puan Hasiah Haniza Abd. Wahab, Chairperson of the Islamic Single Mothers Association for the Federal Territory and State of Selangor.  “These women have virtually no savings or very minimal savings of their own.  They were fully dependent on their husbands for finances.  When they become single mothers, a heavy burden is placed upon their shoulders to fight for survival.  Those single mothers aged 40 and above found it a real challenge to get into the formal workforce as most of them had never work before because they entered straight into marriage at a very young age.  They tend to become slightly lost and do not know how to go about obtaining a job, especially if they lacked the necessary education, skills and training required to make them employable”, added Puan Haniza.

The Ninth Malaysia Plan (2006 – 2010) adopts as one of its development thrusts the need to address persistent socio-economic inequalities in order to eradicate poverty and reduce income, employment and wealth disparities. In this context, the plight of single mothers and female-headed households have long been a concern for the government, especially as trends indicate the increasing feminization of poverty among lower income households, particularly in rural areas.

To support the Government, in 2008, UNDP Malaysia in partnership with the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development conducted a comprehensive study on the plight of single mothers in Malaysia, specifically those categorized as poor or hardcore poor. The long term objective was to ensure the necessary institutional support and policy attention to empower and lift single mothers out of poverty, thus addressing Millennium Development Goal 1 of Eradication of Poverty.

Working at a grassroots level, the team engaged with local single mother's associations, community leaders, as well as single mothers themselves, in order to get a better understanding of their predicament via in-depth interviews and dialogues. | Photo: UNDP Malaysia

Strengthening policies and programmes for single mothers

Through the UNDP supported nation-wide survey and working at a grassroots level, the project engaged directly with local single mothers’ associations, community leaders as well as the single mothers themselves through extensive dialogue sessions and interactions in order to gain a better understanding and insight into the predicament of the single mothers.

During the national purposive survey, dialogues sessions revealed that some single mothers undertake multiple jobs in order to make ends meet for the family.  Many divorced husbands did not pay for the children support after divorce proceedings were finalized.  Given that situation, policies and programmes that can assist single mothers in child care and children’s education are essential to ensure that they do not fall into the poverty trap.   

With this rich information and qualitative input, the project has gained substantive knowledge with which to address issues pertinent to the realities of single motherhood and was able to draw up a draft National Plan of Action with sound policies and programmes that would effectively empower single mothers by addressing underlying causes and leveraging on analysis of trends and patterns of single motherhood and taking cultural factors into account.

“There are many programmes and policies that are targeted at the poor and needy in the country.  However, there are very few specific programmes and policies drafted to assist the single mothers,“ Cik Siti Altaf Deviyati, Project Manager from the Single Mothers project informs.  “This project will pave the way in drawing up policies and programmes that will be economically empower them to rise from poverty.”

Cik Siti Altaf added, “The single mothers will definitely benefit from policies and programmes that are custom made to fit their requirements in areas like the provision of adequate child care facilities should they choose to work, assistance for children’s education, provision of education and skills training to make them employable, just to name a few.  We hope that with the development of the National Action Plan, the single mothers of Malaysia will be better empowered and equipped to face their many challenges more positively.”

Nationwide focus group discussions were also held to provide the project team with more targeted feedback from survey findings. The results of the survey and the formal report were submitted to the Government for the development of a National Action Plan to empower single mothers in Malaysia and ensure necessary institutional support, effective policies and services to empower and lift single mothers out of poverty.

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