MDG1 and 3 - Towards a National Action Plan to Empower Single Mothers project

Feb 21, 2012

The Towards a National Action Plan to Empower Single Mothers project was established to strengthen national policies and programmes targeted at single mothers, particularly those categorized as poor or hardcore poor. The long term objective of this project is to ensure that single mothers receive the necessary institutional support and policy attention to empower them and lift them out of poverty. This is consistent with the Millennium Development Goals 1 and 3 and the Ninth Malaysia Plan (2006-2010) development thrust to ‘address persistent socio-economic inequalities constructively and productively’.

Situational Context

Single mothers in Malaysia face numerous challenges in life, more so if poverty is added to the equation. In addition to the financial challenges and the responsibilities of being the sole providers for their children, the majority of single mothers, particularly in rural areas, lack education and specialized job skills. This leads to their acceptance of poorly paid jobs in unfavorable conditions. Furthermore, single mothers quite often have five or more children. Trying to make ends meet, some mothers are lured into the sex trade. In other cases, they are unable to afford childcare and often saddled with the additional burden of caring for extended family members. There are also increased numbers of single mothers who are house-bound and forced to rely on modest government assistance to put food on their tables. One struggling single mother told UNDP that she needed to stretch a mere RM30 (about US$10) to feed her family of six over two whole weeks.

“Financial independence is what single mothers are struggling to achieve,” said Ms. 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 are fully dependent on their husbands for finances.  When they become single mothers, a heavy burden is placed upon their shoulders to fight for survival.  Single mothers aged 40 and above find it a real challenge to get into the formal workforce as most of them have never worked before having been married at a very young age.  They do not know how to go about obtaining a job, especially if they lack the necessary education, skills and training required to make them employable”, says Ms. Haniza. During the national purposive survey, dialogues sessions revealed that some single mothers undertake multiple jobs in order to make ends meet for the family.

Innovation in Action: UNDP Malaysia’s Role and Contribution

To tackle these issues, the Government of Malaysia partnered with UNDP in 2008 to map out problems and find ways to address the needs of single mothers. To begin the process, UNDP undertook an in-depth study which was completed at the end of 2009. This focused on the various challenges facing single mothers in the country, in particularly the poorest. UNDP and the Government of Malaysia, in close collaboration with civil society organizations also developed a National Action Plan in 2010. This put in place the necessary institutional support, effective and coordinated policies and financial budgets to empower and enable single mothers to escape poverty.

In addition to collecting and analyzing data from multiple surveys, the project developed wide-ranging policy recommendations by building upon the findings of the project’s outputs. Studies undertaken assessed the underlying causes, trends and patterns of single motherhood in Malaysia, taking cultural factors into account. For example, findings revealed that culturally, unlike indigenous communities in Sabah and Sarawak that enter into legally recognized customary weddings, the Malaysian Indian communities residing in the rubber or palm oil estates tend to marry in their local temples where such marriages are not officially registered and therefore not legally recognized.  Moreover, women from such rural areas possess minimal education and no knowledge of their rights.  When their husbands pass away or divorce or abandon them, they do not know where to turn for assistance.

Other cultural factors that affect single mothers are issues surrounding religion and societal acceptance.  It is almost taboo for a woman to be a divorcee due to the negative association of being a divorced woman in certain societies.  Divorced women are seen and considered to be “bad” even in this new modern era. As such, divorced women can be neglected, ostracized or seen as a burden by society.

Policy Impact

UNDP focused its support for several high-level policy dialogues with the Economic Planning Unit in the Prime Minister’s Department and with the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development to review various policies, strategies and national programmes related to single mothers using the results of this initiative. As a result of the project, a draft National Action Plan for single mothers has been prepared for Cabinet approval. Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, Minister of Women, Family and Community Development stated that the project has a long-term goal which is to ensure single mothers receive institutional support and lift themselves out of poverty. It seeks to leverage on their capabilities and simultaneously, unleash the potential of Malaysia’s female population.

UNDP is continuing to advocate that the Ministry should implement the recommendations of the project as soon as possible. It is also continuing to support public dialogues on the issue in 2012. The results of the survey, study findings and the draft National Action Plan will be released at a later date after the latter’s approval by the Malaysian Cabinet.

Strategies Deployed by UNDP to Overcome Challenges

Apart from evaluating the existing policies and programmes that affect single mothers, the initiative also identified the existing gaps in programmes to empower single mothers.

“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 single mothers”, stated Ms. Siti Altaf Deviyati, Project Manager of the Single Mothers project. “This project paved the way for drawing up policies and programmes that will economically empower them to rise out of poverty.”

Ms. Siti Altaf added, “Single mothers will definitely benefit from these 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 National Action Plan that has been developed, single mothers of Malaysia will be better empowered and equipped to face their many challenges.”

Strategic Partnerships - Knowledge Generation and Sharing

The national survey targeted 2500 respondents nationwide in less than 6 months during 2009.  Working at the grassroots level, the research team engaged directly with local single mothers’ associations, community leaders as well as the single mothers themselves through extensive dialogue sessions in order to gain a better understanding and insight into their lives and needs.

The country’s first ever comprehensive study on the socio-economic status of single mothers was produced, based on the project’s findings. Furthermore, recommendations were put forward on how to strengthen the delivery and monitoring systems for current initiatives implemented by the Ministry of Women. These recommendations are currently under consideration for integration into the Ministry’s institutional structure. A comprehensive National Action Plan with sound policies and programmes to effectively empower single mothers has also been proposed for Cabinet approval.

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