Holding up the sky
Today is International Women’s Day and we celebrate women’s indomitable strength.
TO mark International Women’s Day this year, we are shining the spotlight on women who hold their families together.
Based on the 2010 Census, there are 990,780 female heads of household in Malaysia, including 235,240 single mothers.
While female- headed households are usually larger, the women who head them do not always have unmarried children to support.
By contrast, single mothers have unmarried children to provide for. According to the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, single mothers are women who are either unmarried, separated/ divorced, widowed, or with husbands who are unable to work.
Consequently, these unsung heroines are in need of more attention.
International Women’s Day has been celebrated for over a century, highlighting the social, cultural, eco nomic, and political strides women have made. This year’s theme – “Pledging for Parity” – is a call to action for gender parity, so that all girls and women may achieve their full potential.
The theme resonates with the plight of single mothers in Malaysia. As women at the helm of their families, they face numerous obstacles in their quest for survival and for a b ter life for their children and for themselves.
But who are they and what issue do they deal with?
The United Nations Development Programme ( UNDP) reports that single mothers in Malaysia are in their situation because of “spousal death, spousal abandonment or divorce”. Moreover, the ministry has noted an increase in single mothers and female- headed households. There has also been a change in the demographic of single mothers due to a rise in divorce.
“Based on the statistics obtained, there is a steep increase in the total number of single mothers in the age range between 30- 39 compared to the age range between 20- 29,” says Women, Family and Community
- Development deputy minister Datuk Azizah Mohd Dun.
“The increase is very significant as the sudden spike indicates that most women become single mothers at the range from 30- 39. The national statistics on divorce rates also indicates that this age range records the highest number of divorce applications.” The legal process of divorce itself poses a problem for many single mothers. Sis rs in Islam ( SIS), who deal with cases of women seeking divorce and child maintenance in Syariah courts, says that women struggle financially with court and lawyer’s fees in lengthy divorces, as well as with the upkeep of children.
“Throughout the eight or more years of divorce proceedings and processes in court, most of our clients have already begun living life as single mothers due to their husband’s absence,” SIS communications officer Aliah Ali says. “However, legally they are not yet single mothers because of their pending divorce case. The legal limbo causes difficulty as it limits their access to aid for single mothers offered by the government.”
Aliah says that in 2014, the majority of cases to Telenisa, SIS’ legal advice service, was about claiming child maintenance. She says that it’s difficult to get maintenance because of lax enforcement.
“Even though provisions exist within the law to help single mothers claim maintenance from their ex- husbands, implementation of the law remains lacklustre.”
In cases where women are victims of domestic abuse, the Women’s Aid Organisation ( WAO) says that seeking spousal and child support can be more complex because of abusive relationships.
“There’s definitely an issue with child maintenance and spousal support,” advocacy officer in law and policy Lainey Lau says, “because a lot of abusers just don’t pay.”
She has noticed the stigma that single mothers encounter, even when it comes to finding a place to stay.
“Unfortunately, they face stigma towards them. We’ve found that some of our clients have trouble finding a place to rent, because landlords think that single mothers can’t afford to continuously pay rent. They’re discriminated against, so hey have to hide the fact that they’re single mothers.”
The stigma of single motherhood is all too real and adversely affects their lives and livelihoods. In a prevailing patriarchal culture, where women are seen as the “second sex” and thus tied to a man, a single mother is a threat to the nuclear family. By assuming the mantle of leadership, she is at odds with deeply rooted cultural norms.
Associate Professor Dr Noraida Endut, director of the Centre for Research on Women and Gender ( Kanita) at Universiti Sains Malaysia ( USM), has conducted formal and informal research on single mothers. In her work, she has discovered negative socio- cultural factors that impact single mothers.
“When you talk about empowering single mothers, you don’t just talk about empowering them y giving them money,” she contends. “There are other socio- cultural factors that pull them down. When it comes to doing business, our single mother group has told us that their single status makes it difficult for them to go out and do business at night.
“When they go out, people will comment about how they’re leaving their children behind; and other women are wary about them interacting with their husbands. The business world is dominated by men; so even if they’re trying to earn a livelihood, there’s a social stigma that they’re ‘ loose women’ because they mix around with men.”
Dr Noraida is also concerned by the poverty that single mothers face. While money isn’t all that’s required to empower single mothers, there’s no denying that as heads of house-
hold they need to have steady incomes, especially to clothe and feed their children.
“They are doubly burdened because they’re looking after their family single- handedly,” she says. “If they don’t have extended family support, it becomes more difficult for them to earn a living, but then they must because childcare is expensive.”
For single mothers, this is a common predicament: fighting the constant tug- of- war between taking care of the kids and working to provide for them. The UNDP reports that the situation is worse for single mothers in rural areas. Working menial, low- salaried jobs, they can scarcely feed the many mouths in their families. Numerous more are forced to stay at home to mind the kids and other dependants, relying on financial aid from the government to survive.
The ministry has a range of programmes and initiatives to help low- income single mothers.
In October last year, the 2015- 2020 Action Plan to Empower Single Mothers was launched to “empower single mothers economically”, “increase the well- being of single mothers,” and “increase research and development and coordination in areas pertaining to women’s development”.
“The ministry offers both kinds of assistance, welfare programmes and also income- generating initiatives which provide skill enhancements and income assistance,” Datuk Azizah says.
In a world where single mothers have to overcome challenges every day, assistance and aid are welcome relief.
It’s also important to recognise them as women who achieve despite the odds stacked against them, despite an alienating social stigma, and despite the burdens they shoulder. They are heroic women who raise children, earn a living and hold their families together, even if at times they have to do it on their own.
And for all that more, we salute all female heads of households this International Woman’s Day.