Empowering single mothers in Malaysia

May 7, 2010

The survey team conducted interviews with single mothers, often in improvised location like this village hut. Photo: UNDP Malaysia

Single mothers in Malaysia face many challenges, but those living in poverty face plenty more. 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, often accepting poorly paid jobs in unfavourable conditions.

To tackle these issues, the Government of Malaysia partnered with UNDP, in 2009, on a survey to map and address the plight of single mothers in the country – particularly the poorest.  The partnership will also help build a system to register single mothers in the country.

Reaching out to single mothers
The national survey targeted 2500 single mothers nationwide.  Working at a grassroots level, the research team engaged directly with local single mothers’ associations, community leaders, as well as the mothers, through workshops and extensive dialogue sessions to better understand the lives and needs of single mothers.

The preliminary findings of the study show that in Malaysia, mothers become single mostly due to their husband’s death, abandonment or divorce. In rural areas they often have five or more children. Trying to make ends meet, some mothers are lured into the sex trade. In other cases, unable to afford childcare and often saddled with the additional burden of caring for extended family members, an increasing number of single mothers are housebound and forced to rely on modest government assistance to put food on their tables. One struggling single mother told UNDP she needs to stretch a mere RM30 (less than US$10) to feed her family of six for two whole weeks.

“Financial independence is what single mothers are struggling to achieve,” said Hasiah Haniza Abdul Wahab, Chairperson of the Islamic Single Mothers Association for the Federal Territory and State of Selangor.  “These women have virtually no savings.  They marry at a very young age and are always fully dependent on their husbands for finances.  Once they become single mothers, a heavy burden is placed on their shoulders.” 

According to Abdul Wahab single mothers aged 40 and above find it especially challenging to get into the formal workforce, as most of them never worked before and lack the necessary education, skills and training.

The survey also showed that some single mothers undertake multiple jobs in order to make ends meet for the family.  Many divorced husbands do not pay for the children support after divorce proceedings are finalized.  Given that situation, policies and programmes that can assist single mothers, particularly in child care and education, are urgently needed.  

Next Steps
The complete findings of the survey will help assess the underlying causes, trends and patterns of single mothers’ vulnerabilities, taking cultural factors into account – particularly the stigma of being a divorcee and the lack of legal documentation, since some religious marriages are not officially registered. Based on the analysis, UNDP, the Government of Malaysia and civil society organizations are developing a National Action Plan that will be ready towards the end of 2010. The Plan will ensure necessary institutional support, effective policies and services to empower and lift single mothers out of poverty.

“We hope that with the National Action Plan, the single mothers of Malaysia will be better empowered to face their many challenges,” said Siti Altaf Deviyati, Manager of the Single Mothers Project. “The single mothers will definitely benefit from policies and programmes that are custom-made to fit their requirements in areas such as the provision of adequate child care facilities, should they choose to work, and  skills training to make them employable, just to name a few.”

UNDP Around the world