FIGURES released by the Department of Statistics last year showed that the male population in the country stood at 16.7 million while the female population was at 15.7 million.
Yet the same set of statistics found that the labour force participation rate of men is higher at 80.1 per cent compared to women at 54.7 per cent.
The European Union and United Nations Women in a joint statement at the launch of the We Empower Asia programme last year said: “Women who are economically empowered have greater access to income and economic assets, better control over their own economic gains and more equitable decision-making power to translate these gains into social, economic, and health benefits for themselves, their families and their societies.”
Hence, it is important to empower women with various skills and knowledge-bases that will not only improve economic and social well-being but also potentially, their families’ and the community. Universities in Malaysia are increasingly cognisant of this fact.
Universiti Sains Malaysia and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, through the Centre for Research on Women and Gender (KANITA) and the Tun Fatimah Hashim Women Leadership Centre (TFHWLC) respectively, are at the forefront of women empowerment initiatives at universities.
KANITA director Professor Dr Noraida Endut said the centre “engenders knowledge” by bringing gender perspectives to the forefront of academic thinking.
Academicians and researchers at KANITA represent converging efforts of various disciplines (law, anthropology, communication, sociology, political science, health sciences etc.) towards championing gender equality, equity and justice in the society, both theoretically and in practice.
TFHWLC director Professor Datin Dr Norizan Abdul Razak said the centre’s vision is to empower women towards eminence in leadership, organisation, community and family and promote women as the catalyst for national development.
“Our mission is to empower women through leadership, education, training, research and policy formulation input by fulfilling the demands and challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” she said.
KANITA recently completed a pilot Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) project aimed at empowering single mothers.
“Studies have confirmed that investing in lifelong learning will benefit both individuals and nations in terms of income, employment, productivity and health. It is also argued that providing opportunities to learn throughout life seems to be critical in the struggle to eradicate poverty and to educate for sustainable development.
“While MOOCs in the nation have so far targeted students in institutions of higher learning, their potential in offering lifelong learning to different groups in society cannot be underestimated,” said Noraida.
With this purpose in mind, USM and international partners have embarked on developing MOOCs that target marginalised groups in Asia and have chosen the case of the single mothers/ parents for Malaysia.
The project, Noraida said, forms part of the larger project titled “Capacity to organise massive public educational opportunities in universities of Southeast Asia”, or CompetenSEA, for short, funded by the ERASMUS+CBHE grant (of the EU).
Partners are Open Universiteit Nederland, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, Universität des Saarlandes, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, University of the Philippines and Ateneo de Manila University.
“Many of the single mothers that KANITA has interacted with, reported lack of skills to earn a livelihood due to having to fulfil full-time domestic role while they were married. They also have some issues in relation to knowledge and skills about general well-being such as health, self-confidence and communication.
“Online learning will provide a more flexible and accessible avenue for the single mothers to learn and acquire new knowledge and skills that can empower them towards independent living and livelihood,” she said.
USM collaborated with Universiti Malaysia Sarawak to design and develop the MOOC — called Jom Duit! — to reflect the desired economic outcome, which not only focused on economic skills but also include interventions that can help improve single mothers’ social well-being.
The MOOC has three components. Part A contains introductory remarks and explanations about the MOOC and general instructions for students; B has courses like Basic Skills in Business and Entrepreneurship, ICT Skills for Social Media Promotions, and Law, Health and Family: Let’s Be Active, Proactive and Legal Literate.
In Part C, students learn via the MOOC and translated the lessons into physical activities subjects like Baking Cakes and Cupcakes, Composting (at Home), Stingless Bee Honey Production (Madu Kelulut), and Weaving (Sarawak Art).
The pilot for the MOOC was conducted starting June and ended on Aug 9 to test its utility, suitability and sustainability for the target group. Eight women out of the original 20 managed to complete the course and received certificates.
“The pilot has really given the researchers great insight into the challenges faced by single mothers in accessing, committing to and completing a process of lifelong learning. These challenges are closely related to their access to resources and their sociocultural contexts. The pilot also informs us on how to improve the content of the courses, either from the point of view of the substance or the process in the courses,” she said.
After the pilot, Noraida said researchers from KANITA will be conducting what they call a “real phase” implementation of the project. “In the real phase, we will incorporate improvements based on feedback in the pilot and target a bigger and more diverse cohort of subscribers to the course.”
One of the first things the participants were able to sell during the MOOC pilot was compost and the second, cupcakes.
“There is ready market for compost and the single mothers were able to get free food scraps from markets and neighbours that they now have consistent supplies to make compost. Composting is easy, low capital and there is a market. But we need to teach them about packaging now. The honey is a bit costly to start because the hive is specially made,” said Noraida.
Rosnani Hamid , 51, a food entrepreneur who lives on the upper storey of a shophouse, said she had learnt through YouTube before and it was her first time getting acquainted with MOOC.
“I could understand what the instructors taught but was not familiar with the workings of the MOOC. I had to reach out to Farah, Professor Noraida’s research assistant, numerous times via WhatsApp and on the phone to ask her what to do next. She said “Tekan je, Makcik!” (just press the keys) when I got scared. That was her tagline for us ‘students’. Just press on the keys,” she said.
She found the fundamental courses and baking classes useful for her purpose which is to expand her business and would certainly recommend learning via MOOC.
Zakiah Mohamad, a public sector retiree in her 60s, had forgotten many of her office skills since leaving her job. But with the MOOC, she was able to learn new tech skills.
“I tried to do all the assignments but there were some technical glitches that made it difficult for me to submit my work. Otherwise, I’m happy with the course and will try to follow as best I can. I am happy about the composting course and will possibly embark on a small business selling compost,” she said.
Che Zan Md Ariff, 62, another retiree, enjoyed her first time doing full online learning via MOOC. Regarded as the class monitor, Che Zan had accessed videos on the Net previously to learn new things.
“I had problems learning through the phone due to small screen and interface issues. Perhaps USM can help single mothers get access to computers or free Internet centres,” she said.
She is excited about her composting project because neighbours and friends had enquired about buying her compost.
Women empowerment is a key component of the initiative called the UKM 360 degree programme in Subang Jaya which is aimed at formulating strategies to help improve well-being of B40 communities from multi-discipline aspects.
According to coordinator of the programme, Associate Professor Mohd Azlan Shah Zaidi, who chairs the Centre of Sustainable and Inclusive Development at UKM’s Faculty of Economics and Management, although the programme does not target women as the only participants, the majority of the participants are expected to be women.
“This is our experience from our previous UKM 360 degree projects with the communities,” he said.
To be carried out from this month till December, the target community of UKM 360 degree programme in Subang Jaya are residents of Pangsapuri Enggang at Puchong which is under Subang Jaya Municipal Council.
While UKM’s Faculty of Medicine is overseeing the programme, technology comes under the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, economics is under the Faculty of Economics, sciences under the Faculty of Science and Technology, and family development under the Faculty Social Sciences and Humanities.
Norizan will be emphasising digital literacy and digital economy particularly for women as most of the women in the programme are from marginalised families with low household income per month.
“Some of them are single mothers and some have to work in order to help their husbands supplement their household income. The high cost of living and the impact of price increases are certainly far greater on B40 families,” said Norizan.
While some women in the community already have their own businesses, Norizan said many do not know how to market, expand and sustain them.
“By acknowledging these problems, my team and I have come up with modules that can solve these problems. Free training workshop will be provided with hands-on training, e-commerce classes and basic skills training.
“They will learn to find the right materials, resources, effective techniques, target group and opportunities to elevate their businesses,” she said.
So far, UKM has trained more than 2,000 women entrepreneurs in Malaysia through its community and research initiatives.
“We have travelled to many parts of Malaysia to share knowledge and provide training. I hope all these will help them to become self-reliant by equipping them with income-generating skills.
“It is not just about generating income but also to build self-esteem and life quality of their families as well. Some of the women netpreneurs trained by us have successfully garnered almost RM1 million in product sales. Some of them have even opened branches or ventured to other businesses,” she said.
Mohd Azlan said a lot hinges on the success of the 360 degree programme in Subang Jaya.
“The 360 degree programme is a social responsibility project. The aim is to help the B40 community increase its standard of living and create a peaceful living environment. For the time being, all costs are borne by UKM and Subang Jaya Municipal Council.
“For the sustainability of the project, the modules can be used to train trainers who are from the community itself. The trainers will then train other participants from the same community in the future.
“We also plan to have the modules crowdfunded by individuals or private companies as a CSR activity. Upon successful completion of the programme, the same 360 degree programme can be applied to other communities in Malaysia. In the long run, we will see how Malaysian communities can help each other in uplifting their economic well-being and standard of living.”