8 May 2020 | News/Stories

The disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on South East Asian Women: Case studies from Malaysia and Indonesia

South East Asian women are putting themselves in highly vulnerable positions for the betterment of their countries. However, despite their sacrifices, women are more negatively impacted by COVID-19 than men.


While recent research from China shows that men are more vulnerable to death caused by the novel Coronavirus than women, one should not ignore other evidence which points to the fact that the heavier burden of COVID-19 actually falls on women.

This is particularly evident considering that globally, women make up 70% of workers in the healthcare sector. A New York Times chart shows that healthcare workers are at the highest risk of being infected by the Coronavirus. The chart also shows that of healthcare workers, nurses are amongst those who face the highest risk of getting infected as their occupation requires that they have a close physical proximity to patients.

The fact that nurses are at a high risk and have high exposure to the virus is particularly concerning, considering 79% of nurses in the South East Asian region are women. There is a surge in demand for medical professionals, especially nurses. In Malaysia, 3,000 retired nurses have come back to join the fight on the frontlines. In Indonesia, the country with the highest Coronavirus death rate in Asia, 54% of medical practitioners are women, and they determine who gets to live and who dies. Indonesia has also significantly increased its demands for medical staffers as it is experiencing shortages because of the virus. The role of women as medical practitioners highlights the importance of women in fighting an international emergency.

As women put their lives on the line responding to the Coronavirus, the number of domestic violence cases in Indonesia and Malaysia rises. In response to the Coronavirus, many countries have been forced into lockdown, with mandates for people to stay at home. While staying at home has been shown to work in decreasing the number of Coronavirus cases, it increases vulnerability to another concerning issue: domestic violence.

“‘This is the proper way to hang the clothes for drying, my dear. (mimic the tone of “Doraemon” and follow their statements with a feminine laugh).’”

This quote is taken from a recent announcement by the Malaysian Women and Family Ministry, which encouraged women to speak like Doraemon, a cheerful fictional cartoon character, in order to avoid domestic violence. The announcement created an uproar within the female community, which sparked a conversation on the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on women.

The Malaysian government’s crisis hotline, Talian Kasih, has received a 57% increase in calls from troubled women since the lockdown was imposed, in which domestic violence was one of the main issues. Meanwhile in Indonesia, the Legal Aid Foundation of the Indonesian Women’s Association for Justice (LBH APIK), a legal services organisation based in Jakarta that focuses on women’s rights, received a threefold increase in the number of reported domestic violence cases two weeks after work-from-home and stay-at-home orders were imposed. This is concerning when, according to the organisation, those numbers are the highest that they have ever documented in a two-week period.

The spike in domestic violence, however, does not restrict itself to South East Asia. For example, France has experienced a 36% rise in domestic violence cases since lockdown measures began. However, the rising number of domestic violence cases in South East Asia is particularly concerning. According to research by the University of Bristol, 83% of people in the region think that domestic violence is justifiable, particularly when the wife or partner “goes out without telling him (the husband), argues with him (the husband), neglects the children, suspects her (the wife or partner) of being unfaithful, refuses to have sex, or burns the food.” The widespread acceptance of domestic violence in South East Asia means that women in the region are less likely to report their experience because domestic violence is considered to be “culturally acceptable.” If they do come forward, they encounter heavy victim-blaming instead of support.

Despite the social sentiment of domestic violence being justifiable, governments in Southeast Asia have demonstrated through their responses that domestic violence is intolerable. In Indonesia, the government has responded by launching a mental health hotline service available to everyone, even to those who have not contracted the virus. In launching the service, the Indonesian government also directly quoted domestic violence data from LBH APIK, an impressive move considering the conservative nature of Indonesian society and South East Asian society more broadly. In Malaysia, the government has reopened the Talian Kasih hotline,  which deals with and takes action against domestic violence cases in line with the Domestic Violence Act of 1994. The hotline was supposed to be temporarily suspended for two weeks in accordance with Malaysia’s movement control order. However, after huge criticism from women’s organisations and politicians, the Malaysian government quickly revisited the decision and decided that the hotline should run as per usual to help those in need, especially women and children.

While Indonesia and Malaysia do not have the best gender equality indicators in South East Asia compared to their neighbours Philippines and Singapore, for instance, their responses to the rising number of domestic violence cases show that they acknowledge women’s role in fighting COVID-19 and because of that, they are making efforts to improve gender equality. While domestic violence hotlines do help victims obtain crucial information about violence and increase public awareness on the amount of support available for victims, South East Asian governments still need to address the main barrier to gender equality, which is the conservative cultural sentiment. This is particularly prevalent in Indonesia and Malaysia, both Muslim-majority countries where conservative Arab culture and practices are predominant. However, despite a conservative culture, Indonesia and Malaysia, alongside all ASEAN member states, have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Being party to CEDAW yet still having major domestic violence awareness issues, South East Asian governments, especially Indonesia and Malaysia, need to significantly increase their efforts to reduce domestic violence by creating mandatory re-education programs on gender equality and make gender equality training a requirement in all workplaces to change prevailing cultural sentiments.


This article was originally published on the official website of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.


Nadia Setianto is an International Relations student and a peer mentor at the Australian National University. She is currently a research intern at Investing in Women, an initiative of the Australian Government that aims to promote women’s economic empowerment in South East Asia. For her internship, Nadia is working on a research report on workplace gender equality in Indonesia.

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