Imagine having just RM8 left to your name, sick children to look after, and you are unable to leave the house to earn money. This is just one of the many scenarios single, impoverished and vulnerable mothers have had to face since the start of the Movement Control Order (MCO) due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A recent study conducted by Institut Wanita Berdaya (IWB) Selangor found that 43% of women in Selangor have lost income since the implementation of the MCO. Single mothers are the most vulnerable, with one in four living below the poverty line index.
Some have recently escaped abusive relationships, and some are watching in despair as their meagre finances dwindle further. Some are getting food boxes and some qualify for aid. But all these mothers are currently looking after their children with minimal resources.
Out of harm, but now in a bind
Single mother Zu* has only recently managed to escape an abusive relationship with her children, but is now wondering how she will support them.
“I don’t know how I am going to earn money or what is coming next. But I am not going to sit here feeling helpless. I am cracking my head for other possibilities, to see what I can do,” she said.
She said she used to wake up in the mornings from a night of fighting and abuse with sores and body aches, but would still get up the next day and “be chirpy” for the children.
“One day I woke up to realise this is not okay and I could not rationalise this anymore. I saw a window of opportunity and decided in seconds that this was it. I escaped with my two children,” she said.
Locked down and vulnerable
Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) Advocacy and Communications Officer Tan Heang-Lee said the number of domestic violence cases seems to be increasing over the duration of the MCO.
“From February to March 2020, WAO saw a 44 per cent increase in Hotline calls and WhatsApp enquiries. The number of domestic violence cases also seems to be increasing over the duration of the MCO,” she said. In the first half of April, WAO received 264 calls and Whatsapp enquiries through their domestic violence hotline and TINA services, a 111.2% increase compared to the figure of 125 over a 14-day period in February.
Puteri*, who is a survivor of domestic abuse, said she could not imagine a situation where the wife needed to be trapped in a house with her abuser.
“It will not be easy as you have to face the everyday tantrums and mood changes, heated arguments and it all eventually leads up to you being beaten up by your husband. Even when you are not in lockdown, the woman already feels like they have no power to escape from this kind of relationship. Imagine this with a lockdown – it is as though doors do not exist.”
No going out, no income for vulnerable mothers
Activist Hartini Zainudin also told makchic that there were many heart-wrenching experiences now being faced by single and vulnerable mothers in Kuala Lumpur and other cities. Some were separated from their husbands who were working in another state, some were struggling migrant mums, and all were in dire circumstances as they were all unable to go out to earn an income.
Take single mother Nurul*, who previously worked part-time in a restaurant, earning RM40 for her 6pm to 8am shift. She also collected used aluminium cans to sell.
“I receive RM350 a month as welfare assistance from Baitulmal funds. Alhamdulillah, I have received food aid from the Children Activity Center (PAKK), which means I get rice, milk, sugar, eggs, oil and others during this MCO.
“But I owe a lot of money for rent, as my landlord is not giving us any discounts or exemptions. I pay rent for my room every day,” she said.
Down, but still dogged and determined
Like many single mums, Nurul is a tenacious mother still looking for ways to earn a living, and she says she often goes online to see if there are jobs she can do from home.
“But everything I find is just not right – some tell me to pay up first before they send me the things (to make). Ornaments, for example, or gift boxes for functions. Others want me to pay for things that cost hundreds of ringgit before I can receive any fee.”
And even though food boxes are an appreciated form of aid, sometimes it just isn’t enough for mothers like Nurul.
“There was one day I only had RM8 cash left. I had no gas in my stove left to cook, and my daughter was sick. She has a low white blood cell count, and when she has a fever I am truly scared. I don’t want to lose my daughter, so I had to swallow my pride and ask an activist for help.
“Don’t know who to turn to, I don’t have relatives who will help. I would ask friends, but they are also going through tough times themselves,” she said.
No fathers to rely on
Single mum Amelia* told makchic her ex-husband did not contribute a single sen to the upbringing of her child and had not spoken to her or their child for over a year.
The lockdown has been worrying for her, as she had been a freelancer previously. “I am actively looking for a full-time job so I can have a stable income, but it is hard during the MCO. Right now I am living off my savings,” she said.
She said she has tried to apply for benefits but is unable to do so due to online application difficulties. Thankfully, she said, her child’s godfather has been helping with the supply of formula and nappies. But she admits her mental health has been affected.
“I am generally a very calm person, I try not to overthink so much. But I’d be lying if I said I never have any bad thoughts. I worry about my daughter’s wellbeing a lot. I want the best for her, just like any other mother, but I don’t know if I can give her everything she deserves,” Amelia said.
A loss of faith in the system
Makchic contributor Nadia Azhar, who often writes about single motherhood, said oftentimes single mums have given up or lost faith with the system completely. The struggle for child maintenance, with ex-husbands refusing to support the children, is a heartbreaking and costly one.
The legal route to obtain justice takes months and even years. As such, she said, many mothers may not even file a case in court to begin with. They accept whatever amount is given by their ex-husbands, “if any is given at all.”
“And just like that, single mums raise their children with whatever resources they have, often sacrificing their own needs to ensure their small family survives another day.
“Some may not reach out for help for fear of being judged or appearing as incompetent. Some may not even know they qualify for help and have no idea where to begin.”
All Women’s Action Society programme and operations manager Nisha Sabanayagam said current initiatives to provide food aid was an excellent form of support, but may not cover all the needs of single and vulnerable mothers.
“An abused mother may need funds in order to get a taxi to the police station, for example. Under MCO women’s needs are different. Sanitary napkins, for example, has yet to make the list of essential items,” she said.
Single mother Zu said she was going to count on herself as she had lost faith in the government. She had tried to get a restraining order against her husband and was told she was ineligible.
“I have started making home-cooked food to sell, and I do this when the children are asleep.”
Her sister and neighbours have been supportive, she said, but mothers like her still worried about finances constantly. “People need money. You just can’t rely on people to help buy diapers and milk all the time. Sometimes we really need money, not just food.”
By Laych Koh
*The names of these mothers have been changed to protect their identities.
Makchic is currently running the Mums4Mums campaign to fundraise for single and vulnerable mothers, and we aim to provide RM300 to 100 mothers identified by grassroots leaders we have been working with. We want to provide cash in hand because we know the challenges faced by mothers are great and diverse. Cash would allow them to spend on their most urgent needs.
If we can raise more money beyond our RM30,000 target, we will be able to help more women. Makchic is working closely with Members of Parliament from Lembah Pantai, Petaling Jaya and Subang; Yayasan Chow Kit and other activists and non-governmental organisations.
Please help us to spread the word, and support these struggling, vulnerable mothers and their families. Thank you for your support.