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Malaysia, with a land area of 336 745 km 2 , consists of Peninsular Malaysia and of Sarawak and Sabah on the island of Borneo (Chee and Peng). Malaysia’s population of 23 001 000 is projected to reach 31 580 000 by 2020, although the rate of population growth is declining from 2.44 percent in 1995 to a projected 1.66 in 2005. Likewise, the fertility rate that was 3.26 children per woman in 1995 is falling to a projected 2.62 in 2005. Women are 49 percent of the population. Malaysia’s population is young; 32 percent is under 15 years of age, 64 percent is of working age (15-64 years) and 4 percent is 65 years or older. Life expectancy for women is 77 years and for men, 72 years (UNESA). The projected population growth rate and the total fertility rate are shown in the following table.

Projected Population Trends

Fact Sheet Malaysia: Rural Women in the Malaysian Economy

Source: UNESA

As recently as 1990, the Malaysian population was mainly rural, but movement to urban areas has been rapid. By 2002, 59 percent of the population lived in urban areas. Projections anticipate that 74 percent of the population will be urban by 2020. Rapid urbanisation has resulted in uneven development. The total incidence of poverty for Malaysia is 7.5 percent (UNESA). The poverty rate in rural areas is 12.4 percent, while the rate in urban areas is 2.4 percent (Masud and Paim).


Malaysia’s constitution guarantees the right of education to all, and the government provides 11 years of free, non-compulsory basic education. The educational system consists of six primary years, two lower secondary years and three upper secondary years. There are no restrictions on girl’s participation in the educational system. Girls’ participation rate is slightly higher than that of boys at the primary level and the difference widens at the secondary level where 95.6 percent of girls attend compared to 83.3 percent of boys. Fewer girls drop out compared to boys at both the primary and secondary levels.

Participation in Education

Fact Sheet Malaysia: Rural Women in the Malaysian Economy

Source: UNESCO

Women’s participation in tertiary education varies from 30 percent of enrolment at polytechnics, to 66 percent at teacher training colleges and 54 percent at public institutions of higher learning. In the public institutions of higher learning, women dominate in arts (61 percent), science (58 percent) and law (65 percent). In engineering, however, women are 24 percent of enrolment, and they are 26 percent in the technical stream (Malaysia: EFA, 2001).

As a consequence of women’s increased participation in education, the adult literacy rate for women rose from 74 percent in 1990 to 83 in 2000 (UNICEF). Government programmes to incorporate functional literacy curricula into socio-economic programmes for rural populations address some of the educational needs of rural women. Adult education programmes include work-oriented classes for women for occupations traditionally reserved for men (UNESCO).


Forty-eight percent of women are in the working-age population (15-64 years). Although women’s labour participation rate rose from 43.5 percent in 1995 to 45.8 percent in 1997, by 2000 it had fallen to 44.5 as a consequence of the economic downturn in 1998 (Eighth Malaysia Plan).

Women are about one third of the labour force, yet, by sector, they represent 41 percent of all manufacturing employees, 40 percent of all finance, insurance, real estate and business services employees, 39 percent of wholesale and retail trade, hotel and restaurant employees, and 26 percent of agriculture, forestry, livestock and fishing employees (Eighth Malaysia Plan).

By occupation, women are spread across the choices except with noticeably few in administration and management, and a higher number in production as the following table shows.

Women as percent of labourers in each occupation
















Professional and Technical






Administrative and Managerial



Source: Eighth Malaysia Plan

Malaysia’s decision to adopt export-oriented industrialisation (EOI) brought sustained growth throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. During those years the economy grew at an average rate of 8.5 percent. Women’s participation in the labour force as a consequence of EOI increased from 37 percent in 1970 to 43.5 percent in 1995. Higher wages in Malaysia attracted large numbers of workers from other Asian countries, particularly neighbouring Indonesia but also Bangladesh and Thailand (Ng). By the late 1990s it is estimated that 1.2 million migrant workers (14 percent of Malaysia’s total labour force and 7 percent of Malaysia’s population) were in Malaysia. Many migrant workers were undocumented. Migrant workers competed for jobs, which kept some wages lower, and for housing which kept rents higher (APMRN). Women migrant workers generally work in the domestic service and entertainment industries where they are poorly paid and isolated from the possibility of organising for improved conditions (Ng).

Malaysia’s Human Development Index (HDI) ranking in 2003 was 58 out of 175 countries, indicating a medium human development, defined by medium life expectancy at birth, high educational attainment and medium levels of income. Its Gender-related Development Index (GDI) rank was 53 out of 175 countries, indicating that Malaysia has built basic human capacities of both women and men without substantial gender disparities (UNDP).


The proportion of GDP accounted for by agriculture has fallen by 50 percent since 1990. Agriculture was 18.7 percent of the GDP in 1990 and was 10.5 percent in 2000 (Masud and Paim). By 2002, however, agriculture was 9 percent of GDP (ESSA).

The value of agricultural exports increased 63 percent from 1989-1991 to 2002. As a proportion of total exports, however, agricultural goods fell from 15 percent to 8 percent in the same period (ESSA).

Since 1989, the rural population declined from 50 percent to 41 percent of the total population, and the agricultural labour force declined from 27 percent to 17 percent of the total labour force (ESSA). This dramatic population shift resulted from migration, especially of male workers, to urban areas. Another significant factor was strict enforcement in recent years of a new immigration law that resulted in expulsion of several hundred thousand undocumented migrant workers. In 2001, migrant workers were 20 percent of the labour force; 1.1 million workers had work permits though numbers of undocumented migrant labourers were uncounted (Inglis).

The Rural Vision Movement 2020 (Gerakan Desa Wawasan) that the government launched in 1996 was intended to modernise 5 000 villages with educational programmes, human resource development and training in information technology. The project has achieved only limited success. Focus of the pro-gramme has been more on infrastructure than on human-centred issues. No mention was made in the programme plans for women’s issues (Masud and Paim; Community Learning Centres).

On the other hand, the National Agriculture Policy (NAP) (1992-2010) defined several strategies to enhance women’s involvement in agriculture and rural development. The intent was to increase female labour force participation to 49 percent in 2000, though that goal was not reached. The NAP also planned to involve women in horticultural enterprises such as vegetables, cut flowers and nursery production as well as other occupations requiring dexterity and skill (Masud and Paim).

Crop production

Land committed to permanent crops is 23 percent of the total national land area, up slightly from 21 percent in 1989-1991 (FAOSTAT). To improve productivity, the government encourages large-scale farming through farmers’ organisations and group farming projects with an emphasis on mechanisation (Masud and Paim).

Agricultural production comprises 21 percent food commodities and 69 percent industrial input (Masud and Paim). Agricultural products for domestic consumption include paddy, fruits, vegetables and coconut (Eighth Malaysia Plan). Palm oil leads the agricultural exports with 10 448.7 metric tons exported in 2002. Other exports include rubber, fatty acids, oil of palm kernels, margarine and shortening and refined sugar (FAOSTAT). Future trends, supported by government policy, will shift production away from rubber, paddy, coconut and cocoa and toward higher value crops such as agroforestry, palm oil, fruits and vegetables (Wai).

The migration of men to urban centres has left women to manage small farms in the rural areas. The chart below shows the increase in the number of women in the rural labour force, 1995-2000, especially in Sabah.

Percent increase in rural women in the labour force, 1995-2000

Fact Sheet Malaysia: Rural Women in the Malaysian Economy

Source: Adapted from Masud and Paim

More than half of women agricultural labourers work in fruit and vegetable crops where they tend to do unskilled and lower level technological occupations. More than a third of women in agriculture are in field crops such as rubber, cocoa, coconut, coffee, tea and other diversified short-term cash crops. Few women work in oil palms except for weeding (Masud and Paim).


Forestry and logging declined 8.5 percent from 1995 to 2000, and the decline is expected to continue though at a slower rate (Eighth Malaysia Plan). Women do not participate appreciably in forestry.


Export of fish products, though increasing in volume, represents a stable 18.7 percent of total exports. Volume increased from RM 824.6 million in 1995 to RM 1 236.1 million in 2000. The projected export of fish by 2005 is RM 1 711 million (Eighth Malaysia Plan).

Traditions and superstitions link women to poor catches thus inhibiting women’s participation in direct fishing. An exception is found in Kelantan and Terengganau on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia and, to a lesser extent, in Kedah on the west coast. In these areas, women fish mainly from the shore and the catch is used primarily for home consumption (Yahaya).

In other areas, women participate in family fishing operations by unloading, sorting, gutting, net mending, processing, distributing and marketing that generally is classified as unpaid family labour. Women also are involved increasingly in aquaculture where they participate in every aspect of fish farming (Yahaya).


The Malaysian environment is impacted by fertilisers, land erosion and pesticides. Large amounts of fertiliser are imported and applied each year, most of it is of non-organic origin, thus contributing to environmental pollution (Wai).

Erosion is of greatest concern during planting or replanting periods in plantations. Soil loss from non-tree crops is greater than from tree crops. An accumulation of silt in the streams has shortened the lifespan of at least one hydroelectric power generator. The removal of trees also has resulted in increased temperatures by one to two degrees in the surrounding areas (Wai).

Although integrated pest management (IPM) has been adopted as a strategy in a number of areas, use of pesticides has brought serious health concerns in rural regions. In one study, 51-71 percent of the farmers in two granary areas experienced symptoms associated with pesticide poisoning. Women in the plantation sector generally are assigned the task of spraying pesticides, thus facing the risk of greater exposure. One study over a two-year period reported pesticide residue in the breast milk taken from 31 women in the town of Ranau in Sabah. The effects of residual pesticides on food crops have been reported frequently (Wai).

Fact Sheet Malaysia: Rural Women in the Malaysian Economy


A number of factors have affected rural production in the past decade. Migration of men from rural to urban areas brought greater dependence on rural women for farm production. However, the migration was significant enough to cause labour shortages on the estates as well as in the small holdings. In 1994, 30 percent of the rubber trees in the country were untapped because of the shortage of workers (Wai).

The influx of large numbers of migrant workers brought competition with women for work on the plantations. Mechanisation in irrigated rice cultivation has displaced women’s labour. The cumulative loss of women’s work also has meant loss of income, though microcredit programmes have enabled some women to venture into small-scale food processing, crafts and retailing (Masud and Paim).

Government policies that encourage a shift of production to fruits and vegetables can provide more work opportunities to women. The negative consequence is that pesticides that are used heavily in cultivation of fruits and vegetables can have detrimental effects on women’s health.

The traditional household structure reinforces the double burden of labour on women. One study found that women and men work equally in performing the farm work. Women worked an average of 4.8 hours per day while men worked 4.6 hours per day. However, women also worked an average of 8.9 hours per day doing housework, work that men did not do (Wai). Although the proportion of rural women in unpaid family work declined, the actual number of women in this category more than doubled from 1995 to 2001 (Masud and Paim).

Rural poverty has decreased in the past ten years, but large numbers still are affected. In 1999, 264 300 rural households (12.4 percent) lived in poverty. Of these, 50 600 households (2.4 percent) suffered hard core poverty (Wai).


Malaysia is a low vulnerable country in terms of food security. There is adequate food production, stability in food supplies and physical and economic access to food by the vulnerable sections of the population. The challenge is to be self-sufficient in most food requirements as well as to reduce dependence on food imports. Malaysia’s self-sufficiency programme focuses on rice (Salahuddin; Arshad and Shamsudin).

Rice provides about one-third of daily calorie intake and is the primary source of carbohydrates. It is the most important source of employment for rural people. Rice accounts for 86 percent of Malaysia’s food grain production. Although Malaysia is 100 percent self-sufficient in such items, as pork, poultry and eggs, rice constitutes 10 percent of its food imports.

Per capita rice consumption in Malaysia has declined from 110 kg per capita in 1980 to 95 kg per capita in 1996, thus reflecting an economy with sufficient per capita income to broaden the variety of items for its food consumption. Malaysia’s economy has developed sufficiently to permit imports of food. The National Agriculture Policy now defines the self-sufficiency target as 65 percent of the domestic need for rice. Malaysia’s dependence on the international market for rice, however, makes it vulnerable to market fluctuations and to adverse weather conditions in supplier nations that could affect availability of rice for Malaysia.


To recognise gender differences within households in the context of agriculture and rural production, policy-makers and planners in Malaysia need to:


Agricultural and rural development programmes in Malaysia need to address rural women’s and men’s priorities in the following areas:


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