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How the pandemic fueled gender inequities in 'China's Las Vegas'

April 28, 2022
topic:Women's rights
tags:#women's rights, #Macau, #China, #COVID-19
by:Sasha Kong
Women's rights have suffered a hit in Macau throughout the pandemic, with vulnerable populations experiencing the brunt of gender-based inequities and restrictions. But growing social mobolisaion in the city could reverse this worrying trend, some experts predict.

Dubbed the "Las Vegas of China," Macau has long constituted a glitzy gambling Mecca and tourist hotspot for domestic travel from mainland China. With a US$81,892 per capita GDP in the pre-pandemic era (as measured in 2019), the former Portuguese colony has established itself as an important economic hub in the world’s second largest economy. However, its gender equality level failed to catch up to its financial success, and has shown signs of regression during the pandemic, experts say.  

The gender pay gap has persisted during the pandemic and compounded the already increased burden on women as lengthy stays at-home introduced additional responsibilities. It also threw the market for domestic workers in Macau, which consists mainly of women, into chaos. The number of requests for assistance submitted to a local women’s association surged nearly threefold from 2018 to 2020. 

Although women account for 53 percent of the city's population of roughly 700,000, men still earn 10 percent more on average and hold more directorial and managerial roles at the workplace, government data shows. 

According to Dr Sheyla Zandonai, lecturer at the History Department of the University of Macau, this trend could stem from the gender roles prescribed by Confucian Chinese society. 

"Macau is a traditional, Confucian Chinese society, which means that there are certain expectations about the roles that men and women should fulfill and perform: men are more likely to take up a role in the public sphere while women will be the center of private, domestic life," Dr Zandonai told FairPlanet. 

Despite the gradual increase in the number of women in the workplace over the years, the Macau-based mother said the city’s maternity and paternity leaves are still lagging behind compared to other places in the world. 

Macau moved to boost the number of mandatory maternity leave from 56 to 70 days in June 2020, leaving what Dr Zandonai called as "an unjustifiable gap" from the world average of at least 14 weeks. Men in Macau enjoy only five days of paternity leave, a far cry from the 2.2 weeks of the EU average

"Fathers are not encouraged to participate in their new family role because they only have a five-day paternity leave," Dr Zandonai said. 

Domestic workers’ plight

Among Macau’s working population, close to 1 in 10 is a non-resident, and many are from mainland China, the Philippines and Vietnam. A majority of these workers are women and are not included in Macau’s minimum wage law. Their minimum wage stands at US$375 a month, less than half of local workers’ US$816 monthly wage. 

Before the pandemic, about 7.8 percent of domestic workers had their travel documents confiscated, according to a 2019 University of Macau survey cited by Global Care Policy. Macau’s strict COVID-19 measures under China’s zero-COVID policy have further restricted the mobility of these workers and prevented them from being able to visit their families back home. 

Entries from overseas have been banned and they could only re-enter Macau after staying in Hong Kong for the 21 days and obtaining permission - which many likely cannot afford. 

"One of the challenges for domestic workers amid the pandemic is the lack of mobility. The majority of them coming from the Philippines, some also from Indonesia, they cannot leave Macau to visit their families," said Dr Zandonai. "Mind you that many of these women have left their children in their home country for the family to take care of them while they work here, because once they leave the city they cannot return." 

The number of domestic workers from the Philippines and Vietnam plummeted by 12 and 17 percent respectively in September last year compared to the previous year. 

The city has only recently started mulling over a pilot entry scheme to allow Filipino domestic workers with at least two doses of COVID vaccination to enter Macau, but even that did not exclude the 14-day mandatory quarantine upon entry. The new scheme also did not make exemptions to foreign domestic workers from other nations. 

Domestic violence on the rise

Out of the 38 reported domestic violence cases in Macau in 2020, over half involve male violence against women. The figure, however, is a significant reduction from the 137 initially reported cases. 

Local critics say the difference shows the varying definitions of 'domestic violence' among stakeholders. The domestic violence law took effect in 2016 and punishes violators for up to 15 years in imprisonment. The lack of evidence to prosecute under this law has made it difficult for victims to pursue justice. 

Local NGOs have held various workshops to support women’s rights and promote legal knowledge. Dr Zandonai remains hopeful that the situation will improve in Macau. 

"There is reason to be hopeful that positive changes will gradually consolidate. But there is also reason to believe that the path to gender equality will not be straightforward. Women and women associations have also been more vocal, which is a good sign that the debate exists," she said. 

"Macau is a rich city and has a population that is getting more educated. With that, it is expected that people who make decisions about the future will be more informed about international standards and values that are worth pursuing because they are more in line with human rights."

Image by Renato Marques

Article written by:
Sasha Kong
Embed from Getty Images
Gender equality levels in Macau failed to catch up to the city's financial success, and have shown signs of regression during the pandemic.
© Eduardo Leal
Embed from Getty Images
Although women account for 35 percent of the city's population of roughly 700,000, men still earn 10 percent more on average.
© Victor Fraile
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