Brunei to release National Plan of Action on Women this year

MArch 2, 2023

Later this year the government will be releasing its first ever National Plan of Action on Women, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports (MCYS) revealed Wednesday.

Speaking at the EU-Brunei Seminar on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, Hjh Nor Ashikin Hj Johari said the action plan aims to ensure equitable development for women so that they are active participants in achieving Vision 2035.

“The Plan of Action has a strategic objective to develop women’s optimum potential through gender equity, capacity building and self-development,” Hjh Nor Ashikin said in a keynote address for the seminar.

Priority areas include the promotion and protection of women’s rights, healthcare, economic empowerment, employment and work-life balance.

How the action plan came about

In 2022, MCYS commissioned the Centre for Strategic and Policy Studies to undertake a national survey on women’s development, with the aim of identifying gaps in data collection; identifying prevalent challenges for women; and to support the formulation of policies that move Brunei towards greater gender equity.

A national household survey was conducted surveying 1,403 women and 291 men aged 15 and above, from over 90 villages spread across Brunei’s four districts.

In addition to the random sample, some 400 at-risk women were also interviewed for the study.

Hjh Nor Ashikin said the survey found that while “remarkable” progress has been made towards women’s development, there are still areas which require policy attention to better support Bruneian women reaching their full potential.

“There is still more we can do to further support women’s development, including expanding access to resources and opportunities, and to help women overcome challenges that could often limit their choices and ambitions,” she said.

Citing key examples, the permanent secretary said the survey identified the need for more women to go into STEM fields to help build Brunei’s technical capabilities; the need for more supportive and flexible workplaces that allow women to manage both work and childcare; and the need for stronger mental health support for women.

She added that MCYS is now working on policy recommendations to provide the basis for the National Plan of Action so that it is “relevant, practical and truly reflective of the needs of women in Brunei”.

Brunei context: How far have women come?

In Southeast Asia, Brunei has the highest proportion of women in middle management and senior managerial roles in the private sector (37%).

In the government sector, over 50% of permanent secretary roles are filled by women. The judiciary and diplomatic service also have a high proportion of women in senior positions. Yet Brunei appointed its first female cabinet minister just last year, when Datin Dr Hjh Romaizah Hj Mohd Salleh was promoted to education minister.

Khairunnisa Ash’ari, the lead coordinator for the EU-Brunei Partnership Facility, said despite these achievements, public discourse on gender equality is still sorely needed.

“So why do we need this conversation today, if we were already making so much progress?,” she said during the opening of the seminar.

It’s about not feeling safe enough when we walk alone at night. It’s about facing sexual harassment at the workplace and not knowing what to do. It’s about women who face domestic violence at home on a regular basis. It’s about women who struggle to get affordable and accessible daycare.
She added: “Yet we still face backlash from the community, criticising the need for these conversations [on gender equality].”

Despite having the highest proportion of women in managerial roles, Brunei ranks lowest in Southeast Asia for representation of women in politics (9% of parliamentary seats), according to the ASEAN Gender Outlook.

The report also stated that significant gaps remain in Brunei’s gender data, hampering the effectiveness of national development policies.

Key gender indicators that are missing or not publicly available include the proportion of people living in extreme poverty; the share of women who were married before 18 years of age; and the percentage of women age 15-49 who have experienced violence by a former husband or partner.