This post reviews Lee Lee Loh-Ludher, “The Socioeconomic Context of Home-Based Learning by Women in Malaysia” in Distance Education 28, no. 2 (August 2007): 179-193.
Loh-Ludher, founder of the University for Education and Development in Battambang, Cambodia, here describes the challenges faced by poor women in Malaysia and the hope that home-based tutoring holds out for them.
Loh-Ludher begins by describing how the struggle of poor Malaysian women for survival, while always difficult, has become even harder in recent years due to the decline in agricultural productivity even as the country moves toward industrialization and urbanization. Most of these women live in small villages and are dependent on agriculture, lacking access to education that would enable them to enter the modern workforce. One way of addressing this problem is to provide such women access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) that help them acquire the skills and market know-how to conduct successful at-home businesses.
Several governmental and private agencies have sponsored computer centers in rural Malay villages, which offer internet access and other computer services. Loh-Ludher and her fellow researchers spent four months in three of these villages interviewing 90 female homeworkers and 40 stakeholders in ICT centers. The researchers began with focus groups and went into more in-depth oral histories with some of the women, and the stakeholders interviewed included government agents, nonprofit workers, and private sector entities hoping to turn a profit from their computer centers.
Many Malaysian women work from the home to increase family income, often out of necessity. The Muslim society permits men to marry up to four women, and divorce is common. Furthermore, women with children are expected to stay home, so many women, especially after their husbands abandon them, have few alternatives to working at home. Their situations are frequently exploited by subcontractors who pay them a pittance to do menial pre-production tasks on goods that are then taken to factories to be finished. Such jobs “have no provisions for medical benefits, paid maternity leave, social security” or pensions. All of this takes place outside of regulatory agencies’ purview, and frequently mothers hide their labor even from their husbands, who would not approve of their wives earning an income.
The Malaysian government has invested highly in ICT centers all over the country. Yet there is a sharp and growing “digital divide” between male and female computer literacy, especially for poor, undereducated women. Though 40% of the 90 women interviewed said they had had some form of computer training, only 27% used the internet or other computer applications in their home businesses, and even these women did not use them in ways that would improve their job prospects or income. The ICT revolution in Malaysia and other developing nations seems to be passing poor women by, though their sons are often very skilled at playing computer games with their friends.
Loh-Ludher applauds the investment Malaysia and other developing countries are making in technological infrastructure, but her interviews with ICT service providers revealed a disconnect between the powerful technologies they were providing and the needs of poor women. She concludes that such technologies have the potential to improve the economic prospects of such women but that to do so societal attitudes about women will have to change and deliberate efforts will have to be made to teach these women how to use technology to enhance their home businesses.
While I enjoyed reading this article, I’ll admit to being a bit disappointed by the false advertising of its title. I was expecting it to be about at-home learning, but it wasn’t. Though Loh-Ludner doesn’t make the point herself, one implication of her findings is that what these Malaysian women need are extension agents who will come to them in the home and teach them how to use the internet and other computer applications to improve their job prospects. Most of the profits from these women’s labors are skimmed off by the middlemen (and they are always men) who bring the raw goods and take away the finished product, which they then sell at tremendous markup. Internet marketing could potentially allow these women to bypass the middleman. But before that can happen they must be literate and technologically-savvy. That’s where home schooling comes in. Given the social barriers that limit these women’s mobility, providing at-home education that would teach them to network with suppliers and customers directly through the internet would be a tremendous boon to their home businesses.