Development, Economics and finance, Social policy, Arts, culture & society | East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, Australia, Asia

8 March 2017

The Asia-Pacific region has made enormous gains in women’s health and education, but female economic empowerment still has a long way to go, Shamshad Akhtar writes.

Addressing gender inequality and ensuring equal participation and opportunities for women and girls in the Asia-Pacific is central to achieving progress on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Tackling gender-based inequalities in economic opportunities as well as in access to land, financial instruments, and Information and Communication Technologies would both improve economic growth and support the broader 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, especially in the developing countries of the region.

For instance, annual global output could be boosted by $28.4 trillion by 2025 through increasing women’s participation in the economy. Similarly, closing gender gaps in hours worked, participation, and productivity could result in GDP gains of up to 48 per cent in South Asia and 30 per cent in East and Southeast Asia (excluding China) by 2025. As this year’s celebration of International Women’s Day shines the spotlight on women in the world of work, it is worthwhile to take stock of developments in this context in the Asia-Pacific region.

Since adopting the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995, some progress in gender equality and women’s empowerment has been made in Asia and the Pacific on several fronts.

Gender parity has been achieved in primary education, and maternal mortality rates have dropped by 64 per cent in the region. At the same time, the number of women-owned businesses has steadily increased, with 54 million enterprises now owned and operated by women in the Asia-Pacific.

Yet despite enormous gains in closing education and health gaps, progress has been slow and uneven in advancing women’s economic empowerment in the region. The labour force participation rate of women has actually worsened, with the female-to-male ratio declining to 61 women for every 100 men in 2016 from 67 to 100 in 1990.

Compared to their male counterparts, women are systematically paid less and are more likely to find themselves in vulnerable employment with low wages, no formal contracts or labour rights, and minimal social protection.

In 2015, the gender pay gap in the region as a whole reached an astounding 20 per cent. Furthermore, the percentage of women trapped in vulnerable employment remains worryingly high across the subregions of the Asia-Pacific – 68 per cent in South Asia, 47 per cent in North and Central Asia, 42 per cent in East Asia, 31 per cent in Southeast Asia, and 21 per cent in the Pacific.

More on this: Are we making headway in women's participation in Asia-Pacific politics?

Gender-based inequalities in the ownership of productive assets and access to productive technologies also continue to be pervasive in the region. Significantly fewer women than men are agricultural landholders, with less than 10 per cent of women holding land in Bangladesh, Fiji, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Nepal. Women are 14 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone than men in the Asia-Pacific, with the gap most pronounced in South Asia. There is also a marked gender divide in internet usage across the region with internet penetration rates averaging only 39.5 per cent for females compared to 47.5 per cent for males.

Strategic action and transformative measures will be critical to advancing gender equality and women’s economic empowerment in the Asia-Pacific region.

Such measures include fostering enabling macroeconomic environments for job creation and access to decent work for all, as well as harnessing technological innovations to accelerate progress towards greater financial and digital inclusion of women and girls.

Effective laws and frameworks are also essential to integrating gender equality perspectives in national institutions, policies and programs, including in the provision of women workers with social protection and income security, and in the recognition, reduction and redistribution of unpaid care work.

Beyond political commitment, the mobilisation of sustained financing, including through gender-responsive budgeting, is imperative for the full implementation of initiatives to empower women economically. Improved disaggregated data will also be invaluable in informing decision-making and monitoring the impact of policies and programmes.

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia (ESCAP) has consistently advocated and will continue to make the case to governments that it is in our collective best interest to create meaningful opportunities and decent work for all, regardless of gender. For instance, ESCAP has been working with governments and other stakeholders to encourage the adoption of legal and regulatory measures that remove barriers to women’s entrepreneurship and foster the creation of more small and medium-sized enterprises by women. We also actively engage financial institutions to increase women’s access to credit and financial services, assist in developing standards for fair and equal treatment of women job applicants, and enhance women’s access to market information, social networks and services.

Several countries in the region are now well placed to make innovative uses of technological advances to accelerate progress towards greater financial and digital inclusion of women and girls. Beyond the political commitment, mobilisation of sustained financing, including through gender-responsive budgeting, is imperative for the full implementation of women’s economic empowerment initiatives.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, it is appropriate for us to reflect on these opportunities and to recommit ourselves to the goal of achieving gender equality so that all women and girls in Asia and the Pacific will be able to reach their full potential.

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