Striking at the roots: Empowering Southeast Asia’s women through systemic change

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies.

While governments and industries alike pat themselves on the back for incremental developments in gender parity, the root causes of this inequality continue to bubble beneath the surface. The empowerment of women is an unequivocally positive force in addressing some of society’s most pressing issues, including poverty, economic and political turmoil, the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. Yet, efforts to target gender disparity continue to focus on the symptoms of gender inequality rather than the vehicle that is driving it. 

Gender Equality Gains in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia is often forgotten when it comes to global conversations surrounding gender parity. Comprising over 676 million people, 11 countries and tens of thousands of islands, the region is categorised by a plethora of linguistic, religious and cultural diversity. Southeast Asia is experiencing a period of immense growth, with a combined economy that ranks fifth largest in the world. The region’s GDP is projected to grow more than 5 per cent over the next five years, 1.5 per cent above the global average. Women are both fueling, and being advanced by this growth, including in the areas of employment, health, education and decision-making. Because of this, we are seeing many significant success stories and impressive indicators of gender equality emerging from the region. 

The Philippines, renowned as the most gender equal country in Asia, has made considerable strides in wage equality for men and women, female participation in politics, and female education attainment. The nation ranked 17 of 156 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report 2021 of the World Economic Forum (WEF). The WEF found the Philippines had considerably closed gender gaps in economic participation and opportunity, education attainment, and health and survival. Women now outnumber men in senior and leadership roles in both technical and professional fields. Literacy rates are also high for men and women at 98 per cent, and women outnumber men in secondary and tertiary education enrolment rates.

Diagram Description automatically generatedSource: Global Gender Gap Report 2020 

Meanwhile Singapore, Southeast Asia’s most affluent country, is ranked the safest place for women to live in the Asia-Pacific. The nation scores continually well on major global indices that consider gender equality levels, including the Human Development Index and Global Peace Index. This high safety rating is attributed to laws protecting women from marital rape, domestic abuse and sexual harassment. Singapore also has impressive female health indicators, with life expectancy and maternal mortality rates significantly better than the global average. Such measures indicate women’s access to high quality healthcare, contraception, family planning and sexual education.

The Hidden Reality
Addressing political representation, access to education and healthcare, employment equity, safety, and legal protections are critical for greater gender equality. However, despite Southeast Asia’s efforts, mass gender disparity continues to indoctrinate the region. The Philippines’ female labour force participation is the lowest in Southeast Asia at just 46 percent, despite the country’s high female education levels. The nation is also considered one of the most dangerous places in Asia for women, with harassment and assault laws poorly enforced or ignored. Filipino women face restricted access to health resources, sex education and birth control. In Singapore, the country’s low ranking for women’s political empowerment (101 out of 144 countries) shows broad gender gaps prevail. 

Harmful gender stereotypes and biases remain region-wide. These persistent beliefs and gender norms reinforce patriarchal values, which continue to diminish women, limit their opportunities, personal safety, autonomy, and ability to fulfil their potential. Despite higher levels of educational attainment, more employment opportunities and greater political advancement, women remain less valued and more subservient than men. This truth is evident in Southeast Asia’s labour force, with 70 per cent of women in the informal economy, often in stereotypically feminine, lower paying, more vulnerable jobs. The informal sector excludes women from the social protections of formal employment, such as consistent wages, collective bargaining, gender-sensitive employment policies and legal protections. Women in these jobs also face high rates of sexual harassment with little or no legal recourse. Graphical user interface Description automatically generated with medium confidenceSource: A Gender-Inclusive Southeast Asia through Entrepreneurship 

Striking at the Roots
Closing gender gaps by improving access to resources and information is not enough. Lasting change calls for sustained and complex systemic and institutional transformation. The incremental process of nudging norms, perceptions and institutions towards greater gender parity is possible with the right partnerships and approaches. 

Southeast Asia’s rapid development and societal shifts due to advancements in technology and medicine, give it the foundation to develop gender-sensitive systems. But without more forward-looking, inclusive systems and policies, the region’s gender equality progress will remain more piecemeal than planned, more cosmetic than comprehensive. Now is the time to dismantle decades of harmful norms that disadvantage women and undermine national progress. Now is the time to address the root causes of gender equality to give women a brighter future. 

This article was written by Meg Hocking, edited by Lauren Twine, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse. The AASYP Horizons Blog empathises and is in solidarity with the citizens of Myanmar.

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