Power, voice and rights – keys to achieving gender equality in Asia-Pacific

While Asia and the Pacific can take pride in the region’s vibrant economic transformation in recent decades, this has not always translated into progress on gender equality.

Discrimination and neglect are threatening women’s very survival in the Asia-Pacific region, where women suffer from some of the world’s lowest rates of political representation, employment and property ownership. Their lack of participation is also depressing economic growth.

These are some of the findings of the UNDP-sponsored 2010 Asia-Pacific Human Development Report (Power, Voice and Rights: A Turning Point for Gender Equality in Asia and the Pacific), launched today in Ha Noi.

“Empowering women is vital for achieving development goals overall, and for boosting economic growth and sustainable development. Viet Nam is an acknowledged leader in the region in promoting gender equality but more still needs to be done to bring about gender equality between Vietnamese men and women,” says John Hendra, UN Resident Coordinator.

The Report focuses o­n three key areas – economic power, political decision-making and legal rights – to analyze what holds women back, and how policies and attitudes can be changed to foster a climb toward gender equality. Asia, the Report asserts, is standing at a cross-road and by putting the right policies in place now, countries in the region can achieve positive change.

Unequal pay for equal work

Fewer women than men are in paid work in every country in the region, with striking contrasts between South Asia and East Asia. Nearly 70 per cent of East Asian women are in paid work, well above the global average of 53 per cent, while in South Asian countries like India and Pakistan fewer than 35 per cent of women do paid work.

Despite laws guaranteeing equal pay for equal work, women in this region still earn considerably less than men, with the pay gap ranging from 54 to 90 per cent. Women “consistently end up with some of the worst, most poorly-paid jobs – often the o­nes that men don’t want to do, or that are assumed to be “naturally” suited to women,” the Report finds.

In Viet Nam, women make up 46.6 per cent of the workforce. However, most women work in the informal sector which is not covered by social protection. Furthermore, as more than half of working women are unpaid family workers they receive no direct income. Those women who are paid still receive o­nly around 87 per cent of average male wages.

Few women hold political office

Asia-Pacific women hold o­nly a handful of legislative seats, fewer than anywhere else in the world except in the Arab region. Development level doesn’t necessarily correlate with high political participation for women, either; women in Japan and the Republic of Korea, for example, hold just ten per cent of legislative seats.

In Viet Nam, o­ne in four National Assembly member is a woman – the highest participation rate among ASEAN countries. However, women are not well represented in senior decision-making in the Party or the administration: o­nly o­ne Minister and five of 82 Vice-Ministers are women.

Violence against women persists

The problem of “missing girls” – in which more boys are born than girls, as girl fetuses are presumably aborted, and women die from health and nutrition neglect – is growing. Birth gender disparity is greatest in East Asia, where 119 boys are born for every 100 girls.

In Viet Nam, the sex ratio at birth in 2008 was 112 to 100, up from 110 to 100 in 2006. If this trend continues, Viet Nam will have a surplus male population from 2025.

Violence against women by their male partners remains high in Asia-Pacific. National surveys find the incidence varying from two in three women in Papua New Guinea to o­ne in ten in the Philippines. A recent study in Viet Nam suggests that more than o­ne-fifth of couples experience domestic violence. Almost two-thirds of Vietnamese women believe it is acceptable for men to beat their wives.

“Domestic violence extracts billions of dollars from national economies, in part through greater health burdens o­n healthcare systems and lower productivity,” says the Report.

Region at a crossroad: Recommendations

The Report provides eight recommendations for action across the three areas covered (power, voice and rights). Removing barriers to women’s ownership of assets, such as land; expanding paid employment; making migration safe and investing in high-quality education and health are some of the main solutions recommended.

“In order for women in Viet Nam to have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives, equal access to and control over economic resources, and equal access to legal rights and protection, we need to ensure that all Vietnamese families value their girls equally with boys and invest in their capabilities and wellbeing,” John Hendra comments.

“Decision-making in the household, community, and in political life needs to be shared equally by women and men. Existing legal frameworks that support gender equality and women’s empowerment must be implemented and enforced. And last but not least, we must all of us, men and women, speak out to break the silence that surrounds violence against women.”

(Source: UNIFEM Vietnam)