Rebeca Grynspan: Gender equality in Asia: Challenges and opportunities for urban women

Sep 27, 2011


Keynote Address by Ms. Rebeca Grynspan,
UN Under-Secretary General and UNDP Associate Administrator
Gender Equality in Asia:
Challenges and Opportunities for Urban Women”
On the occasion of the First Asian Women Network Forum
Seoul, 27th October, 2011

Good morning. It is a great honor to be here today and to address this important and impressive gathering.

Looking out at this room filled with researchers, policy makers, government representatives, members of women’s organizations, and women leaders from Korea and around Asia, I have the distinct feeling that my subject today -- the centrality of gender equality to inclusive and sustainable development and the particular opportunities and challenges for women in Asian cities – is one that all of you know a lot about, so it is me who is going to learn from you today!  

Nevertheless, let me try to underscore three key messages:

First, that although gender equality is a development goal in itself, we have been arguing that it is also essential for achieving all the other development goals.  This is important so not to narrow the scope of Gender equality! Very often where we see the MDGs lagging behind is also where the needs and status of women and girls are accorded low priority. Almost any investment we make in gender equality and women’s empowerment will have multiplier effects across the Millennium Development Goals. 

Second, that while gender gaps have been closed in some sectors, such as education and health,  more needs to be done – particularly when it comes to women’s economic and political participation which in many parts constitutes right now the core manifestation of gender discrimination.

And third, that rapid urbanization in the region presents both challenges and opportunities for women.

Importance of gender equality for the achievement of the MDGs

Gender equality is not only a human right and a development goal on its own, but is also critical to accelerating progress toward achieving all of the Millennium Development Goals. Evidence is overwhelming in showing that investing in women and girls doesn’t just improve the lives of individual women and girls, but will help families, communities, countries and nations as well. So investing in women and girls is not only right but smart.  

This was clearly shown in the 2010 Global Human Development Report with the introduction of a new Gender Inequality Adjusted Index. We can deduce that the persistence of inequalities in educational and employment opportunities, access to health services, and participation  in decision making, including at the highest levels, costs a lot in terms of the nation’s human development.  So there is a loss in the HDI due to persistent gender inequalities ranging from 17% to 79% loss in the HDI.

The highest average losses on the Gender Inequality Adjusted Index were found to be in the Arab States and South Asia. Let me give you some examples. The lowest lost in gender equality is the Netherlands with 17%.  Korea loses 31%, New Zealand  32%,  the US 40% , China 40%, Malaysia 49%, Costa Rica 50%, Thailand 58%, Philippines 62%, Indonesia 68%, Papua New Guinea 78%.

Shortfalls in reproductive health contribute the most to these disparities that includes maternal mortality rates and adolescent fertility rates

When it comes to the Asia Pacific region, our 2010 Regional Human Development Report estimated that the under-representation of women in the workforce costs the region about $89 billion each year – roughly equivalent to the GDP of Vietnam. It also calculates that by increasing the proportion of women in the workforce to seventy per cent, which is the equivalent to the rate of many developed countries, would boost annual GDP in India by 4.2 per cent, in Malaysia by 2.9 per cent and in Indonesia by 1.4 per cent.

This shows that all our societies will be poorer if we fail to tap the full potential of half our populations.

For instance, countries that eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education will accelerate progress towards both the hunger target and the child health and maternal mortality goals, as educated women and girls are better able to make informed choices about family planning, nutrition, health, and education.

A good example of this is Vietnam, where the children of mothers with primary education have a mortality rate of 27 deaths per thousand live births, while for those whose mothers had no education, the rate is 66. Indeed, increasing investments in women and girls is the breakthrough strategy for achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

Important progress in the region, but challenges remain

In the Asia-Pacific region, as in the rest of the world, there has been considerable progress in advancing gender equality and empowering women, but, as elsewhere, that progress has been uneven across sectors and countries. So let me address the evidence with respect to both: progress and challenges bearing in mind that talking about a region always carries an oversimplification of the differences between countries.    

First let’s look at health and education:

  • women now live longer and are better educated; although progress has been greater in East Asia than in the other sub regions, and;
  • in a few countries, girls are outperforming boys in education, with a widening gap in favor of girls in post-secondary schools – or what we call the “inverse” gender gap.

Yet while many women in the Asia region have benefited from their countries’ improved education, health, and prosperity - huge gaps still remain, with wide regional discrepancies.

It is estimated that almost half the women in South Asia are illiterate, and more women die in childbirth in South Asia – 500 for every 100,000 live births – than any other part of the world, except sub-Saharan Africa.

The region as a whole also falls short of where it could be on protecting women from violence. Nearly half the countries in South Asia and more than sixty per cent of those in the Pacific have no laws on domestic violence, despite the widespread prevalence of this stark violation of women’s rights. Even in countries where domestic violence laws exist, they are often not effectively implemented. Large numbers of women in Asia Pacific are among the four billion people who are globally excluded from access to justice.

Let’s now move to economic and political empowerment:

In some countries, the gap in labor force participation is narrowing, as a higher percentage of women are now going to paid work.

But inequalities in the workforce persist. The female labor force participation rate in South Asia of 35.7 per cent in 2007 was much lower than the world average of 52.7 per cent.

More telling are the statistics that show the persistence of the gender wage gap at all levels of labour force participation. Despite laws guaranteeing equal pay for equal work, women still earn only 54 to 90 per cent of what men earn in Asia-Pacific countries. And most employed women in Asia-Pacific are in vulnerable employment – broadly defined as self-employed or own-account workers and contributing family workers.

It is important to highlight that for many women around the world, poverty is a matter of time as much as money. This is a central issue when designing policies for women economic empowerment. The disproportionate burden of unpaid care work in the family and the community deepen in many places by poor infrastructure. It is therefore of great importance that when designing public and private interventions to advance gender equality that we consider not only income poverty but time poverty as well,  I believe all of those present today know exactly what we are talking about, because time poverty with respect to women is widely spread. 

We know that economic policies are still blind to gender issues, but being blind does not mean being neutral, there is nothing neutral about economic policies and clear discrimination in the labour market. Investment in care facilities and child care are key for women equality of opportunities and for a society that needs to find a new balance between family and work. 

With respect to political participation Asia-Pacific’s record on women’s political participation falls short of its development achievements and ambition. A handful of countries can claim significant progress at national and local levels, and some are above global averages in women’s political participation. For example, and partly because of dedicated work by women activists, Nepal has women in about 33 per cent of its Constituent Assembly seats. But the region as a whole is behind all other regions except the Arab States. Only 18 per cent of legislative seats in Asia and 14.7 per cent in the Pacific are held by women. This is below the global average of 19.3 per cent.

Also, without access to the political arena, women cannot articulate and contribute to shaping solutions that unleash progress for themselves and society at large.

We should support women’s participation in political  live because it is a right and we are against discrimination and for equality – that is the fundamental reason. But, it is also true that evidence show that if there is not a critical mass of women in governments and legislatures, women’s needs are not given the attention they deserve – and as a result, families and communities can suffer. This is a case where to be out of sight is truly to be out of mind.

For example, there is evidence from India which suggests that where women have a strong presence on local councils, they are likely to use their influence to support investments in areas like water and sanitation which are so critical to human health and development.

Challenges and opportunities of urbanization

A key issue for the region is its rapid urbanization.

While Asia, along with Africa, is one of the world’s less urbanized regions, this is rapidly changing. Currently, 42.5 per cent of Asia’s population is urban. Over the next 40 years, the number of urban dwellers is expected to double in Asia. The region is expected to reach its tipping point – that is, when its population is more urban than rural -- in 2023. By 2050, 66.2 per cent of the region’s population will be urban.

While this trend presents considerable opportunities for women, particularly in terms of employment and potential changes in cultural norms and standards, it also poses significant challenges.

Most of the explosive growth is occurring in developing countries of Asia where also about half of the urban population lives in slum areas.  We know that women and girls often suffer the worst effects of slum life, such as poor access to clean water, inadequate sanitation, unemployment and gender-based violence. It is therefore urgent that their particular needs are addressed in urban planning and policy-making and that their voices are heard.

The populations of these expanding urban areas are also particularly vulnerable to the growing risks of climate change.

Climate change increases the vulnerability of the poor and others already socially and economically marginalized. It also affects men and women differently across all groups due to their different gender-defined roles and opportunities in society.

Significant changes in rainfall, temperature, sea levels and in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events such as typhoons and flooding are already having a devastating impact in many urban settings, especially for those living in slums and crowded temporary settlements near coastal areas.  

Empirical evidence shows that among the poor, women are more likely to suffer from climate-related disasters. Women are up to 14 times more likely to die from natural disasters than men.  During the 2004 Asian Tsunami, 60 to 70 per cent of deaths in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, were of women. During the cyclone and floods of 1991 in Bangladesh, the death rate was reportedly five times higher among women. An estimated 87 per cent of unmarried women and almost 100 per cent of married women lost their livelihoods when a cyclone hit the Ayeyerwaddy Delta in Myanmar in 2008.

In addition, women and girls are more likely to suffer in the immediate aftermath of disasters – including weather-related disasters. Women and girls are more vulnerable to sexual violence, exploitation and trafficking. Over the longer-term, disaster responses can also exacerbate disadvantages already faced by women and girls. For example, they often do not have direct access to information and other resources provided during the recovery process.

We must also recognize and support the important contributions that women make to disaster risk reduction and management planning. The knowledge and perspectives gained through their gender-defined roles in the workforce, communities, and households can be used to develop more effective and sustainable climate responses. We know that women are key drivers of change. We know that the active engagement and participation of women can have a multiplier effect on both disaster risk reduction and greener economic growth.

Partners at the national, city, and community level need to increase efforts to address these risks and vulnerabilities. They also need to tap on women’s contribution and capacities, and enhance their participation and voice. We need to do more to enhance the resilience of urban systems in ways that also consider the different needs and knowledge of men and women, boys and girls. The design of urban communities and related social investment, transport and infrastructure policies must draw on an analysis of the different concerns and contributions of men and women, particularly those living in slums and temporary settlements.

The recently concluded 5th Asia-Pacific Urban Forum held in Bangkok highlighted the importance of ‘green transport’ options tailored to support women, who are more reliant on public transport systems than men. Many Asia-Pacific cities such as Mumbai, Jakarta and Tokyo have invested in public transport systems which not only reduce emissions from private vehicles but equally support women’s mobility and security with ‘women’s only’ carriages on trains and buses. These systems are a good example of how development can be both “green” and “gender-responsive”.

The bottom line for development, whether it focuses on fostering democratic governance or economic empowerment or crisis recovery and prevention or any other aspect of building resilient societies, is that it must include the voices, experiences and meaningful participation of women. If economic policies and plans are going to be effective and provide opportunities for women and men to improve their lives and communities, they must be gender-responsive. This is as true in Asia, as it is in Africa, Europe and the Americas.

So an agenda for action, building economic empowerment, promoting political voice and advancing legal rights at the national and local levels, for cities and rural areas, continues to be the challenge for the post MDG era. As we engage in these and other discussions during this forum, let us proceed not only by acknowledging the centrality of gender equality to driving sustainable development but by ensuring that we act on this knowledge. We must ensure that as we pursue our development goals, all of humanity – women and men – are given every opportunity to benefit from and contribute to meaningful and lasting change.

Thank you

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