Going Back to the Why – The Women's Rights Movement

By Mala Rajpal, Youth Co:Lab Communications Lead

March 3, 2022

Addressing Gender Barriers to Entrepreneurship and Leadership Among Girls and Young Women in South-East Asia Report

The Women’s Rights Movement is centuries old. For hundreds of years, we have been working to empower women, to share equal rights, to support women from war torn zones to boardrooms. But every once in a while, it is helpful for us to re-visit the WHY. To go back to the basics, to get in touch with the problem once more. This not just helps understand how the situation on the ground is evolving and the problem as it exists in the moment, but it also helps re-connect with the cause, with the purpose, and with the enormity of the issue. Going back to the why could also bring renewed motivation, innovation to problem solving and a greater ability to rally people and resources behind the cause.

Last July our team at Youth Co:Lab, co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, in partnership with UNICEF, released our report on Addressing Gender Barriers to Entrepreneurship and Leadership Among Girls and Young Women in South-East Asia where we spoke with girls and women from Indonesia, Lao PDR and Thailand. Many insights and learnings emerged from the conversations and interviews. Capturing and sharing a few of them from the human stories as shared in our Report.

16 year old Supattra from Ban Mae Luang, Chiang Mai, Thailand aspires to one day own the most famous bakery of her village — catering to those from nearby villages and towns, and tourists. Currently she and her friend get together on the weekend to bake cakes and prepare candies to sell in their neighbourhood and earn pocket money.

Intrinsic aspirations towards economic independence

The story of every girl and woman has inherent in it her fierce aspirations and need for economic empowerment. While the reasons for seeking these aspirations vary - for some women to start and grow their family, for some to feel empowered by receiving a monthly salary and wearing nice clothes, and perhaps some others who eventually wish to become role models in their own right – they are present in every one of us. Our study shows that the aspirations and the motivations are so strong that the women sometimes end-up enforcing undue self-pressure to see themselves do better, despite the circumstances and situations surrounding them.

18 year old Dian from Nusa Tenggara Timur, Indonesia shares, she and her brother have similar amounts of homework but as a girl she also has to cook for the family. She gets bored with chores and waits until night to play on her cell phone, watch TV, and listen to K-Pop. Her parents don’t like it when she hangs out with friends who they think are bad mannered.

Deep-rooted cultural norms causing barriers

Dian’s story is one we hear too often. From a young age, girls are expected to balance their education and employment aspirations with an unequal share of domestic work. In so many cases, the expectation from the family and their immediate community is for the girl or the young woman to comply and put family first. The girl’s decision to work, the area and field of her work, her decision to move away from home to pursue her education or career, are not hers alone to make. There are familial and societal pressures that all play a part in making those decisions, severely limiting the agency a young woman has on her choices and her future.

22 year old Jira from Chiang Mai City, Thailand is a medical student. She wants to study further and choose paediatrics as her major. She does still sometimes wonder whether she is pursuing the right career, and often has second thoughts. She wishes there were more female role models from her community working in science, but also recognises that she could be a role model for other women

Constant search for role-models and mentors

Seeing is believing they say. Role-models play an invaluable role in making that belief possible. For a girl or a young woman to take charge of her career and other choices, it is never just about her own aspirations and determination. It is also about navigating complex social norms, about handling emotions and expectations from external situations, about gender dynamics, and battling long held gender-unequal behaviours. In this journey, the role of a mentor, a model to look up to, being around someone who has walked the path before, can be immensely empowering and strengthening. Almost all the young girls and women in the research hoped to find this support, this network of other women.

Noy is 14 years old and lives in Had Village in rural Vapi, Salavan Province, Lao PDR. She is interested in tailoring since she saw women in her community running successful tailoring shops after having taken a course in the city. She is also inspired by women leaders in the community, and she hopes to one day play this role. In the meantime, she wants to know how to transition from school to making money, and how to start and run a business. She hopes that she will get the support she needs.

Inaccessible resources – learning and financial

In many ways what Noy is looking for is so simple – tools, skills-building, and resources which can help her find success in her area of work. One would imagine that in our hyper-connected world, where there are more such resources on offer than there is bandwidth to consume, Noy and girls like her, could assume access to them. Unfortunately, though young women, more than boys, are constantly inhibited in their interpersonal, communication, and financial management skills that are critical to building leadership and entrepreneurial know-how. Inadequacies in teaching methods, lack of learning opportunities available to them, and lesser investment from the family on their education are all contributing factors.

These insights from the stories of the young girls and women only re-iterate the importance of pursuing our work; to limit these barriers and create a space for women to be confident and empowered, to help women be surrounded by a vast network of role models and mentors who can inspire and guide, and to provide easy access to learning, financial, and other enabling resources that will help achieve their goals and aspirations.

If you would like to read more about our research and go deeper into this subject, you can do so HERE. We wish you a reflective and celebratory International Women’s Day 2022. May we all continue to stay connected to this very worthy cause!


Co-created in 2017 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab aims to establish a common agenda for countries in the Asia-Pacific region to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.