UKABC Women’s Economic Empowerment Lunch

Remarks by Ms. Alissar Chaker, UNDP Resident Representative

November 10, 2022
©Shirley Tay/British Embassy

I would like to extend my gratitude to the Right Honorable (Rt) Greg Hands, Member of Parliament (MP) and Minister of State for Trade Policy, Department for International Trade, Ms. Natalie Black, Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and His Majesty’s Trade Commissioner for Asia and the Pacific, and the Rt Hon Lord Vaizey of Didcot, Chairman of the UK-ASEAN Business Council for organizing this event on women economic empowerment in the ASEAN region, which constitutes a development challenge but also a window of opportunities for the region’s sustainable development and durable peace and security.  My respect to H.E. Dr. Ing Kantha Phavi, Minister of Women’s Affairs of the Kingdom of Cambodia and H.E. Ekkaphab Phanthavong, Deputy Secretary-General for ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. 

UNDP, as the UN global development agency, is committed to the 2030 Agenda and to promoting sustainable development, leaving no one behind (LNOB), let alone leaving out women who constitute 49.8% of the ASEAN population (WB, 2021).

Women in the ASEAN region account for 61.3 million entrepreneurs who own and operate businesses. However, despite this significant number, the UNDP FairBiz report Gender Diversity and Inclusion for a fair business environment” highlights social norms, legal frameworks, and organizational practices as structural barriers for gender equality in the region. It reveals that even though gender equality has shown some progress in recent years, women economic participation in ASEAN is still limited, both in terms of sectors and roles. They are mostly working in micro and small enterprises often operating informally and in less profitable sectors.

Women remain underrepresented in corporate boards or in executive functions, as well as in STEM sectors (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). They have limited access to credits and collaterals, disproportionate household responsibilities, and lack education. It is worth noting that only 1% of public bids globally is awarded to women owned and/or led businesses. The figure is expected to be much lower in ASEAN. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated inequalities, with women experiencing more job and income loss, falling into poverty, and shouldering increased unpaid domestic and care work

Women economic exclusion results in missed opportunities for economy and trade. It is estimated that increasing women’s participation in the economy could add an additional US $12 trillion to the annual global output by 2025 (ESCAP, 2017). Moreover, it also places women, whether as entrepreneurs or workers, in vulnerable situations, as possible victims of human and labor rights violations, scams and human trafficking. Moreover, corruption further marginalizes already vulnerable women rendering them an easy prey for sexual harassment and abuse of authority.

However, the picture can be significantly different, and here, I would like to thank the UK Government for taking the bold decision of partnering with UNDP on the regional project “FairBiz” (alas, ending in December this year), which is changing the story by developing the capacity and agency of women entrepreneurs through targeted trainings for women access to government tenders (ex. A breakthrough was reported on a tender issued by the Regional House of Representatives in Central Java Province, Indonesia, was won by a women-owned small and medium enterprises (SME) to provide communication and other civic material), business integrity toolkits, public-private dialogues, assets, and networking to catalyze a transformative change in the region’s business ecosystem.

For example, innovation was used by a Thai woman-owned fiber glass manufacturing SMEs to avoid bribery by putting in place a more transparent discount policy, which could equally be applied to all loyal customers, with the additional benefit of keeping business expenses and financial planning under control and predictable. This is surely an adaptation mechanism, but it could trigger a cultural change, while the structural causes of corruption are dealt with by authorities.

The UNDP FairBiz report “Gender Diversity and Inclusion for a fair business environment” delineates a roadmap for strengthening women participation in the economy along seven dimensions[1], and provides guidelines for organizations to promote a more enabling environment[2].

Having greater diversity and more women in leadership roles, especially at the board level is seen to contribute to higher standards of transparency and better Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) outcomes. One of the project partners, a Thai woman-owned SME in the food and beverage sector, implemented important measures to uphold labour rights including for foreign workers and adopted a transparent workflow that empowered employees to spot and address potential issues.

Drawing from these targeted interventions piloted in Thailand and Indonesia, another study is about to be released by the UNDP FairBiz Project on how women entrepreneurs can be a positive driver of change to achieve a fair and transparent business environment. These initiatives demonstrated that women could move from being victims of unfair practices to drivers of change, instigating a transformational change both in their organizations and their communities. This can only be beneficial for the economy and for international trade, particularly when exporting towards mature and responsible markets.

These are only few examples, but we look forward to continuing joint advocacy and efforts to promote women economic inclusion and access to impact investments and new markets for a more active role in the region’s sustainable development, in line with the UK ASEAN Economic Reform programme, namely, its focus on the two fundamental constraints to growth- poor business environment and underdeveloped financial markets.

Thank you.


[1] These are: (1) women leadership, (2) gender pay gap, (3) work-life balance, (4) gender balance in roles and functions, (5) inclusive non-sexist language, (6) zero tolerance of sexual harassment, and (7) gender responsive contingency plans.

[2] These are: (1) introducing a more transparent selection process; (2) b) invest in talent development; (3) promote a more formal selection of board members; (4) establish fair salary structures; (5) disclose salary gaps; (6) promote gender champions in companies; (6) creating a safe space for women employees with childcare and breastfeeding facilities etc., (7) capacity building; (8) introduce enabling policies such as shared parental plans and work flexible arrangements, (9) ensure use of inclusive language in internal and external communications; (10) introducing safe and accessible grievance mechanisms for sexual harassment and sextortion.