Closing the gender gap is critical for MDG achievement in Asia-Pacific

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the Government of China announced this week that they will work together to close the gender gap as part of regional efforts to address rising inequality and disparities to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in China and other countries in Asia-Pacific.

Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP launched a new regional gender equality programme aimed at closing the development gaps through promoting women’s economic security and rights during her visit to China’s remote western areas of Qinghai Province and the Tibet Autonomous Region from 6 to 9 August 2011.

With rapid economic growth over the past three decades, China has witnessed widening disparities between its prosperous urban centres and its vast interior. The latest official statistics show that the annual income of urban residents is at least three times that of those living in the countryside.

ESCAP’s new initiative aims at building national and local level capacity to support women’s economic empowerment and security through training, building of the regional knowledge base and exchange of innovative practices in five countries, namely Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia and the Philippines. The programme is considered a key strategy for pro-poor growth and addressing the gender gaps in achieving the MDGs.

“Not only is this a matter of social justice, but it also makes sound economic sense,” the ESCAP Chief noted on the first visit to Tibet by an Executive Secretary. “Women still bear a disproportionate burden of poverty, and lack of women’s participation in the workforce costs the region billions of dollars a year.”

During her stay, Dr. Heyzer visited agricultural and economic development projects in Qinghai Province that employ innovative agro-technologies for crop production in the dry lands. These projects have opened up new opportunities for poor rural women, many of whom have been left behind by their husbands and children who have migrated to cities for better-paid jobs.

Dr. Heyzer also visited several enterprises, including handicraft production factories founded and managed by Tibetan women. These industries employ poor Tibetan women and provide them with skills and much needed income, while at the same time promoting the preservation of traditional heritage. Skills training and small loans provided by the All-China Women’s Federation and local government in Tibet have spurred the rapid development of these women-led businesses.

“I was inspired by the spirit, resilience and resolve of these women to build a better future for themselves and their families. Women’s leadership and economic empowerment are critical to closing the development gaps in China and other parts of Asia-Pacific,” Dr. Heyzer observed, after visiting such businesses in both Qinghai and Tibet.

“With only four years remaining to achieve the MDGs, I challenged women leaders to step up their efforts to close the development gaps in Tibet,” the ESCAP Chief said at her meeting with Ms. Dheji, Vice-Chair of the Tibet Autonomous Region Government.

“We need to engage not only national players, but also provincial leaders and decision-makers, in our efforts to empower women and ensure that bold and sustained actions are taken to increase women’s opportunities and rights,” she added. “This is particularly vital for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals in Asia-Pacific.”