At the Frontline of Women's Rights - International Women's Day Feature, Asia360 News Magazine

United Nations Under-Secretary-General DR NOELEEN HEYZER (Photo Credit: Asia 360 News in Context)
United Nations Under-Secretary-General DR NOELEEN HEYZER (Photo Credit: Asia 360 News in Context)

She was the first Asian head of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in 1994. In 2007, she became the first woman to be appointed executive secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap). The trail-blazing Dr Noeleen Heyzer has been involved at the highest policy-making levels in the UN for nearly 30 years, and she says more has to be done for women’s social and economic development. She speaks to Asia360 News in an exclusive interview, about how the women’s rights movement has progressed in Asia, and the problems it continues to face.

Asia360 News: How has Asia progressed in terms of gender equality?

Dr Noeleen Heyzer: Tremendously. However, Asia is not a homogeneous continent. We have countries that have been doing extremely well and countries that have not done well. And if I look at countries that have not done well, unfortunately, South Asia has ranked substantially worse. Worse than the world average in terms of the gender inequality index, and even worse than the Arab states. Take maternal mortality for instance, if you look at East Asia and the Pacific, there are 79 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared to the world average of 176 per 100,000. But if you look at South Asia, it’s 252 to 100,000, so South Asia is not doing well at all. It’s almost 45% more than the world average and almost nine times that of Europe and Central Asia.

Q: Why do you think this is the case?

NH: I think a lot of it is due to the fact that there’s not enough investment in the healthcare system, and also unfortunately in the valuation of women’s lives. If you look at even some of the sex ratios — South Asia has the highest male-to-female sex ratio at birth in the world and sex selective abortions and infanticide still leave a trail of about 96 million missing women in some countries. It looks as though it’s a cultural issue. But it’s also embedded in the economics of our countries.

[And] if you look at countries like Afghanistan, it stands out for having the highest maternal mortality rate — 140 deaths per 100,000 births in 2008, which is a major problem. It was a struggle for me when I was head of UNIFEM to get gender equality included in the constitution so that women could be recognised as full citizens. I think the
issue of full citizenship rights is also a critical one.

Q: So more economic growth and development is the way to close the gender gap?

NH: I think it is a very good first step. In fact you can see that it has done so in many of our countries. Because if you can hold economic power it changes your status even within your family and that is critical [… T]he type of work that is offered to women even though they are participating in the economy, is still within the unskilled and semi-skilled sectors. But what we want is to begin to build up their skill set so they’re not always at the bottom of the economy.

Q: Asia economies have been growing including those in South Asia but the disparity is persistent.

NH: I would say it is critical that we use this opportunity now to change it, because we can begin to close development gaps, and the Millennium Development Goals actually covers it extremely well. Let’s look at promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment through education — I would like to refer you to our Asia-Pacific Millennium Development Goal Report that has just been launched. What it says is that the Asia-Pacific as a whole has essentially eliminated gender disparities in participation at the primary and tertiary education levels. But as many as 25 million children of primary school age are still out of school and most of them are girls. Women are still at a
disadvantage in schooling. So the whole issue of skill sets is a major concern.

Q: This is a broad and ambitious agenda. How would you effect this paradigm shift?

NH: I think you need to have mindset change, but you also need to bring the governments and the private sector on board. I think you need to speak with both, and also include the women themselves, and the media.

When I was heading UNIFEM, we made it a point of speaking out in the forums where decisions were being made. So for example when I was dealing with the peace and security issues, I spoke to the Security Council and we went country by country to change laws, including those dealing with economic security and rights. So we dealt with the institutions, but we also dealt with the private sector because we were putting together what we call ethical private sector investment on behalf of women.

I worked very closely with the Calvert Investment Fund and we came up with Calvert Women’s Principle so that all of the investment that was taking place out of the Calvert Investment Fund had to align with many of these principles. In Singapore we also tried to set up an equity fund for women.

Q: Do you think positive discrimina-tion, such as gender quotas, works?

NH: I feel that it depends on which woman you put in place. It has to be one who really gets a sense that it’s not about the individual, it’s about the individual leading a collective. What is critical is that the people who benefit from this sort of quota should not just be looking at themselves. They should have a sense of shared responsibility and know that they have been put there because there was a struggle and because they are representing a constituency and not just themselves.

Q: The SlutWalk movement has gained notoriety for taking women’s rights advocacy a step backward because of the tendency for protesters to dress skimpily. It doesn’t seem to have gone very far in Asia, however. What’s your take on that?

NH: I think women have the right to be angry at being blamed for male violence and obviously they are very fed up that men are not being held more accountable. This whole issue of women being blamed for more male violence because of the way they dress is problematic. One of the things that struck me a couple of years ago was a case in Malaysia where a young woman dressed in a chador was the only passenger in the bus and she was raped. This has nothing to do with how women dress. But the whole idea of the word [slut] is problematic to me. I wouldn’t want to reclaim that, I think women’s image of themselves is so much more positive in Asia. We are leaders, we are CEOs, we don’t think of ourselves in that way.

Q: The women’s movement took off in the West in the 1970s. But did not resonate in Asia, how did you push for gender equality in the Asian context?

NH: We actually decided to develop our own voice because the whole dialogue and narrative was very much from the western feminist perspective. I felt very strongly — I was one of the leaders at that time — that the articulation of the issue did not fully reflect the realities of life and the development experiences of what Asia was actually going through historically […] So what we did was to take the life experiences from the ground, people living in the villages, people working in the sweatshops, to put the issues into a development agenda as much as other agendas.

Q: What’s your vision of the ideal, gender-equal society?

NH: I think that what women want is a world where equality is present in every country. A world free from poverty and all forms of violence and discrimination, where basic needs actually become basic rights, but more importantly, where women are able to develop their full potential and where progress for women is seen as progress for all.