Women’s empowerment gains must be protected and built upon during the economic crisis

Though women have contributed significantly to the Asia-Pacific region’s economy, they have born a larger brunt of the economic downturn with unemployment and underemployment rising. As a result, it is crucial to protect the gains made in empowering women and to include a stronger focus on gender investment in any planned response to the economic crisis.
These were among the key messages heard at the UN celebration of International Women’s Day in Bangkok, where the theme of “Gender Implications of the Economic Crisis in Asia-Pacific” was explored. The event was organized by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) with the support of other UN offices in Bangkok under the United Nations Regional Coordination Mechanism.
The event took place on 9 March at the United Nations Conference Center in Bangkok, and featured a moderated panel discussion.
Globalization has lead to greater female employment in both formal settings as well as informal settings such as street vending and home garment production.
“Women have in fact emerged as the flexible labour force par excellence for highly competitive labour intensive sectors of the global economy”, said Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of ESCAP. “They are now embedded in the global supply chain. Yet flexible labour is insecure labour: low-skilled, temporary and casual.”
Dr. Heyzer noted that among the hardest hit by the current economic crisis are the trade, manufacturing and services sectors, which are female dominated. Unskilled women migrant workers are particularly affected, with reports in the region indicating that women constitute the majority of migrants returning to their country of origin due to job loss.
A number of panelists discussed the fact that the effects of the economic crisis on women are channeled across many spheres: increased household expenditures such as food; unemployment and income loss or reduction; reduced access to credit; lower government expenditures especially on social services; and protectionism and economic nationalism.
The panelists remarked how - within households - women are also largely responsible for making ends meet, feeding and caring for their family members on declining incomes, while absorbing the bulk of family sacrifices. Economic stress on a family tends to increase a woman’s susceptibility to domestic violence. It also puts women at greater risk of human trafficking through their efforts to secure income or pay off debt.
Asia and the Pacific have responded to the economic crisis with financial rescue packages that contain many pro-poor social protection measures, but – as some panelists pointed out - do not directly address the impact on women.
Participants agreed on the importance of focusing not only on the effects of the crisis on women, but also on women as economic agents in responding to and preventing future crises, including through participation in decision-making processes and leadership in corporate governance.
The current development of national stimulus packages was viewed as a unique window of opportunity to channel investment for women’s empowerment into areas such as job creation and unemployment assistance, as well as into support for education, health services and agricultural extension, which also have long-term benefits for women and girls. Participants underscored the need to avoid funding cuts to – or diversion from – public spending on social sectors.
In reference to the global theme of International Women’s Day – “Women and men united to end violence against women and girls” - the role of men was also highlighted in the context of working in partnership with women to end gender-based violence through changing the mindsets of boys and men. Many male participants remarked on their personal commitments as husbands and fathers to reject social acceptance of violence against women.
Mr. Gary Lewis, Regional Representative of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), appealed to men, “who have control over the public purse: let us continue to educate our girl children.” Educated women are more likely to speak out against injustice and claim their rights, Mr. Lewis added.
Protecting the gains made, and making further investments in gender equality, is a fast track to development, especially in times of economic downturns. Many initiatives are low cost and low risk, yet yield high returns. In the words of Dr. Heyzer, “Investment in women and girls is fundamental not only to gender equality and women’s empowerment, but essential to poverty reduction and development.”
The panels included: Mr. Srawooth Paitoonpong, Senior Research Specialist at the Thailand Development Research Institute; Ms. Lucia Victor Jayaseelan, Executive Coordinator of the Committee for Asian Women; Ms. Lek Junya Yimprasert, Director of the Thai Labour Campaign; Ms. Nongluck Phinainitisart, President of THAICOM Public Company Limited; and Ms. Shamika Sirimanne, Chief of ESCAP’s Trade Facilitation Section.
Ms. Gwi-Yeop Son, United Nations Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Thailand also addressed the gathering.