Equality for Women is Progress for Prosperity for All

ESCAP strives to build a future in which basic needs become basic rights…

Delivered at the Asia-Pacific Regional Commemoration of International Women’s Day, 7 March 2014; Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, Bangkok

Excellencies,
Distinguished Guests,
Colleagues from the UN System,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure for me to join you today in commemorating International Women’s Day.

A simple and essential message for this day to all is that: “equality for women is progress and prosperity for all.”

Today we are more informed than ever before:

  • Gender equality and women’s empowerment are both basic human rights;
  • Exclusion of women from access to markets and services has macroeconomic consequences by way of loss of productivity and global output;
  • Enhancement in productivity can be induced by ensuring women have equal or greater access to credit and productive resources;
  • Pervasive distortions for women are a reality and extend from capital to labour markets.

We also know that in designing approaches and policies, there is need to recognize that despite some common trends in gender statistics, there is wide diversity and disparity in gender achievements in Asia and the Pacific. Some countries have attained good results, for example, while others are riddled with disparities, and lag behind. More interestingly, research shows new evidence of how we can incentivize women’s participation through financial inclusion, innovation, tax and budgeting reform.

The good news is that Asia-Pacific, well known for its dynamism, has witnessed a reduction in poverty and a dramatic rise in income, as economies underwent structural shifts and transformation, which in turn has improved a range of economic and social indicators.

Gender Disparities reducing but remain overwhelming

The region, to its credit, has generated global momentum and driven the progress on the Millennium Declaration and its associated goals. Regional advancements on the framework’s gender equality objectives have been integral to this broader progress. Gender parity has been achieved in primary schools and enrolment ratios rose in other tiers of education, too, across Asia-Pacific. These developments not only augur well for women’s status and wellbeing, but they also trigger movement in other indicators too, and can have inter-generational consequences. As one well-established example, a mother’s level of education is a key factor in determining child survival beyond the age of five. Women today have better access to economic opportunities, are in businesses and every other area, albeit in very small numbers, but their participation in the formal work force remains low and those who work suffer from wage disparities. Female employment remains a stubborn fraction of male employment hovering between 62-65% since the early 1990s.

A more disconcerting reality in Asia-Pacific is high maternal mortality rates, with 142 deaths per 100,000 live births recorded in 2010 – resulting in 105,012 lives lost. Political participation in the region remains low, with only 18% of seats in national parliaments held by women. Women’s disproportionate exposure and vulnerability in the context of natural disasters has been well documented. Besides evidence of higher mortality rates for women in disasters, women survivors end up disproportionately assuming roles as heads of households and caretakers for the injured under very trying circumstances and resources at hand.

Gender Equality an Integral Element of Sustainable Development

The significance of gender equality, as a necessary condition for progress, increases as one goes beyond the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), towards an emerging, integrated development approach for the post-2015 Agenda. While narrow and limited, the MDGs did incorporate a distinct goal on gender equality with MDG 3 backed by other supportive indicators. A critical lesson from the MDGs experience is that, while gender equality contributes to the realization of other development goals such as poverty reduction and improvement in some other indicators, the realization of goals does not necessarily guarantee gender equality or women’s empowerment or a wider impact on growth. Gender equality can only be achieved through transformational and sustainable change that addresses power relations between men and women and gets to the root structural causes of inequality.

Gender equality is a long-standing global – and regional – commitment. Almost twenty years after the Fourth World Conference on Women reaffirmed the centrality of human rights in its Beijing Platform for Action, 49 of 53 ESCAP member States have met its call to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). 26 ESCAP member States have ratified CEDAW’s Optional Protocol, which allows women to seek accountability for violations for their rights through claims to its monitoring Committee.

Recognition that “gender equality and women’s empowerment are important for sustainable development and our common future,” as articulated in the Rio+20 Conference in 2012, the governments of the world reaffirmed their “commitments to ensure women’s equal rights, access and opportunities for participation and leadership in the economy, society and political decision-making.” To build on these existing commitments, there is merit in consideration of promoting gender equality as a political priority to advance gender equality itself, and each and every development objective upon which it depends. To achieve “progress and prosperity for all’, the gender dimension must be well integrated across the economic, social and environment dimensions of development, and supported by targets and resources.

Financing Gender Equality

The history of MDG implementation – as well as wider social development efforts – demonstrates that resources have yet to match rhetoric. Overstretching the support, development assistance from DAC-OECD has been a little over 5 per cent of the overall flows directed toward projects designed to make a principal or significant impact on gender equality objectives. Women’s development organizations – which are fundamental to realizing structural and sustained change and to ensuring accountability – continue to struggle for resources. In 2010, the combined income of these 740 women’s organizations in 140 countries totalled $106 million (US Dollars). In the same year, individual international non- governmental organizations focused on other sustainable development priorities received over $1 billion (US Dollars). Going forward, creative and enhanced investments of the private sector through foundations, philanthropists and financial inclusion providers, as well as through multilateral banks, would help mobilize resources for gender equality and women’s empowerment, for better results.

More broadly, many in the private sector are beginning to appreciate the power of impact investing, understanding that multiplying development outcomes by investing in gender equality and women’s empowerment not only multiplies social good, but also an investor’s direct returns.

Interest in impact investment - or investing with the intent to generate measureable social and environmental benefits alongside financial dividends - is particularly high in Asia. According to a 2011 survey by the ADB, more than 30 per cent of investors in South and South-East Asia in 2011 were either current impact investors, or are interested in making impact investments in the future. About 30 per cent of respondents indicated their interest in undertaking impact investment in women's and children's issue.

Conclusion

Fourteen years since the Millennium Declaration, it is clearer than ever before that “progress for all” requires us to tackle the structural, root causes of inequality between women and men, girls and boys, in Asia-Pacific and across the globe. Rectifying past injustices, closing gender gaps, treating women with dignity and respect and offering them equal opportunities and access is critical for our futuristic sustainable growth and development everywhere. To ensure gender equality and women’s empowerment receive sufficient priority as necessary condition for meaningful, inclusive and sustainable development, any post-2015 development framework should contain a standard goal for gender equality.

Inclusive, sustainable development calls for investing, empowering and liberating WOMEN. Investments in education and the provision of credit for the region’s women will have the most sustainable impact on changing livelihoods.

In parallel, eliminating violence against women and girls, ensuring women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, acknowledging women’s unpaid care work, addressing women’s insecurity in contexts of conflict and disaster, and empowering women to claim their rights, demand accountability, and obtain justice when those rights are violated, are all vital factors that will create and sustain a healthy society and environment.

This is precisely what the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women is set to do when it convenes in New York next week. The Commission will consider as its priority theme the “challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for Women and Girls.” Of the many lessons to draw from this, the greatest is that our vision for sustainable development beyond 2015 must be transformative, and rooted in the proven understanding that progress for Asia-Pacific’s women and girls, is progress for us all of us.

At the end, I'd like to remind you of a lady who has definitely moved a lot of hearts, who comes from my country, Malala

Malala is today advocating the cause for women more persuasively than I can do today.

So I am really glad that all of you are here to support this cause for women and I really appreciate your presence.

We at UNESCAP and the United Nations, including the commission for women, will remain steadfast in pushing for the cause of women's upgraded life standards.

Thank you for being here.