Opening Statement at International Women's Day

Delivered at International Women's Day in Bangkok, Thailand

Excellencies,
Distinguished representatives,

Welcome to the 2018 Asia-Pacific commemoration of International Women's Day. We meet the week before the opening of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) focused on empowering rural women and girls, and at a time when women's rights are once again, quite rightly, the focus of international debate. From the #Metoo campaign to the Time'sUp initiative, we're seeing a widespread call for greater equality and justice. So it's incumbent on policy makers to transform this legitimate demand for change into concrete action. The sustainable course of action is to empower women across Asia and the Pacific, whether they live in towns or the countryside. This would not only protect their basic human right to equality, but it would also bring considerable economic benefits. Achieving gender equality in Asia would increase per capita income by 70 per cent over sixty years

Indeed, rural-urban gender inequalities weigh heavily on progress towards inclusive sustainable development. Our region continues to urbanise at breakneck speed. But over 50 per cent of the population still lives in the countryside and across nearly all development indicators urban dwellers are better off. Research conducted by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, finds some 40 per cent of Asia's rural population lives in multidimensional poverty1 . Rural women and girls in Asia and the Pacific are persistently denied access to primary assets, resources and services. Despite playing pivotal roles in rural economies, households and communities.

Let me briefly expand on some of the challenges we need to overcome.

In many countries, rural women and girls' standard of living are jeopardized because women cannot find decent work and have no secure income or social protection. Women consequently work in the informal economy. Jobs are low-paid and sometimes dangerous. With no legal recourse, women are easy prey for unscrupulous employers.

To compound matters, women in the countryside rarely control land and natural resources fundamental to their livelihoods. In several countries in our region, less than 10 per cent of women own farmland2 . In many countries, rural land ownership is undocumented, which makes communities, but especially women, vulnerable to land grabs, dispossession and displacement. While male rural outmigration has led to an increased feminization of agricultural labour force, limited access to productive resources and weak bargaining power stops women increasing their income.

Household food security is often the primary responsibility of women. Yet women and girls continue to face daily obstacles in access to and control over food - from production to consumption. More than 60 per cent of undernourished or chronically hungry people in the world live in the Asia-Pacific region. If women had access to and control of the same resources as men, their contributions would increase food production by up to 4 per cent. This would be enough to move 150 million people out of hunger and poverty across the developing world3 .

Critical challenges remain in the delivery of health services to under-served populations, particularly women residing in rural and remote areas. There is a high prevalence of child marriage and an unmet need for contraception in many rural areas. More than a third of girls in the Asia-Pacific region are married before their 18th birthday and by the age of 18 one in seven girls has given birth. 60 percent of adolescent pregnancies are unintended, contributing to a sizeable number of life threatening, unsafe abortions4 .

Poverty and location determine whether girls go to school. Girls in rural areas are at the greatest risk of being denied an education. Progress towards equal access to education is obstructed by persistent gender-based discrimination in recruitment and retention of women teachers, access to infrastructure, curricula, teaching methodologies, all of which tend to be more pronounced in rural areas.

Yet as we dissect this unacceptable status quo in the countryside, data can mask wide disparities between men and women within urban areas and marginalised poor urban women. The rapid pace of urbanization with which infrastructure and public services cannot keep pace has deleterious consequences for women. Let me give you one just one striking example. In India, a skilled attendant is present at 89 per cent of births in urban areas and at 75 per cent in rural areas. But in Delhi only 19 percent of the poorest fifth of women have a skilled attendant when they give birth5 . The evidence also indicates high rates of violence against women in cities across the region restrict their mobility, use of public spaces and rights.

On International Women's Day, as we grapple with how to speed up the pace of change, it's important to be frank. The challenge is enormous. The level of inequality is truly shocking. So delivery and end results are essential. Let me mention just four key areas.

First, we need to increase female labour force participation and legislate to end discrimination leading to unequal salaries and working conditions. Women can only be truly empowered if they're financially independent and properly remunerated for their work. For this to happen, viable alternatives need to be put in place for the vital unpaid work many women do, whether toiling in farms, or looking after children and the elderly. Comprehensive social security coverage and improved child and elderly care services would provide time for women the time to work, create wealth and fulfil their potential. And for women to get good jobs, we need to maintain gender parity in primary, secondary and tertiary education in both rural and urban areas. But also ensure the same number of girls are studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics as boys.

Second, women need to be given the right to own land, particularly the land they work if they live in the countryside. This means changing discriminatory inheritance laws and processes to claim inheritance. It also means improving civil registration and vital statistics so that women are counted for from day one and can defend their rights. Tried and tested successful measures to incentivize land ownership for women include giving women favorable rates on stamp duty and property tax. It is worth looking at whether these measures could be applied more broadly.

Third, the promotion of women entrepreneurs helps empower women in a sustainable and inclusive way. A gender responsive ecosystem, supported by gender responsive budgeting at national and local level, and access to diverse sources of financing are critical. Let's fully exploit the potential of women entrepreneurship bonds, impact investment funds and gender responsive FinTech solutions - while improving financial literacy. Rural specific solutions are also important. I'm thinking, for example, of the well targeted state subsidised interest-free loan programme to promote financial inclusion and entrepreneurship for rural women launched in China. Or the banks set up in India and Pakistan to cater specifically for women borrowers.

Fourth, women's access to ICT and innovative technologies is crucial. It increases flexibility and productivity. Let us consider dedicated programmes support for women SME owners wishing to adopt the latest technology to improve business processes, product promotion and sell into bigger markets. Streamlined business registration procedures and proactive outreach to potential and existing women entrepreneurs could also make a real difference. Increased broadband coverage is key.

To conclude, it is encouraging that some of these recommendations were adopted by the Asia-Pacific High-Level Meeting in preparation of the 62nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women organized by ESCAP and other UN entities last week. Deliberations on these recommendations will help shape the global debate on the issue. But my plea today, is for us to move beyond recommendations and dialogues. The current rate of progress will not deliver the desired generational transformation in Asia and the Pacific. Increasing political commitment could spur deeper and lasting change. So let's make 2018 the moment when the tide was turned, and gender equality, inclusive growth and sustainable development were all given a shot in the arm across Asia and the Pacific.


1ESCAP, ADB and UNDP (2017) Eradicating Poverty and Promoting Prosperity in a Changing Asia-Pacific

2FAO, Gender and Land Rights Database. Available from www.fao.org/gender-landrights-database/data-map/ statistics/en/

3FAO (2011) The State of Food and Agriculture: Women in Agriculture, Closing the Gender Gap for Development

4UNFPA, UNESCO and WHO (2015) Sexual and reproductive health of young people in Asia and the Pacific

5Save the Children (2015) State of the World's Mothers: The Urban Disadvantage