Same Countries, Different Worlds: Gender, Development and Disparities in Asia and the Pacific

President, Nirmal Ghosh,
Ms. Tuenjai Deetes,
FCCT Members,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Introduction

Last Thursday was the 101st celebration of International Women's Day. Most people know that the day is about women organizing for equality, development and peace, but there are many who have never heard the story of its origins.

It began in 1911 in Europe with a rally for women’s right to vote and took on new momentum a week later when more than 140 working women died in a fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. Locked in by their manager to ensure that they would work, they were unable to escape the flames. It was the second deadliest disaster in New York’s history until the destruction of the World Trade Center 90 years later.

Today, 101 years on, more women than ever before serve in high office and at the helm of powerful corporations. More women now shape policy and steer commerce than at any point in history.

The financial power of women is also expanding exponentially, and much of this growth is centered in emerging markets. Women make up 40 per cent of the world’s workforce today. Female ownership represents up to 37 per cent of all SMEs, and global consumer spending by women is projected to reach $28 trillion in 2014.

Yet, although we celebrate this progress, it has been sporadic and uneven. The life experience of too many women – especially in Asia and the Pacific – remains vastly different, not only from that of men but also compounded by disparities of ethnicity, caste, economic status, education, and location. The reality is that, even in the same country, too many women live in different worlds.

Last year saw the birth of our seven billionth person. In just twelve years - the time it takes to educate a child - we will see another billion born. The vast majority of these billion new children will be born to mothers in the poorest villages and communities of the developing world.

These women hold the key to shaping a future free of poverty. Their lives are a study in resilience and determination, yet theirs are amongst the least regarded and most marginalized voices on the planet.

My message today is about the importance of investing in women – simply put it is the smartest investment we can make. Investment in women and girls is essential for poverty reduction and development. It is a low-risk strategy for inclusive growth. In the words of the United Nations Secretary General last week: “The energy, talent and strength of women and girls represent humankind’s most valuable untapped natural resource”.

Building a more equitable and sustainable future for humanity requires of to include the wisdom of poor women is not often included in the strategies of governments and corporations, their daily experience holds an important key to a more sustainable and inclusive future.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Asia-Pacific MDG Report

You have today received copies of our new Asia-Pacific MDG Report, launched late last month in New Delhi. The report focuses on issues of health and nutrition, and makes it clear that addressing disparities in our region, especially though the narrowing of gender gaps, holds the key to a big final push to 2015 on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Although the countries of Asia and the Pacific have made great strides on the MDGs – halving the incidence of poverty, reducing the prevalence of HIV, stopping the spread of tuberculosis, and halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water, major development gaps remain. This progress is important – but what do we say to the millions more who have not yet benefited? As a region we are behind schedule on ten of the 22 indicators assessed in the report. We must do more.

Two of the eight MDGs are most relevant for the purposes of our discussion today - MDG 3, on Achieving Gender Equality and Empowering Women, and MDG 5, Improving Maternal Health.

For too many Asian women, giving birth is still one of the most life-threatening experiences they can have. In 2008 as many as 140 000 women died in our region from causes related to childbirth – representing almost 40% of all maternal deaths in developing countries.

In South Asia, for instance, maternal mortality ratios are almost nine times those in Europe and Central Asia. A very large proportion of these deaths are preventable.

One very good example of the difference that can be made is that of Mongolia. Between 2000 and 2010, maternal mortality in Mongolia fell from 166 to just 46 deaths per 100 000 live births. This was achieved through a focus on antenatal care and delivery by skilled birth attendants, Government prioritization, and improving access to health services for mothers in the most rural areas. If Mongolia, with its limited resources, can achieve so much, then the challenge for the rest of our region is evident.

This is a recurring theme of the Report. It is not enough to simply increase development spending or to improve services – we must also address the social determinants of health, because social and economic disparities block development progress – especially for women.

This is highlighted by the massive differences within countries in access to and use of maternal health services. All of the off-track countries in our region can meet the MDG target by reducing maternal deaths by only two to three per 100 000 births annually for the next three years. This is achievable. Similarly around half of the off-track countries could reach the target of ensuring skilled birth attendance, simply by increasing rates of attendance by three per cent per year – and 11 million women would benefit.

Achieving this, however, is as much about improving household incomes, closing the remaining gender gaps in education, and empowering decision-making autonomy for women, as it as about expanding services.

On the Goal of promoting gender equality, the countries of Asia and the Pacific have eliminated almost all of the gender gaps in primary, secondary and tertiary education, but as many as 25 million children of primary-school age remain out of school – the majority of whom are girls. Women are also under-represented in the sciences and engineering. We have to avoid creating another generation of inequality.

Asia has been and remains the anchor of the global economic recovery, but to sustain this growth requires the creation of greater regional economic resilience – and equal access of women to the labour market is one of the best ways to achieve this. Lack of women’s participation in the labour market costs Asia and the Pacific billions of dollars every year. Equal access for rural women to agricultural resources would increase food yields by about 4 per cent – and lift as many as 150 million people globally out of hunger.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Conclusion

Last week wasn’t just the 101st celebration of International Women’s Day – it also saw the Secretary General and the President of the General Assembly proposing a Fifth World Conference on Women to be held in 2015 – 20 years after the last women’s summit in Beijing.

We need to ensure that this Summit will be a celebration of real achievement rather than a platform which again points to work still not accomplished. We need a big final push to 2015 in Asia and the Pacific on the MDGs – especially to close the gender gaps which remain and to empower women.

International Women’s Day began with a tragedy in 1911. The reaction to this injustice captured the imagination of men and women around the world. It is important for us, 101 years later, to keep this spirit alive – and to display the same courage in standing up for justice and equality. This is the importance of efforts like those of my fellow-panelist, Tuenjai Deetes, whose work on sustainable development and with stateless peoples and communities without voices has been an inspiration.

Given the major changes which we have seen around the world in the past year – with the events of the Arab Spring, I thought I would close my remarks today with the words of Egyptian feminist and writer Nawal El Saadawi, who once observed that “Women on the move will change the world”. In Asia and the Pacific we must make sure they are empowered to become that change.

Thank you.