Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Pacific 2011
People - Poeverty and Inequality
Women’s empowerment
Data sources: UN MDG Indicators Database. Inter-Parliamentary Union. ILO, Key Indicators of the Labour Market (KILM), Sixth Edition.

Women’s empowerment is a crucial step in achieving gender equality and thus is essential for equitable development. However, in most countries in Asia and the Pacific women earn less than men; have limited access to bank loans, land and property other than land; face discrimination with respect to education and healthcare; and are under-represented in policy and decision-making.

Progress towards gender equality is occurring slowly and unevenly over geographical regions, according to the United Nations Millennium Development Summit of September 2010. If greater and more concerted efforts are not made, MDG gender equality targets might not be met by 2015.

Measuring women’s empowerment is challenging. Tracking progress is difficult since data are limited and measures are complex. Women’s empowerment can represent a diverse range of concepts and outcomes and may vary widely among individuals, cultures and countries. Nonetheless, some of the key strategic and crosscutting areas of opportunity and capacity for women include education, economic empowerment, policymaking, decision-making and well-being. All of these forms of empowerment intersect with one another in creating limitations or possibilities for women to improve their lives. They directly impact upon progress towards gender equality, and thus development as a whole.

Economic empowerment

Economic empowerment is a significant driver of other forms of women’s empowerment, since access to economic resources facilitates opportunities to develop personal capacities and to participate fully and equally in society. Economic empowerment encompasses access to decent employment and income as well as to credit and control of assets. Lack of access to decent employment is affected by, among other factors, low educational levels, discrimination against women and the burden of unremunerated responsibilities in the home (for which alternative State provision is often scarce). Additionally, a lack of maternity-leave provisions may further limit women’s opportunities.

Participation in the paid economy

Part of the disparity in income can be explained by the different forms of women’s participation in the paid economy. Women are overrepresented in poorly paid positions and sectors of the economy and are less represented in the often better-paid industrial and service sectors across Asia and the Pacific. For example, based on available data, 47% of working-age women were engaged in the agricultural sector in 2008, compared with 38% of men. The proportion of women employed in industry in the region has increased only slightly from 17% in 1991 to 18% in 2008. Many working-age Asian and Pacific women are own-account or contributing family workers in “vulnerable employment”, meaning that their incomes are low, unstable and unaccompanied by social protection or regulation of working conditions. (Social protection measures are defined as those which prevent, manage, and overcome situations that adversely affect people’s well being.1) While vulnerable employment has negative impacts on both men, women and children in a household, it can be particularly acute for women and children because of the lack of associated social protection, such as, for example, maternity-leave provisions.

As a proportion of male economic participation, female participation in the labour force has remained constant at 65% between 1991 and 2009. However, that rate is not consistent across the region; North and Central Asia has an average participation of 93% as compared with South and South-West Asia at 45%. There are even a few exceptional countries where female economic participation exceeds that of men, such as Azerbaijan (101%), the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (102%) and the Russian Federation (101%).

Figure I.52 – Employment by sector, Asia and the Pacific, 2008

Figure I.52 – Employment by sector, Asia and the Pacific, 2008

Figure I.53 – Female participation in the labour force, Asia-Pacific subregions, 1991 and 2009

Figure I.53 – Female participation in the labour force, Asia-Pacific subregions, 1991 and 2009


Women’s access to credit and control of assets

Entrepreneurship is one strategy for advancing women’s economic empowerment. Poor women in particular often work in micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, which have been reported to account for up to 60% of formal sector employment in most low-income Asian and Pacific countries.2 Many times women’s home-based businesses play a crucial role in the survival of the family and in generating supplementary family income. Such entrepreneurial activities also serve to promote confidence and self-sufficiency and raise status in society. However, in most Asia-Pacific countries women face discrimination in gaining access to credit. Such economic disempowerment is further reinforced by women’s lack of access to other important economic and security assets, such as land and property.

Women’s access to land in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Fiji, India, Islamic Republic of Iran, Mongolia, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka is very limited. Women’s access to bank loans and other forms of property is also very low in many countries. Women in Afghanistan and Papua New Guinea have no access to property other than land.

Figure I.54 – Women’s access to bank loans, land and property other than land, number of countries by index value, Asia-Pacific subregions, 2009

Figure I.54 – Women’s access to bank loans, land and property other than land, number of countries by index value, Asia-Pacific subregions, 2009

The lack of economic rights in terms of access to, and ownership of, assets often leaves women dependent on their husbands, fathers or brothers throughout their lives. This economic disempowerment curtails their autonomy in many aspects of their lives from employment and education to reproductive decision-making and the ability to escape situations of violence.

Women’s unremunerated productive work

Another limitation women face with respect to employment and education is the overburden of domestic responsibilities. However, data related to productive activities not included in GDP are very limited.

Unremunerated productive work can be seen as an important informal substitute for social protection systems, as women often assume the household burden for responsibilities such as childcare and caring for the elderly, finding supplementary income to feed the family, and providing education in circumstances where social service provision is limited. The increase in women’s household workload limits women’s access to the paid economy. Time-use data that illustrate this burden of unremunerated work on women are sparse; however, for countries for which it is available data demonstrate that women often suffer from “time poverty” as a result of such activities. For example, time-use data from Kazakhstan (2006) indicate that women spent an average of 6.3 hours a day on domestic work in comparison with 3.6 hours for men; 3.1 hours on paid work compared with 4.9 hours for men; 0.4 hours commuting compared with 0.6 hours for men; and 5.7 hours of free time compared with 6.3 hours for men (both men and women spend 0.4 hours on study; 0.2 hours on personal care; and 7.9 hours on sleep).3

The Bangkok Declaration on Beijing + 15 of 2009 expressed concern that “women continue to bear the major responsibility for unpaid work, particularly care giving work, and this contributes to weaker labour market attachment for women, weaker access to social security benefits and less time for education/training, leisure and self-care and political activities”.4 Current demographic aging trends in the Asia-Pacific region are likely to expand further these caring demands upon women in the coming years.


Disadvantage and discrimination against women begins in childhood with girls’ limited access to education. As the education information in this Yearbook indicates, little progress has been made in achieving gender equality with respect to literacy; even as the region has moved towards closing male-female educational gaps in terms of school attendance. This implies that education systems may still perpetuate gender stereotypes and fail to prepare women adequately for equal participation in the workplace. The lack of equal access to quality education has lasting impact into adulthood, affecting women’s rights and their possibilities for empowerment. In addition, improved education for women may also have wide societal benefits as it correlates with the ability of women to educate and prepare their children.

Well-being and health

Gender norms, practices and power relations of a society negatively affect other aspects of women’s well-being – such as the acceptability and prevalence of violence against women, lack of access to reproductive health and family planning services, and sex-preferential nutritional distribution within the family. The physical empowerment of women can be affected by, and effect, the possibilities of engaging in society in many different ways; for example: personal mobility to access health services, education and the labour market; psychological wellbeing and self-esteem (including confidence to claim their rights); as well as other aspects of life.

Violence against women

Violence against women and girls constitutes a widespread violation of human rights as well as a significant limitation to women’s empowerment. Violence against women and girls leads to death and disability; its exact incidence and prevalence is however difficult to quantitatively measure (as a result of a lack of reliable and comparable data from official reporting mechanisms and surveys). While many countries focus upon providing support for women and girls who have experienced violence, combating violence against women and girls in the long term requires attention to preventative measures and shifts in cultural and social norms and practices as well as significant institutional change. There have been many legislative advances in Asian and Pacific countries, although much remains to be done, especially regarding effective implementation. On the basis of available data, the index of legislation on violence shows that Hong Kong, China is the only economy with full legislation in all three areas of gender-based violence; while the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Afghanistan have no legislation in place. Many countries have legislation being planned, drafted or reviewed.

Reproductive rights

As well as not being subjected to violence, women also need to be able to exercise their rights to make choices regarding their own bodies and family size, because reproductive decisions can have far-reaching consequences for their empowerment. Access to, and ability to use, contraception is crucial in terms of both health outcomes and women’s rights.

Figure I.55 – Index of legislation on the violence against women in countries, Asia and the Pacific, 2009*

Figure I.55 – Index of legislation on the violence against women in countries, Asia and the Pacific, 2009

* An index value of 0 indicates full legislation and an index of 1 indicates no legislation.

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) – an international bill of rights for women

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly, is often described as an international bill of rights for women. It defines discrimination against women and sets the agenda for national action to end violations of women’s rights. An important element of CEDAW is its affirmation of women’s reproductive rights, including the right to determine the number and spacing of children and for equal access to family planning. The following table shows the current status and the total number of reports each country has submitted to the CEDAW Committee on its progress in implementing the convention.

CEDAW ratification and reporting, by country/area, Asia and the Pacific*

CEDAW ratification and reporting, by country/area, Asia and the Pacific

* Source for the text box: Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Country Reports, States of submission and consideration of reports submitted by States parties. Available from:

Women’s well-being and health throughout the life cycle

Reproductive rights play a crucial role in women’s wellbeing and health. Although the majority of the people living with HIV in Asia and the Pacific are men, more than 2 million women in the region have HIV. Evidence suggests that many new infections in women occur when wives are infected by their husbands.5 Therefore, it is clear that cultural and gender norms on sex and sexuality that disempower women, for example in terms of their ability to negotiate sex and exposing them to violence, put women at risk.6

The processes by which women’s physical empowerment and well-being are affected can also take more subtle forms and stem from different types of societal and cultural discrimination experienced throughout the lifecycle, from birth to old age. This may include female foeticide and infanticide due to son preference; gender disparities for immunization; disparities in child nutrition and healthcare; early marriage; unequal access to education and subsequent employment; and unequal access to social protection. In the next 30 years, older women will constitute the majority of older persons because of their longer life spans resulting in vulnerability to age-related health issues, especially when social protection and formal pensions are limited.

Politics and decision-making

One of the key means by which women can address their current disempowerment is by women’s leadership and participation in decisionmaking, to increase the likelihood of their interests being represented. Data on women’s decision-making at individual and household levels is difficult to obtain. Yet, within the third Millennium Development Goal (MDG-3), the existence of indicators to measure women’s political leadership signifies international visibility for this key area of women’s leadership and decision-making.

It has become a global consensus that a “critical mass” of 30% female representation in key political decision-making positions is needed for women to bring about significant and meaningful change.7 However, women are still underrepresented in national and local politics in almost every Asia-Pacific country. Only, two countries in Asia and the Pacific have reached the 30% threshold: Nepal and New Zealand. In the 46 countries with lower- or single-chamber parliament data available for 2010, women representatives comprised less than 10% in 20 countries. Of the 11 Pacific island developing economies for which data were available, 5 had no female members of parliament at all.

Figure I.56 – Women’s participation in national parliaments, Asia and the Pacific, 1990 and 2010

Figure I.56 – Women’s participation in national parliaments, Asia and the Pacific, 1990 and 2010

1 United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD). 2010. Combating Poverty and Inequality: Structural Change, Social Policy and Politics.

2 Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific 2006 (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.06.II.F.10).

3 3 United Nations Economic Commission for Europe statistical database. Available from

4 United Nations ESCAP, Bangkok Declaration on Beijing + 15, Outcome Document of the Asia-Pacific High-level Intergovernmental Meeting to Review Regional Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action and Its Regional and Global Outcomes (Bangkok, 2009), p. 7. Available from

5 2007 Aids Epidemic Update, Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and World Health Organization (WHO), UNAIDS/ 07.27E/JC1322E, December 2007.

6 Advancing the Status of Women in Asia and the Pacific: A Profile of the ESCAP Region, UNESCAP, 2004, pg.8-9.

7 UN Women, Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, 1995. Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (A/CONF.177/20/Rev.1).

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Table I.43 Women’s participation in the labour market
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Table I.44 Female and male employment by sector
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Table I.45 Female and male employment by status
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Table I.46 Women in national parliaments, women’s access and legislation

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