Asia-Pacific region must invest in women and girls to build economic resilience, ESCAP tells media

As the anchor of global economic recovery, Asia and the Pacific must harness its full growth potential by investing in women and girls, its most valuable untapped natural resource, the top United Nations official in the region told representatives of local and foreign media here today.

“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 one of the best ways to achieve this is through the empowerment of women,” said Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

Addressing a panel discussion titled “Gender, Development and Disparities In Asia and the Pacific” organized by the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT), Dr. Heyzer, the first woman head of ESCAP, said investing in women is “the smartest investment we can make”.

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.

“Investment in women and girls is essential for poverty reduction and development. It is a low-risk strategy for growth,” she told the panel.

United Nations estimates show that despite impressive progress towards a number of MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) targeted for 2015, major development gaps remain in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly relating to gender disparities, Dr. Heyzer said.

Empowerment of women should start with maternal health in a region which accounted for 40 per cent of maternal deaths in developing countries in 2008. “A very large proportion of these deaths are preventable. With multi-sectoral development interventions we could have saved the lives of more than 150,000 women by 2015.”

Dr. Heyzer cited Mongolia’s success in reducing maternal mortality from 166 to 46 per 100,000 live births between 2000 and 2010 through a focus on antenatal care and delivery by skilled birth attendants. “If Mongolia, with its limited resources, can achieve so much, then the challenge for the rest of our region is evident.”

“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. 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,” she added.

Educating girls is another priority as they make up the majority of the estimated 25 million children out of primary school in the region. “We have to avoid creating another generation of inequality. We have to equip girls to realize their full potential,” Dr. Heyzer concluded.