Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, women in the Asia-Pacific region have shown decisive leadership in steering their countries and communities with effective responses to the pandemic, whether it is managing their businesses and households or standing at the frontlines as health care workers.
Yet, in the highest echelons of decision-making and the public sector, we see that many women's voices are still not being heard. Only a small percentage of political leaders in our region are women, far lower than the world's average.
This is a detriment not only to women but to the region at large. For the response and recovery to the pandemic to be truly effective and consider everyone's needs — it is urgent that we fast-track progress towards women’s empowerment in decision-making in public life.
Today, as we celebrate International Women's Day, we honour the often-overlooked contributions of women in the Asia-Pacific region, reflect on progress made towards gender equality, and renew our commitment to ensuring that women and girls are valued and empowered.
We also celebrate the women who have played and continue to play a vital role in the fight against COVID-19 in our region. Thailand's efficient response to COVID-19 is in part thanks to the more than one million women healthcare volunteers who have worked tirelessly to inform, advice, and care for people in their communities. They have also been trained to prevent, detect, and report cases of suspected communicable and non-communicable diseases and have thus provided exceptional assistance to the Government of Thailand to limit the impact of the pandemic. In India, the “Asha” workers, who formed the backbone of the community level healthcare response, were nearly all women. Their significant role in the response has been acknowledged by WHO’s Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response published recently. There are many more such cases of demonstrated leadership by women, even beyond the community level, given equal opportunity.
Over the past three decades, more women have emerged as senior leaders in government and in the private sector. Many young women are thriving as entrepreneurs across our region, innovating and creating further opportunities for digital and financial inclusion for all.
Women’s representation in national parliaments, local governance bodies and management positions has improved, albeit slowly. However, uneven progress, both within countries and across the region, indicates that achieving gender equality in decision-making is a significant challenge in Asia and the Pacific.
For example, there are currently only three female heads of state or government in the Asia-Pacific region. All countries have less than 30 per cent women holding ministerial positions, except for New Zealand at 30.8 per cent. The latest research by ESCAP and UN Women show that women's representation in our region's national parliaments, while up from almost 13 per cent in 2000 to approximately 20 per cent in 2020, remains lower than the global average of nearly 25 per cent.
Women occupy less than 25 per cent of managerial positions in the region, while the global average is almost 30 per cent. It is however worth noting that countries in Asia and the Pacific have exceeded global gains since 2000, seeing an average progress rate of 3.4 per cent, compared with a world average of 2.6 per cent.
Despite these stark disparities, it is heartening to see some of the positive steps leaders in our region are taking to advance gender equality. Most notably, countries in this region have committed to the Asia-Pacific Declaration on Gender Equality and Empower of Women at the 25-year review of the Beijing Platform for Action: a vital document that recognizes the importance of harnessing the transformative power brought about by leveraging women's leadership to drive change. The Declaration calls for actions that “remove barriers and provide all women with economic empowerment opportunities to achieve full, equal, substantive and effective participation and access to leadership and senior-level positions at all levels and in all spheres”.
Without the active participation of women and the incorporation of women's perspectives at all decision-making levels, we will not achieve true equality, development or peace. Countries in the Asia-Pacific region must disrupt the discriminatory gender-based social norms that constrain women in public life. Legal frameworks and policies that reduce women's organizations' abilities to advocate or receive funding must be reformed, while laws that criminalize violence and harassment against women in politics must be enacted.
To move the goalposts, we must enhance partnerships and collaboration, especially with women's organizations, to inform, develop, implement and monitor gender-responsive policies and programmes that promote women's participation in public and political life. We must bolster these programmes through human and financial resources that further the mainstreaming of gender equality and women's empowerment across all government institutions, including through the establishment of sustainable gender-responsive budgeting mechanisms. We must also strengthen quantitative and qualitative data collection on women's participation in political life, including data on all levels of political, civic and economic life.
The barriers that potential woman leaders in the region face are largely structural. While measures like more funding, better data reporting, and quotas can help, progress will only be possible if it is supported by change in social norms. Overturning these social norms is the responsibility of everyone, and we all have our part to play.
On International Women's Day 2021, we are full of hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will soon subside. With this optimism, we celebrate women's leadership, dynamism and resilience in all our societies.
As we recover better together in the post-COVID-19 world, we stand ready with the UN family and our committed partners — to support governments in our region, building more gender-equal economies and societies where no woman or girl is left behind.
Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and ESCAP Executive Secretary.
Anita Bhatia is the United Nations Assistant-Secretary-General and UN Women Deputy Executive Director.