Rising Asia is letting its women fall behind

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 April, 2012, 12:00am


From burgeoning China to dynamic Southeast Asia, this region boasts rising wealth, rising confidence and rising leadership. Yet, Asia's breathtaking economic growth is intertwined with inequality, poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and other threats.

That's why women's contributions are needed now more than ever to address the region's challenges.

Unfortunately, few women make it to the top as leaders in Asia, and social norms continue to undervalue girls and women, as evidenced in ongoing sex selection that results in approximately 1.3 million girls not being born per year in China and India alone.

Not all the news is bad. Rising prosperity has narrowed the gender gap in many countries. Women are making progress on health and survival, educational attainment, economic opportunity and political empowerment.

But cultural and entrenched social norms remain one of the most intractable obstacles for women's leadership in Asia. A broad campaign is needed to educate people and change their valuation and perception of girls and women. These shifts in attitude will give women more voice and agency in the home and in society at large, and facilitate their role as leaders.

However, education for men, women and youth is only part of the equation. Affirmative action programmes can further women's representation in leadership, but they must be given time to affect social norms. Governments, particularly China's and India's, can also campaign harder to end sex selection against baby girls.

More laws (and better implementation) are needed to reduce domestic violence against women and to enhance women's bargaining power through greater property ownership, access to legal and other support services, and ability to leave marriage.

Women in Asia feature heavily in agriculture and entrepreneurship. Here, the work tends to be particularly low in productivity and scale, and women are often pressed into such jobs because of poverty. These sectors, however, represent an opportunity to nurture female leadership, especially at local levels. Governments can help through policies that provide women in these sectors greater access to capital, skills training, technology and networks.

At present, many Asian countries still do not take the most pragmatic approach towards their women, leaning more on old cultural norms. It is high time to change this. It will not only benefit women, but society at large and Asia as a whole.

Astrid S. Tuminez is the vice-dean (research) of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Vishakha N.Desai is president of Asia Society