International Women’s Day: as Covid-19 has shown, we need more women leaders in the Asia-Pacific
- Women have been vital in the pandemic response but there are still too few women making decisions in the public sector
- For recovery to be effective and inclusive in the Asia-Pacific region, more must be done, and quickly
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.
Their significant role in the response has been acknowledged by the World Health Organization’s Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. There are many more such cases of female leadership beyond the community level.
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 opportunities for digital and financial inclusion.
For example, there are currently only three female heads of state or government in the Asia-Pacific. In all countries, less than 30 per cent of women hold ministerial positions, except for New Zealand at over 40%.
The latest research by ESCAP and UN Women shows that women’s representation in our region’s national parliaments, while up from almost 13 per cent in 2000 to about 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 the Asia-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 that leaders in our region are taking to advance gender equality.
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”.
Legal frameworks and policies that reduce the ability of women’s organisations to advocate or receive funding must be reformed, while laws that criminalise violence and harassment against women in politics must be enacted.
To move the goalposts, we must enhance partnerships and collaboration, especially with women’s organisations, 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 women leaders in the region face are largely structural. While measures such as 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 everyone’s responsibility 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 United Nations 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 UN Undersecretary-General and ESCAP Executive Secretary. Anita Bhatia is Assistant Secretary-General and UN Women Deputy Executive Director