APFSD4: Statement at the Panel on 'Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women and Girls: A pathway to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals'

Delivered at the Fourth Asia-Pacific Forum on Sustainable Development, High-Level Panel Discussion on “Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women and Girls: A pathway to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals” in Bangkok, Thailand.

Distinguished representatives,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Welcome to this High-Level Panel Discussion on “Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women and Girls: A pathway to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.” The 2030 Agenda underscores gender equality as a fundamental human right and an indispensable foundation for an inclusive, prosperous and sustainable world. In the words of the UN Secretary General, Mr. António Guterres, “Women’s equality works for the world”. Addressing gender inequality and ensuring equal participation and opportunities for women and girls in Asia and the Pacific is central to achieving progress on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Tackling gender-based inequalities will both improve economic growth and support the broader 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, especially in the developing countries of Asia and the Pacific. Annual global output could be boosted by $28.4 trillion by 2025 by increasing women’s participation in the economy. A reduction in gender inequality of just 0.1 per cent would result in almost 1 percentage point of higher economic growth in countries of the Asia-Pacific. Similarly, by closing gender gaps in hours worked, participation and productivity could result in GDP gains of up to 48 per cent in South Asia and 30 per cent in East and Southeast Asia (excluding China) by 2025.

Progress in gender equality and women’s empowerment has been made in Asia and the Pacific on several fronts. Gender parity has been achieved in primary education and maternal mortality rates have dropped by 64 per cent. At the same time, the number of women-owned businesses has steadily increased, with an estimated 61.3 million women entrepreneurs now owning and operating businesses within the ASEAN.

However, significant gaps still remain. Women continue to be paid less and are more likely to find themselves in vulnerable employment with low wages, no formal contracts or labour rights and minimal social protection. Women’s limited access to employment opportunities has resulted in losses as high as $47 billion in East Asia and the Pacific. In 2015, the gender pay gap in the region as a whole reached an astounding 20 per cent. The percentage of women trapped in vulnerable employment is as high as 78 per cent in South Asia, 60 per cent in South-East Asia and 44 per cent in East Asia. Given the evidence on the multidimensional nature of poverty and the cross-cutting impacts of gender equality on the SDGs, eliminating these gaps will be critical to eradicating poverty and effectively implementing many of the other SDGs in our region.

Allow me to highlight some of the ways in which failure to achieve gender equality could derail our ability to achieve the SDGs.

Data from our region confirms that there is a correlation between the Human Development and Gender Inequality rankings of countries. Thus, countries with higher gender inequality often fare worse in terms of development outcomes. Moreover, progress towards achieving decent work for all, Goal 8, has been hindered by the continued discrimination faced by women in the workforce. Evidence from ESCAP’s forthcoming Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific 2017 also indicates a positive correlation between gender equality and good governance. Thus, governance and institutions (Goal 16) cannot be effective if they do not take account of, and respond to, the differing needs and priorities of women and men in public spending, legislation, policies and programmes.

As women in Asia and the Pacific spend up to 6 hours per day on unpaid work, their contribution to GDP is often significantly understated as this work is not accounted for in national accounts. Achieving inclusive economic growth (Goal 8) and reducing poverty (Goal 1) will not be realized if women continue to disproportionately bear the burden of unpaid work.

Similarly, in rural areas across Asia and the Pacific, women often bear the brunt of environmental change (Goal 13), especially women living in rural areas where inadequate infrastructure exacerbates women’s time burdens. For example, women and girls often bear the burden of finding clean water for household use and estimates suggest that women in India spend approximately 1 hour per day collecting water. Lack of adequate sanitation also impacts women’s time burdens. For example, women in Cambodia spend over 605 million hours per year in accessing open defecation sites or shared toilets.

In addition, the scale and severity of violence against women and girls in the region, while not only being unacceptable, threatens the achievement of several SDGs and their targets. For example, studies have shown that school-related gender-based violence contributes to girls’ poor educational performance and higher dropout rates , while posing a yearly cost of around US$17 billion to low and middle-income countries.

Advancing gender equality through key levers of change such as innovative financing and technology will be key to catalysing inclusive and sustainable prosperity in our region, especially as emerging technological breakthroughs such as artificial intelligence (AI) significantly change the future of work for women. Emerging technological trends may result in a net loss of over 5 million jobs by 2020, with the burden of job losses likely to disproportionately fall more on women than men. As Asia and the Pacific will be a prominent market for AI, governments must begin to think carefully about the role and scope of such technologies in order to ensure that they are able to advance gender equality while simultaneously developing a workforce fit for the future.

To respond to the call of the 2030 Agenda to “leave no one behind”, ESCAP works closely with countries in the region to advance gender equality and the SDGs in four key ways:

First through enhancing the evidence base for policy formulation. ESCAP conducts in-depth research and analysis on critical enablers of gender equality, including women’s economic empowerment, entrepreneurship, transformative leadership as well as opportunities and challenges in addressing the gender-environment nexus.

Second, through strengthening institutional capacities. With a view to mainstream the needs and interests of women and girls in national policies, legislation and public institutions, ESCAP provides technical capacity development for its member States, including in the promotion of e-Government for women’s empowerment and ICT-based women entrepreneurship through ESCAP’s Women in ICT Frontier Initiative or WIFI, implemented by APCICT, one of ESCAP’s regional institutes.

Third, through working to increase financing capacities for gender equality. In order to promote sustainable financing towards achieving the 2030 Agenda, ESCAP is currently supporting countries to effectively apply the key principles of gender-responsive budgeting in their budget cycles. ESCAP has provided tailored capacity-building services to Cambodia, China and Lao PDR to equip policymakers with the knowledge and practical skills to integrate gender concerns into national planning and budgetary processes. Focused gender analysis will enable line ministries to make better budget choices by underscoring existing gender gaps and the impact of public expenditures on the structural causes and consequences of gender inequality.

Fourth, through enhancing financial inclusion. Amongst the many specific constraints women entrepreneurs face, access to finance and credit is the most prevalent Some 63 to 69 per cent of women-owned SMEs in developing countries are unserved or underserved by financial institutions. To tackle the financing challenges faced by women entrepreneurs, ESCAP aims to: a) address discriminatory social norms and ensure gender-responsive policies in small and medium enterprise development and promotion; b) engage financial institutions to increase women’s access to credit and financial services as well as enhance other innovative financing solutions for women entrepreneurs; and c) boost women’s access to market information, social networks and services through harnessing the potential of ICT.

Finally, through forging stronger partnerships. ESCAP endeavors to build productive partnerships with a range of stakeholders to boost collective action to achieve gender equality. For example, ESCAP and UN Women have successfully collaborated to promote gender statistics, enabling systematic progress in developing the requisite monitoring and accountability mechanisms to support the implementation of the SDGs.

To conclude, we must not be complacent about the 2030 deadline to realize gender equality through the SDGs. We cannot afford to regress on the development gains made so far and we must continue to build momentum in successfully completing the task at hand. By prioritizing gender equality and upholding women’s rights, we are laying the building blocks for an Asia-Pacific region that values people, planet and prosperity. Let us not miss this window of opportunity to take bold and transformative steps in this collective journey to achieve equality between women and men, creating a better future for all.

I thank you.