Opening Statement at the International Women’s Day

Excellency, Ms. Donica Pottie, Ambassador of Canada,
Excellency, Ms. Satu Suikkari-Kleven, Ambassador of Finland,
Excellency, Ms. Evren Dagdelen Akgun, Ambassador of Turkey,
Ms. Anna-Karin Jatfors, UN Women Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific,
Excellencies,
Distinguished participants,

Welcome to International Women’s Day. I am delighted to be with you to consider what more can be done to advance gender equality and empower women in our region. It is a privilege to do so alongside such distinguished panellists, all of whom are well placed to respond to this year’s International Women’s Day’s theme: ‘think equal, build smart, innovate for change’.

Last year, MeToo inspired movements across Asia and the Pacific created momentum for change. Women spoke out against an unacceptable status quo which continues to deprive too many women and girls of respect and equal opportunity. Expectations have been raised. Yet on its current trajectory, our region’s progress will fall short of achieving gender equality by 2030, with women in rural areas particularly disadvantaged.

Some progress has been made. Equality in primary education enrolment has been achieved. The region is nearing parity at secondary and tertiary levels. Women outnumber men as students in tertiary institutions in most parts of our region. Yet these enrolment levels belie high dropout rates and lower attainment levels for women. They are not translating into increased labour market participation.

Indeed, only half the women in our region work compared to 80 percent of men. Women’s share of the labour force is declining. Two thirds of those who do work are in the informal sector, often with no social protection and in hazardous conditions. In companies and government, women in decision making and leadership positions are the exception. The scourge of physical and sexual violence against women remains shockingly high.

Women’s empowerment requires action on all fronts. ‘Thinking equal’ in our analysis, policy making, and budgeting can provide a solid basis for the innovation needed. This innovation can partly be powered by technological progress. Indeed, the unfolding Fourth Industrial Revolution has great potential. Yet the technological automation which is changing the workplace has an important gender dimension which must be proactively managed. Women are more likely to work in jobs at risk of being automated and much less likely to have access to technology.

So as we look to the future, let me mention three priority areas.

First, gender responsive budgeting has a key role to play. Only by adjusting public expenditure to better respond to women and girls’ needs can we make the scale of adjustments needed. This is particularly important when it comes to the provision of social protection, education and health care. Gender responsive budgeting focused on improving educational opportunities could help prepare women and girls better for the modern workplace. It could reduce the burden of unpaid care work so many women shoulder, improve sexual and reproductive health services and facilitate family planning. Many countries have undertaken work in this area, including through the publication of Gender Budget Statements at the national and local level. The United Nations must continue to support this approach as a key means of implementing the 2030 Agenda.

Second, we must build a more supportive environment for women entrepreneurs. They are proven catalysts for change and a reliable means of increasing women’s share of the workforce. Women employ women, who in turn are known to spend more on their families – with hugely positive knock effects for children’s education, diet and health. In addition to societal benefits, GDP gains from a more gender equal workplace are enormous.
To seize this opportunity, greater access to finance and ICT tools for business development are essential. Supporting scaled up investments for women entrepreneurs, including through initiatives such as the women fintech innovation fund we are working to set up, are important. We need both funding and technical support for companies to pilot innovative digital solutions which support women-led enterprises.

Third, with the right legislative frameworks, new technologies can support the delivery of healthcare, education and education services. E-government mechanisms are already improving service delivery. Collectively, we need to ensure these are gender sensitive and used to strengthen women’s participation in decision making. With this in mind, I hope ESCAP’s online toolkit called “ E-Government for Women’s Empowerment in Asia and the Pacific” can make a contribution to the United Nations family’s broader effort in this area.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Distinguished participants,

2020 will mark the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action - a truly progressive agenda for gender equality. Working closely with UN Women, ESCAP will be convening an Asia-Pacific High-level intergovernmental meeting in November this year to take stock and agree on how to accelerate progress. This is our region’s opportunity to help shape the global agenda the following year. We are counting on your active engagement.

More immediately, on international Women’s Day, let us resolve to redouble our work to build the gender responsive environments needed to empower women to innovate. I am looking forward to joining forces with all of you to build more gender equal societies in Asia and the Pacific.
Thank you for your attention.