Covid-19 shows need for more women leaders in 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, more must be done and quickly,
Indian community health worker Reena Jani (left), 34, leaving her home in Pendajam village, Koraput, India on Jan 16 to receive the Covid-19 vaccination. She and other accredited social health activists are a linchpin of India’s rural healthcare system. – Reuterspic

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, women in the Asia Pacific 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 front lines as healthcare 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.
As we celebrated International Women’s Day last week, we honour the often-overlooked contributions of women in the Asia Pacific, reflect on the 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 the Covid-19 in our region.
Thailand’s efficient response to the Covid-19 is, in part, thanks to the more than one million women healthcare volunteers who work tirelessly to inform, advise 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 help to the Thai government in limiting the impact of the pandemic.
In India, accredited social health activists, better known as Asha workers (accredited social health activists), who formed the backbone of the community-level healthcare response, are nearly all women.
Their significant role in the response has been acknowledged by the World Health Organisation’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.
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, indicated that achieving gender equality in decision-making was a significant challenge in the Asia Pacific.
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 per cent.
The latest research by UN Escap (Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific) and UN Women showed 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.
Most notably, countries in this region have committed to the Asia Pacific declaration on advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment at the 25-year review of the Beijing platform for action – a vital document that recognises 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 must disrupt the discriminatory gender-based social norms that constrain women in public life.
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. – South China Morning Post

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is UN undersecretary-general and ESCAP executive secretary.

Anita Bhatia is assistant secretary-general and UN Women deputy executive director