Empowering women for resilient recovery in East Asia and Pacific

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Fidelia Soares and her 12 year old daughter Domingas in Timor-Leste. Photo: Josh Estey / CARE Fidelia Soares and her 12 year old daughter Domingas in Timor-Leste. Photo: Josh Estey / CARE

As we celebrate International Women’s Day 2021, we are about a year into an unprecedented health and economic crisis that has destroyed lives and livelihoods globally and in the East Asia and Pacific Region (EAP). This has been a difficult period particularly for women as they have been hit much harder than men. COVID-19 is exposing and exacerbating gender inequalities in EAP and across the world.  

Countries in EAP have made great strides in promoting gender equality in recent decades. Before COVID-19, the ratio of females to males enrolled in tertiary education stood at 1.15, surpassing all other developing regions except Latin America. The participation of women in the labor force was relatively high in Vietnam, Cambodia and China, and had increased in Indonesia. Almost half of all small, medium, and large firms were owned by women, the second highest rate in the world. However, the unequal impact of COVID-19 is threatening to reverse these gains.

The pandemic has left women in EAP and worldwide more vulnerable than men to income and job loss.  More women were already working in precarious service-sector jobs before the crisis, and retail, accommodation and food services have been hit hard by containment measures. In the first half of 2020, women in seven surveyed EAP countries were more likely than men to have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. For example, in Papua New Guinea 27% of surveyed female workers lost their jobs compared to 19% for men. Gender differences in work stoppages widened in Indonesia and the Philippines in the second half of 2020, with women staying at home amid containment measures that restricted mobility and increased childcare responsibilities. 

Women are overrepresented in the informal sector, in countries such as Fiji, where they represent less than a third of paid workers. Women also tend to occupy jobs without basic protection mechanisms such as paid sick leave and unemployment insurance, and this means they have no safety net when jobs disappear.

Over-burdened as they often are with unpaid care work and domestic workloads, many women require flexible jobs that allow time for their household responsibilities.  However, most countries in the region do not have robust regulatory frameworks that afford them such opportunities. For instance, the Philippines lacks a framework that would make it easier for women to find part-time jobs.

Women comprise about 70% of the health workforce globally, including in EAP, and so have faced a comparatively greater risk of exposure to COVID-19.  In addition, while anecdotal reports indicate a heightened risk of gender-based violence since the pandemic began, lockdowns impede women from reporting violence and seeking help through traditional channels. Papua New Guinea reports a 31% decrease in the number of clients accessing gender-based violence services.

Amid the challenges, however, there are also opportunities. COVID-19 is making it clear that gender parity is not simply the right thing to do, but also the smart way forward.  Globally, countries are losing US$160 trillion in wealth because of gender inequality. In EAP, the estimate is about $40-50 trillion in human capital wealth lost. Increasing the participation of women in the labor force will be important not only as a response to the setbacks from COVID-19 but would also be a vital component in building stronger and more inclusive societies.  In Indonesia, we estimate that growth can be increased by up to 0.9% annually in the post-COVID period, if female participation in the labor force increases 25% by 2025.

COVID-19 is making it clear that gender parity is not simply the right thing to do, but also the smart way forward. 
Victoria Kwakwa
Regional Vice President, East Asia and Pacific, World Bank

How can COVID-19 recovery efforts promote greater gender equity and women’s economic empowerment in EAP?  The agenda for action is huge as significant gaps persist in addressing long standing challenges such as access for women to productive assets such as land, credit, insurance and savings. Faster progress on these long-standing challenges is needed.     

In addition, there are a few newer areas the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting for urgent action.     

The first is women’s access to and use of digital technology. COVID-19 has accelerated digitalization across the globe and in EAP.  In Indonesia for example 65 percent surveyed indicated that they have started to or increased their use of digital technology in response to COVID-19. But a World Bank survey on the COVID-19 impact on business operations of female-led companies and businesses revealed that many are struggling to make the shift to adapt quickly to digital operations. And women generally continue to lag behind men in use of digital technologies, particularly mobile technologies and are therefore less likely than men to have access to vital services such as cash transfers, medical information, educational content, or employment opportunities. 

Barriers faced by women in digital access, affordability, knowledge and skills, safety and security are well known and need urgent attention.  Bold policy and regulatory reform as well as smart investments and effective advocacy will be key. 

A second area for much greater action is providing quality affordable childcare services. Even before COVID-19, our research confirmed the importance of such support for women’s ability to participate actively in employment. In Vietnam, access to quality affordable childcare services increase the probability of women having a wage-earning job by 41 percent, and in Malaysia for every pre-school that opened an additional 89 women entered the labor force.  The importance of such support for women to be able to work has been highlighted by COVID-19. Coordination and strong collaboration and partnerships between public and private sectors will be critical for success.

And urgent action is also needed to prevent gender-based violence and provide online and offline access to services for survivors. Several governments in the region have already adopted measures to respond to increased gender-based violence during the pandemic, including China, where an online platform facilitates the processing of protection orders. More needs to be done including intensive communication campaigns to change mindsets and to remove stigma that leads to underreporting of the problem.    

International Women’s Day 2021 is a good entry point for governments, private sector and citizens across EAP to recommit to gender equality, redouble efforts to safeguard gains and fully tap the power of women  to contribute to strong, resilient and inclusive economies and societies in the region.    

International Women's Day 2021 in East Asia and Pacific / The World Bank
This International Women’s Day, meet resilient and powerful women across East Asia and the Pacific who are helping to lead their people through the current global crisis and are creating a better future for us all in a COVID-19 world. Click on the image below to read more. 





Victoria Kwakwa

Vice President, Eastern and Southern Africa

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