Women at work in East Asia Pacific: Solid progress but a long road ahead

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East Asia Pacific’s (EAP) strong economic performance over the past few decades has significantly benefited and empowered women in the region, bringing better health and education and greater access to economic opportunities. To celebrate International Women’s Day, we are featuring 12 women in the region who embody the advancements women have made in EAP, despite the many barriers that remain for them at work.

Surpassing all other developing regions, EAP’s female-to-male enrollment ratio for tertiary education is currently 1.2, with the ratio of secondary education access nearly equal for girls and boys. But in the workplace, the share of women working in EAP is at 62% versus 78.9% for men, a gap that has not narrowed over the past four years. 

While women in EAP have better access to jobs, they continue to earn less than men and spend more time caring for children and the elderly.  They still face major obstacles when it comes to reaching leadership positions, balancing careers with their household responsibilities, or accessing credit for their small businesses. And in the direst of cases, many still lack the guarantee of a safe work environment free of sexual violence.  

The World Bank’s 2019 Women, Business and the Law report shows that East Asia and the Pacific had the second highest progress in enacting reforms for promoting gender equality. It is critical that these reforms continue because all 25 economies in EAP still have at least one law that impedes women’s economic opportunities. 

So how is the World Bank helping East Asia and countries in the Pacific tackle these challenges? Whether by generating key data, working with policymakers to change laws, with the private sector to increase inclusion, or training women and men on fair employment practices, countries’ needs and solutions vary widely. And our work on the ground reflects this: in Vietnam, as the National Assembly works to update the labor code, we are helping policymakers make informed decisions to increase women’s access to the labor market, while also training the civil servants who prepare laws to conduct policy gender assessments. 

In some Pacific Island countries, employment is scarce for both men and women, and the rates of gender-based violence are some of the highest in the world. We partner with the private sector as well as professional associations to improve working conditions and access to paid work for women. In Solomon Islands, we are support projects training young women on their rights and resources related to gender-based violence (GBV) and helping to put in place referrals systems for GBV.

In Cambodia, we’re conducting research to better understand women factory workers’ access to childcare in what is the one of the most important economic sectors in the country: garment manufacturing. Where the monthly average cost of private daycare in Cambodia is US$100 a month for one child, a garment worker’s monthly salary is approximately US$180 a month. Without a financially viable option such as factory or community-based childcare, garment workers often resign or leave their children with their parents or relatives. Women in many other countries like Mongolia and Vietnam face similar situations, where access to childcare or eldercare is a major determinant in their ability to take on paid work, and the types of jobs they choose.   

In my visits to the region, I am truly inspired by women’s strength and entrepreneurial spirit. The 12 women we feature in interviews this year are just an example of what I have seen time and again: resilient, hard-working, driven women looking to improve the lives of their families and communities. I hope these stories inspire all of us this International Women’s Day to think equal in East Asia Pacific.


Victoria Kwakwa

Vice President, Eastern and Southern Africa

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