Gender, Voice, and Agency - Multilateral Development Banks Sponsored Workshop

Opening remarks by ADB Vice-President for Operations 2 Stephen Groff at the Gender, Voice, and Agency - Multilateral Development Banks Sponsored Workshop on 2-4 June 2014 held in ADB HQ, Manila, Philippines

(as drafted)


Members of the MDB Working Group on Gender, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

It is my great pleasure to welcome all of you to ADB for this important workshop on Gender, Voice, and Agency, jointly sponsored by the Multilateral Development Banks Gender Group.

I am particularly encouraged by the theme of this workshop—women's voice and "agency". Paving the way for women and girls to express "voice and choice" over their lives should be at the core of our development efforts.

The World Bank's Report on Voice and Agency—launched globally just 2 weeks ago—looks into five core expressions of agency: (i) freedom from violence; (ii) freedom of movement; (iii) control over land and other productive resources; (iv) decision-making over family formation and reproductive and sexual health and rights; and (v) voice in society and political participation.

These topics are particularly pertinent to Asia and the Pacific region. Asia is home to the largest numbers of "missing" women; some of the highest numbers of child, early, and forced marriage; pervasive violence against women; and; some of the lowest representation of women in parliament.

I welcome active discussions on these issues over the next three days.

Key issues in Asia and the Pacific

How is the Asia and the Pacific region performing in these five expressions of women's and girls' agency? Unfortunately, our region has a long way to go. While the region has made impressive strides in improving the lives of women and girls over the last decade, much remains to be done. We still have too many girls dropping out of school too early; too many with no choice over who and when to marry, and marrying too young; too many subjected to violence from their intimate partners, and; too few with any economic assets. The reasons why are complex. Understanding women and girls' lack of voice and agency—the focus of this workshop—is fundamental to identifying the "drivers" and the constraints that prevent women from making decisions about their own lives.

The Asian region has the second highest levels of early marriage globally. In Bangladesh, 66% of girls, in India 47%, and in Nepal 41% are married under the age of 18. Sadly, our region also has some of the highest rates of intimate partner violence reported by women—60% in Kiribati, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu; 40% in Bangladesh and Timor-Leste, and; 30% in Viet Nam.

Freedom of movement and mobility are constraints experienced by many women and girls, especially in South Asia, where social norms and cultural practices restrict women and girls physical movement and presence in public spaces. The threat to family honor, fear of sexual assault and sexual harassment in public spaces, combined with lack of accessible and affordable public transportation all contribute to women's limited mobility.

Very few women in our region own land. In Nepal, women own only 10 percent of landholdings, with the average land holding size being two-thirds of the average male owner. In Viet Nam, 8% of farm and forest land titles are in women's names, while 87% are men's names, and 5% held jointly. Limited ownership of land restricts women's ability to expand their economic activity and enjoy economic independence.

Finally, despite some progress women's representation in national parliaments remains low at 18% in Asia and 16% in the Pacific. The situation is better at the subnational level due mainly to female reservation quotas.

ADB's experience

So what is ADB doing to tackle these difficult and sometimes culturally sensitive issues? To speak honestly, ADB's direct engagement in these areas is limited. But, some of our projects are addressing these concerns. We are recognizing that more attention is required on these difficult areas of social norms and cultural practices if progress on gender equality and women's empowerment is to be accelerated.

ADB can report some promising interventions and results from our operations. Let me highlight a few.

Investing in girls' education is ADB's most direct intervention in preventing early marriage and empowering girls. Recently ADB set a new target of achieving between 6%–10% of operations in the education sector—an increase from the current 3%. All our education projects include special incentives for increasing and retaining girls in school, such as scholarships, boarding facilities and training of female teachers. ADB's technical, vocational education and training projects are designed to include a focus on adolescent girls, who are most at risk of early marriage. Keeping girls in schools longer is one of the most effective means of delaying marriage.

To address violence against women, ADB has supported one-stop-shop services for women victims through health projects or stand-alone targeted projects. The Women and Children Services Centers in Nepal is one example, providing victims protection, and legal and skills development services. These Centers are built in the police station compounds with special protection services provided by trained female police.

Our urban transport projects increasingly include design features to facilitate safe, secure and more affordable transport services that enable women's mobility and movement. These include: installation of better lighting for streets, bus stops, and train stations, separate and safe waiting areas and queues for women and men, separate carriages or spaces for women, and panic buttons on trains.

Sometimes, gender responsive infrastructure such as allocating separate spaces in local markets for female vendors can lead to making public spaces more socially acceptable and supporting greater mobility for women. In Bangladesh, women's market sections in rural infrastructure projects helped to chip away traditional social perceptions that public markets are not "women's" spaces.

ADB has also supported drafting gender-responsive laws, including the Gender Equality Laws in Mongolia and Viet Nam as well as lifting discriminatory legal provisions in Nepal, and justice system reforms in Pakistan. Support for improved legal frameworks and institutions, and legal literacy programs have created platforms for enhancing women's agency.

Securing legal identity through civil registration gives women voice, choice and protection. It opens the door for women to exercise their agency. In Pakistan, the ongoing Benazir Income Support Program is supporting issuance of computerized national identity cards to more than 6 million poor women. These identity cards provide women access to various social assistance including cash transfers, health insurance, and skills development. You will hear more about this program later in the workshop.

ADB has made a significant contribution to giving women voice in local and community governance structures. In Nepal and Bangladesh, ADB programs introduced female quotas for local governance structures including important decision-making committees. In Cambodia, ADB helped build leadership capacity of women and commune councilors facilitated networking among them.


These are our first and initial steps. We know that more needs to be done to give women and girls the space to express their voice and agency. The issue needs to be placed higher on the development agendas of all our institutions. We can make this happen through increased partnerships and sharing innovations.

This workshop offers us an exciting opportunity to do just this. It provides us the platform to learn from each other, and from across the different regions of the world. Together, we can identify promising pathways to enhance women and girls voice and agency.

Finally, I would like to thank the gender teams of all the multilateral development banks for making this workshop happen. This is the type of partnership and knowledge sharing that should be followed by all the other MDB working groups. I would also like to thank all the resource speakers and participants from around the globe for travelling long distances to share your experience.

I wish you all an interesting and productive workshop. I look forward to hearing the outcomes.