More investments to reduce gender gaps that have widened as a result of global shocks will be key to building a more resilient and inclusive future for Asia and the Pacific.
The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and the accelerating climate change crisis are disproportionately affecting women and deepening existing inequalities in the region. This highlights the need for more integrated actions to reduce gender gaps and protect women from future shocks.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the climate change crisis are affecting women and deepening inequalities in Asia and the Pacific region, highlighting the need to reduce gender gaps and protect women from future shocks.
Seven out of 10 informal workers in developing Asia are women, while women dominate low wage jobs in sectors that have been the worst hit by the pandemic. Women-owned businesses have also been hard hit with the rate of closures as much as 6 to 7 percentage points higher than male-owned businesses in the first half of 2020 . With schools closed, the elderly sheltered, and the sick quarantined at home, the pandemic has created a crisis of care for women who undertake the majority of family and domestic work. This not only poses greater health risks for women but has undermined their livelihoods as many have had to leave the labor force to care for their families.
As women have borne the brunt of the pandemic, they are also among the most vulnerable groups to the worsening climate crisis. Six of the world’s 10 climate-related disasters most damaging to agriculture between 2003 to 2013 occurred in Asia and many women in the region are dependent on agriculture and natural ecosystems for livelihoods, with little to no resources to cope with shock events.
Strengthening women’s economic empowerment, enhancing gender equality, and boosting women’s resilience to external shocks are operational priorities for the Asian Development Bank (ADB) under its Strategy 2030 development framework. Operational Priority 2 lays out the approaches ADB is taking to address these issues, including scaling up gender mainstreaming across its operations and providing integrated solutions that can tackle multiple gender inequalities. ADB has committed to ensuring 75% of its committed operations promote gender equality and support climate change mitigation and adaptation by 2030.
“The Pacific Approach will ensure that gender is mainstreamed in everything we do, and that will only have benefits for all people across our Pacific countries.”
Director General of ADB’s Pacific Department
Inclusive development and gender equality in the Pacific
To achieve sustainable development, gender equality is a critical element in building women’s resilience to shocks. ADB’s recently approved 5-year strategy for the 12 smallest Pacific Islands, provides a pathway both for economic recovery and to strengthen resilience to climate change. Built in to the strategy is a strong focus on promoting gender equality.
“We wanted to ensure this Pacific Approach contextualized the impacts of COVID-19 and set forth a pathway to recovery. This also had to be done in a way that did not overlook the existential threat to the region – climate change and natural hazards - which are growing in frequency and intensity,” said Leah Gutierrez, Director General of ADB’s Pacific Department. “The Pacific Approach will ensure that gender is mainstreamed in everything we do, and that will only have benefits for all people across our Pacific countries.”
Women and climate change
Women’s economic empowerment is central to climate action, yet women entrepreneurs and women-led start-ups face numerous challenges such as limited access to markets and being perceived as third-tier suppliers or unpaid family workers. This limits their roles as prime economic movers who can help diversify value chains, reduce risk, increase competitiveness, and enable climate-responsive innovation.
Women’s leadership and participation in decision-making increases the effectiveness of climate projects as evidenced by community-based resource management led by women. In indigenous communities, for example, women have demonstrated social and ecological adaptation strategies that prioritized environmental protection. ADB is supporting women’s resilience to climate change at the community level through a new community fund program which will support grassroots women’s groups and women-targeted interventions.
The Community Resilience Partnership Program will help developing member countries identify and prioritize investments to make households, communities, and small businesses more resilient to the impacts of climate change. The key beneficiaries will be poor and disadvantaged groups, including women, who will be actively involved in identifying, implementing, and managing investments made by the fund. The program will help design and implement financing mechanisms to support its work.
Women and COVID-19 responses
ADB is also working hard with developing member countries to help them incorporate gender equality features in their COVID-19 response efforts, so that women can fully benefit from economic recovery.
Under its Women Entrepreneurship Finance Initiative, ADB is incentivizing partner banks in Viet Nam to restructure loans to at least 500 women owned/led small and medium-sized enterprises suffering economic impacts from the pandemic. It is also offering a specially tailored COVID-19 business skills program. In the Republic of Palau, ADB’s support for the government’s countercyclical spending programs is helping preserve health services from interruption, including maternal and reproductive health care.
ADB has stepped up to provide badly needed liquidity to support the operations of pandemic-affected private sector food companies, protecting many jobs, particularly those of women. In Indonesia, a working capital loan to PT Cisarua Mountain Dairy, a well-established household food brand, is enabling the company to continue to support the livelihoods of about 3,300 smallholder dairy farmers, 2,200 employees and over 1,500 direct sales agents—most of whom are women. It will also fund financial literacy training for at least 1,000 women farmers.
ADB has been working to reduce gender-based violence, which has surged during the pandemic as a result of unemployment, lockdowns, and abuse of alcohol. In Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, there was a 63% increase in reported cases of domestic abuse in the first quarter of 2020 against the same period the year earlier. In response, technical assistance was provided to fund much needed equipment to treat abused women in shelters and to introduce chat bots so that counselling services are available at all times for victims. In Kiribati, a grant project to improve the safety of outer island transport infrastructure, approved in June 2020, incorporates a detailed gender action plan that includes a framework and systems to address violence amongst workers and communities.
Women also need skills to be able to compete equally for jobs in the modern economy, including digital services, which have risen sharply during the pandemic. A project in Cambodia, approved in 2019 to help train workers in priority sectors including manufacturing and electronics, includes gender design features to ensure women are given equal opportunities to access training opportunities.
“Economies need the full range of talent and skills of their population to contribute to growth and they cannot afford to leave women further behind.”
Chief of ADB’s Gender Equality Group
Unlocking benefits from gender equality
The economic benefits of closing gender gaps are unquestionable. One estimate notes that as much as $12 trillion could be added to global gross domestic product by 2025 by advancing women’s equality. A 2018 report estimates that improvements in gender inequality and empowering women could raise aggregate income in Asia and the Pacific by 6.6% in one generation and 14.5% in two generations with per capita income rising as much as 30.6% in one generation and 71.1% in two generations.
However, unlocking those benefits will require governments to carry out extensive measures to reduce ongoing inequalities. That includes expanding access to social protection and safety nets to reduce gender-based vulnerabilities, taking policy action to restructure labor markets that marginalize women, recognizing and rewarding unpaid and underpaid work done largely by women, and investing in better data collection systems to ensure specific gender needs are fully understood. Providing greater labor protections for informal and gig economy workers, which women make up a large part of, will also be crucial.
“Economies need the full range of talent and skills of their population to contribute to growth and they cannot afford to leave women further behind,” said Samantha Hung, ADB's Gender Equality Chief.