Speech by Masatsugu Asakawa, President, Asian Development Bank on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2021 


It is my pleasure to welcome you to our annual celebration of International Women’s Day. It is a special honor to welcome Ms. Naina Lal Kidwai, who has been making a difference throughout her life by breaking countless glass ceilings. Ms. Kidwai will speak to us today from her home in New Delhi about her inspiring work on issues that are important to ADB: gender equality, climate change, and making water and sanitation a reality for all. 

As I join you today for this online event, I cannot help reflecting on last year's International Women's Day event, which was the last time we were able to gather for a major event at ADB headquarters. While we have remained physically apart for almost a year since then, I am proud to say that we are united in our commitment to achieving gender equality through our support to the people in our developing member countries (DMCs). 

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Women’s Leadership in the COVID-19 Response.” Let us take this opportunity to reflect, and to recognize how women have led the response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in many areas of need across Asia and the Pacific, all while facing substantial barriers and challenges of their own. This includes health workers on the front lines; political leaders implementing pandemic response plans; women farmers putting food on our table; women entrepreneurs leveraging new digital technologies, and teachers educating our children. 

At the same time, we must be aware of an uncomfortable truth: that the progress our region has made in recent decades in closing the gender gap has been negatively impacted by the pandemic. In fact, women are overrepresented among the hardest-hit sectors such as tourism, including those working in the informal sector. It is projected that without strong and targeted interventions, the current crisis will increase the number of women living in poverty in the region.

I. Supporting women’s leadership through ADB’s COVID-19 response 

To address these troubling developments, ADB is squarely addressing our institutional commitment to achieving gender equality by ensuring that women’s needs remain central to our COVID-19 response and our efforts to rebuild smartly and equitably. 

Let me highlight how ADB’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has focused on the challenges that have affected women, and how we are promoting gender equality and women’s leadership.

In April last year, ADB launched a $20 billion support package to address the impacts of COVID-19. As of February this year, ADB has committed $16.7 billion in COVID-19 related financial and technical assistance. A new financing modality, the COVID-19 Pandemic Response Option, or CPRO, has provided $10.2 billion to 26 of our developing member countries. 

Recognizing that women and girls are among the groups most severely affected by the pandemic, all of our CPROs include strategic gender targets and are categorized as “effective gender mainstreaming.” For example, CPROs for India, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, and the Philippines include targeted cash transfer programs and food subsidies for women and children. 

We are all aware that during the pandemic, our DMCs have reported drastic increases in gender-based violence, as lockdowns and quarantine measures often confine women with their abusers, with limited options for seeking help and support. To tackle this very concerning development, our CPROs are supporting prevention of and response to gender-based violence by strengthening specialized clinics and telephone assistance hotlines for victims of gender-based violence, so that they can receive tailored, timely, and dedicated physical and mental care. We are providing this urgent support in countries such as the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Republic of Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. 

Let me share with you another example, from our COVID-19 Relief for Women-Led Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises special grant in Viet Nam. This assistance provides incentives to banks to restructure existing loans and extend credit for women, to help them survive the economic downturn and foster an enabling environment for women entrepreneurs.

Through our recently introduced $9 billion vaccine initiative, the Asia Pacific Vaccine Access Facility, or APVAX, we are also working to ensure safe, speedy, and equitable access to vaccines throughout developing Asia, especially for poor and vulnerable populations.  ADB will work closely with all stakeholders, to ensure that vaccines are delivered in line with national vaccination allocation plans that prioritize frontline health workers, many of whom are women.  

In addition to our support for emergency response, ADB is firmly maintaining its investment in girls’ education—including science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)—to prepare women and girls for a future with limitless horizons. In Sri Lanka, for example, our Secondary Education Sector Improvement Program seeks to change gender stereotypes about who can be good at science and mathematics. 

The program encourages girls’ uptake of STEM through media campaigns and school-based actions that are formalized in school development plans. Female role models will also provide career counseling, to expose girls to the range of options available in STEM. I believe these types of interventions will create an enabling environment for girls and women in the education system, so that they have the tools they need to succeed in STEM-related careers.

As these examples demonstrate, ADB is helping to create positive conditions for women’s leadership, both at the individual and collective level.  Through our Strategy 2030, ADB has set an ambitious agenda for advancing gender equality through gender-inclusive project designs in at least 75% of the total number of our committed operations. The pandemic has made it even more critical that we collectively renew our efforts to ensure that we meet this target during the recovery phase and beyond. 

II. ADB’s commitment to gender equality in the workplace 

As ADB supports our DMCs as they work toward more equal and inclusive societies, we must make every effort to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in our own workplace. 

This past year has been challenging for all our staff, as we shifted to virtual work and operated through ongoing uncertainties. Many colleagues living with vulnerable family members and children have needed to take on additional caring responsibilities. And despite changing gender norms, we know that the burden of unpaid care and domestic work still falls disproportionately on women. 

I want to pause to recognize our colleagues who took on additional burdens while continuing to carry out our efforts to support our developing member countries. Colleagues, you have my deepest respect and gratitude for your dedication and service.

I am also encouraged to see how ADB responded to new workplace challenges by changing our practices, policies, behaviors, and culture. We made “how” and “where” we work more flexible. We also increased parental leave for both men and women. In response to concerns over increased gender-based violence, ADB developed information about available resources and services for staff who are victims or are supporting others facing violence. 

Another noteworthy development is that we are now reshaping ADB’s culture through our Cultural Transformation Initiative. I believe this initiative will drive us to put diversity and inclusion at the center of our organizational values, so that everyone can thrive and reach their unique potential regardless of their gender, nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and physical ability.  

During last year’s International Women’s Day, I reflected on ADB’s transformation in our gender composition. By the end of 2020, ADB staff included 59% women, representing nearly 38% of the IS (International Staff) workforce. This reflects tangible progress toward our goal of 40% female representation at the IS level by the end of 2024. Let us continue our focus on retaining and growing our female talent during this prolonged period of crisis—and through the recovery and beyond. 


Let me thank you once again for celebrating with us today. Let us continue to work together to ensure that women’s leadership remains a key ingredient for recovery by making it a reality in our operations and our workplace.

Thank you.