Helen Clark

Nations in the Asia Pacific should work towards empowering women not only as a laudable goal and a human right but also to boost their economies.

The Asia Pacific region has made impressive progress on many fronts, and seems poised to recover from the global economic downturn more rapidly than other regions. Long term, sustainable progress, however, requires that more support is given to the empowerment of women.

Achieving equality for women is not only a laudable goal and a human right. It is also good economics, helps deepen democracy, and enables genuine long-term stability.

The latest Asia Pacific Human Development Report, Power, Voice and Rights: A Turning Point for Gender Equality in Asia and the Pacific, estimates that the under representation of women in the workforce costs the region about $89 billion each year — roughly equivalent to the GDP of Vietnam.

As well, inequalities in the workforce and obstacles to women's advancement there persist. For example, agricultural jobs account for more than 40 per cent of women's jobs in East Asia and 65 per cent in South Asia. Yet, only seven per cent of the farms in these regions are controlled by women.

The inequalities do not stop there. There are large gaps worldwide between the political participation of men and of women. In the Asia Pacific, however, these gaps are among the largest in the world. The Pacific sub-region alone has four of the six countries in the world with no women legislators at all.

In South Asia, on critical issues such as health, adult literacy, and economic participation, the gaps between men and women are very large by world standards.

According to this latest Human Development Report, almost half the adult women in South Asia are illiterate, a higher proportion than in any other region in the world. Women in South Asia can expect to live five fewer years than the world average of 70.9 years.

South Asia also has the highest malnutrition rates in the world — two out of every five children are underweight, compared to one in four in sub-Saharan Africa.

More women die in childbirth in South Asia — 500 for every 100,000 live births — than in any other part of the world except for sub-Saharan Africa.

To remove these obstacles, far reaching changes are needed in the interlinked areas of economics, social policy, politics, and the law.

In the realm of economics, policies which ensure that women and men have the same inheritance rights and rights to land title will put assets in the hands of women, and significantly improve their ability to make their voice heard inside and outside the home.

The Human Development Report estimates that increasing the proportion of women in the workforce to 70 per cent, equivalent to the rate of many developed countries, would boost annual GDP in India by 4.2 per cent, in Malaysia by 2.9 per cent, and in Indonesia by 1.4 per cent.

Political reforms

Political reforms are needed so that more women can enter legislatures and positions of power. This region has produced a number of women Presidents and Prime Ministers. More women in power at every level will ensure that women's needs get higher priority than they currently do.

Nations in the Asia Pacific committed to achieving real progress for women when they signed the Millennium Declaration in 2000 and backed the Millennium Development Goals. In countries where the needs and status of women are given low priority, there is the least progress on the goals. If women's status is lifted, that greatly improves the prospects for achieving the MDGs.

Reducing maternal mortality will also have positive spill over effects on the goal of improving children's health and access to education, and of reducing poverty and hunger. Providing girls with education will, in time, be positive in reducing child mortality, and improving child nutrition and health for future generations. Tackling the scourge of sexual and gender-based violence not only addresses a basic human right, but also helps reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The Millennium Development Goals summit at the U.N. this September is a major opportunity to show how prioritising meeting the needs of women can transform development progress.

As we commemorate International Women's Day, we can all commit to these goals and to ensuring that women's needs are elevated, not marginalised.

(The author is a former Prime Minister of New Zealand and is the Administrator of UNDP and the Chair of the U.N. Development Group)