A senior United Nations official on Monday called for greater efforts to enhance women’s economic participation and entrepreneurship across Southeast Asian economies.
Speaking at the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit currently underway in Manila, the Philippines, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), Dr. Shamshad Akhtar highlighted the significant progress governments of ASEAN countries had made in bridging the gender divide, noting that the number of women entrepreneurs now stands close to 60 million – a high number compared to other developing countries. Nevertheless, considerable work was still needed to narrow persistent gender inequalities.
“Entrepreneurship and decent work are bedrocks of women’s economic empowerment. Investing in women serves not only as a catalyst for the theme of this Summit – Prosperity for All – but also as a lever of change in responding to the call of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to leave ‘no one behind’,” said Dr. Akhtar.
Recent research into wage equality for similar work done by men and women shows that Singapore ranks 4th, Malaysia 6th and Cambodia 15th. The Philippines stands out as an exception where women earn slightly more than men – partly due to their higher levels of educational achievement. Additionally, women continue to contend with limited access to finance and low digital adoption, in Lao PDR and Myanmar, for example, where lack of access to high speed and affordable internet, also hampers the expansion of women-owned Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises.
Despite these challenges, Dr. Akhtar remarked that evidence indicates enabling policy and regulatory environments can make a real difference in supporting women achieve economic independence and overcome poverty. She noted that action in three key areas would be critical, namely the active promotion of women’s involvement in the ‘innovation revolution’, the removal of financing gaps, and a concerted push for greater networking and cross-learning across the ASEAN region and beyond.
“Women need to be active stakeholders in the new and unfolding wave of ICT-centric innovations. With such innovations estimated to boost ASEAN’s GDP anywhere from around $220 billion to $625 billion, women’s empowerment will mean going beyond addressing the need for equal access in the use of such technologies, to devising policy frameworks that realize the potential of women as initiators of innovation,” she said.
On the need for greater financial inclusion, the Executive Secretary highlighted that prospects for women’s access to services is likely to grow as the penetration of innovative private and social sector financing options rise. She explained that not only will it facilitate diversified lending, but it will help lower transactional costs for female entrepreneurs. These include access to SME equity and bond markets and trading platforms, digital financial services, impact and gender lens investing, and crowdfunding.
“It is equally critical that credit risk assessments allow space for poor women who do not have typical credit history or collateral,” Dr. Akhtar underscored.
In noting the value of peer learning, information, and contact services offered through social capital and other networks, Dr. Akhtar pledged to continue ESCAP’s collaboration with the ASEAN Women Entrepreneurs’ Network. .
“ESCAP’s work on harnessing the complementarity between the 2030 Agenda and ASEAN 2025 will further emphasize dismantling barriers and pushing policy reinforcement for women’s economic empowerment. Building on the foundation of ESCAP and ASEAN common objectives, we are well-positioned to work collaboratively towards the achievement of the 2030 Agenda and ASEAN 2025 to deliver a sustainable, inclusive and prosperous future for all,” she noted.