Asian women: Same countries, different worlds

— Dr Noeleen Heyzer
The Malaysian Insider
Mar 08, 2012

MARCH 8 — We are in a race against time — with just three years left to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Many of our people, even in the same country, continue to live in different worlds. This is especially true for large numbers of Asian women, whose experience of development and growth remains starkly different from that of men — especially when compounded by disparities of ethnicity, caste, economic status, education and geographical location.

The best celebration of International Women’s Day this year will be a commitment to redouble our efforts in a final push on the MDGs to 2015 — because confronting gender inequality and advancing the empowerment of women holds the key to accelerating regional development and meeting the goals.

The power of the MDGs lies in their promise of a better world. Since their adoption by the member states of the United Nations in 2001, the eight goals have become universally recognised as important milestones in the pursuit of a more equitable future for all.

The new Asia-Pacific MDG Report 2011/12 makes it clear that addressing disparities in Asia and the Pacific, especially through narrowing gender gaps, holds the key to a big final push on the MDGs.

Published in February by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the United Nations Development Programme and the Asian Development Bank, the report shows much progress. Our region has already made great strides by halving the incidence of poverty, reducing HIV prevalence, stopping the spread of tuberculosis, and halving the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water.

Major gaps still remain however across goals, across sub-regions, and especially within countries. One indicator of these challenges is the still-unacceptably low level of maternal health across the region. For too many Asian women, giving birth is one of the most dangerous experiences they can possibly have.

In 2008, with about 140 000 deaths, our region accounted for almost 40 per cent of maternal mortality in the developing world. In South Asia, for instance, maternal mortality ratios are almost 70 per cent higher than the world average and nine times those of Europe and Central Asia. With a number of multi-sectoral and very achievable development interventions however, we could have saved the lives of almost 150 000 women by 2015 in this one area alone.

Countries like China, Vietnam and Turkey are well on their way to joining Bhutan, Iran and the Maldives who have achieved the MDG target of reducing these deaths by three-quarters by 2015. More than 30 other Asia-Pacific countries, however, are unlikely to achieve the target unless we accelerate progress.

The positive news is that the countries currently off-track can reach the current target by reducing maternal deaths by only two to three per 100 000 live births annually for the next three years. Our ultimate aim, however, must remain the avoidance of all preventable deaths.

Similarly, around half of the off-track countries could reach the target of ensuring skilled birth attendance by simply increasing rates of attendance by three per cent per year — and 11 million women would benefit. The message is clear: the goals are achievable. We are so close to the finish line — it is time for one final big push to 2015.

A recurring theme of the report — the impact of social and economic disparities — is highlighted by the huge gaps within countries in access to and use of maternal health services, like antenatal care and skilled birth attendance. We must address the social determinants of health. The economic status of households, levels of educational attainment, and the decision-making autonomy of women consistently underpin these disparities — making these critical areas for effective policy interventions.

On the goal of promoting gender equality and empowering women, the countries of Asia and the Pacific have effectively eliminated gender disparities in primary, secondary and tertiary education but as many as 25 million children of primary-school age remain out of school — most of whom are girls. Women also tend to be under-represented in the sciences and engineering, even in those countries where the tertiary enrolment of women outnumbers that of men.

Contrary to what many believe these are not women’s issues alone. This inequality translates into increased poverty and lower human development for everyone — men and women alike. Lack of women’s participation in the labour market costs the Asia-Pacific region about US$89 billion (RM267 billion) annually.

Our shared responsibility, as the guardians of the MDGs, is to fulfil their promise by meeting the expectations which they have raised — of a world more free of poverty, hunger and disease, of people empowered by education, enjoying equality and a better quality of life.

We must ensure that the women of Asia and the Pacific are empowered to benefit from the promise of a better world. We must build a future in which basic needs become basic rights, where women develop their full potential and where progress for women is progress for all.

* As Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), Dr Noeleen Heyzer is the most senior UN official in the region and the first woman ever appointed to this position. She led the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) for 14 years. The new Asia-Pacific Regional MDG Report 2011/12 can be downloaded at

  1. #1 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 8 March 2012 - 2:18 pm

    Don’t know about progress of UN’s MDGs but on International Women’s Day, we have some comfort that Malaysian women’s status in terms of gender equality is generally Ok. On Legislation front the Law Reform Marriage and Divorce Act in 1980s has given women marital rights by institutionalising monogamy at least for Non Muslims;. Domestic Violence Act was passed in 1994 proscribing physical violence against women at home; then Guardianship of Infants Act gave women women equal guardianship rights as men; at the work place the Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment was put in place in 1999. In 2001 Article 8(2) of Federal Constitution was amendfed to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender. The two major regulatory agencies (BNM & SC) are headed by women. According to Ah Jib Gor, in education sector “6 out of 10 1st class degree holders are women”. Women have access to education at all levels same as men. True in (say) field of politics or corporates there are still disproportionately more men than women but this is not because of legal bar but more of ingrained social and cultural attitudes of both sexes, and where there’s legal disparity it is more a result of religious tenets and beliefs, or what is interpreted to be the case in sacred religious texts – which is altogether another realm of consideration. For eg if Obedient Wives Club women members want to please their husbands, it is their religious or social beliefs. It is not by reason of law or institutions requiring them to be subservient in these respects.

  2. #2 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 8 March 2012 - 2:30 pm

    Gender equality is a right precept, there should be equal opportunities to women as men to go for happiness, well being and success. The only thing a woman has to remember is that to fight for equality in the above sense is not to same thing as requiring and expecting a women to be same as men in doing everything a man does without consideration of essential biological, emotional and reproductive differences between them, as if they just do not exist.

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