Pandemic Recovery Offers a New Pathway to a Transformation in Gender Norms in the Region
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption to Asian economies and societies – with women and girls at the crossroads.
While progress on key economic and social areas has been stalled, if not reversed, the region is presented with a critical window of opportunity to take advantage of regional recovery efforts and the push for building back better to reconsider how to accelerate gender equality through social norm approaches.
Gender equality in Asia and the Pacific has not been immune to the devastating disruptions unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic across all aspects of everyday life. While the region saw remarkable progress across a range of gender indicators over recent decades, the pandemic has exposed it gender fault lines and vulnerabilities. How the region’s governments, the private sector and development partners respond to these gendered impacts will be crucial in limiting the scale of disruption to women and girls.
COVID-19 disrupting gender gains and progress
Unlike earlier pandemics or crises, COVID-19 has had disproportionately higher socio-economic negative outcomes for women than for men. These include high job losses for women, further increases in the already high unpaid care burdens for women, and increased rates of gender-based violence, in particular intimate partner violence. In respect to employment, Asia and the Pacific was already the only global region with declining female labor force participation and the pandemic has only worsened this trend. Women experienced relatively higher job losses because of their concentration in vulnerable occupations in hard-hit sectors, such as retail and hospitality. Women-owned businesses have also been negatively affected: over three-quarters of surveyed women-owned businesses in Mongolia reported significant decline in revenue and concern for business survival, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Unpaid care work has increased because of lockdown measures, including school closures, with the burden falling more heavily on women: rapid assessments by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment undertaken last year indicates increases for both sexes but more pronounced for women, in a context where women in the region women were already performing four times more unpaid care work than men. Rates of reported intimate-partner violence have also increased. Across the region, the United Nations Development Program has reported that domestic violence hotline call volumes have increased from 33 per cent pre-pandemic to 50 per cent. Given the typically high levels of underreporting on gender-based violence, this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg of a more profoundly troubling “shadow pandemic”.
A silver lining of the pandemic?
These reversals of hard-won gender gains and deterioration of key areas of women’s livelihoods and wellbeing have not gone unnoticed by policymakers in the region. International and regional development actors have called for plans to “build back better” twinned with messages about a future development model that will involve more inclusive and transformative approaches. While it is difficult to find a silver lining in the pandemic, there is an opportunity for gender equality advocates, policymakers and development agencies such as the ADB to step up to more meaningfully integrate gender equality into the region’s economic recovery.
If anything, the pandemic has highlighted that economic growth and dynamism in Asia has not eliminated the systemic gender inequalities that pervade the region’s economies and social institutions. More women than ever are in the labour market and there have been reductions in gender gaps in education, as well as key health (notably life expectancy and maternal mortality). But despite these milestones in Asia’s gender story, social norms and expectations about women’s status within these societies and economies still predominantly hinge on their reproductive roles as mothers and caregivers. Social norms are an important factor behind the gender segregation of the labour market and education pathways, with women concentrated in feminised professions, which are also typically less valued and paid, and vulnerable. It is quite telling, for example, that the Philippines, where GDP growth pre-pandemic was among the highest in Southeast Asia, also had the highest share of adolescent pregnancy in the subregion, and a majority of people not in education, employment or training who were overwhelmingly female.
For these reasons, pursuing a transformative gender agenda could not only counteract the pandemic’s adverse gender impacts but also serve as a positive disruption to the business-as-usual approach to gender equality. A transformative gender agenda refers to approaches that directly tackle the discriminatory social norms that underpin and drive gender inequalities in development outcomes. Sustainable Development Goal 5 targets address these social norm issues, which include, among other things, unpaid care work, gender-based violence, women’s participation in decision-making and leadership, and access to productive resources (including land and assets). While there is growing evidence on the correlations between discriminatory social norms on development outcomes, such transformative approaches have been deprioritized in current recovery discussions in favor of short-term, gender-neutral solutions. For example, COVID-19 policy responses have largely neglected to account for unpaid care work, despite evidence correlating levels of women’s unpaid care work with female labor force participation.
What would a gender transformative COVID-19 recovery look like?
An important first step would be to incorporate gender targets in COVID-19 recovery and stimulus programs that take into account the systematic inequalities inherent in pre-pandemic Asian economies. This was an approach adopted by the ADB in its COVID-19 response and support to developing member countries: all 26 approved COVID-19 response programs included gender targets aiming to strengthen women’s financial resilience and vulnerability to poverty. For example, in Indonesia, the focus of the support under the program was the expansion of social assistance programs for poor and vulnerable households, with the Family Hope Program expanded from from 9.2 million to 10 million reaching at least 90 per cent women beneficiaries and the Kartu Sembako food assistance program targeting 96 per cent women and 16 per cent female-headed households. The program also provides a six-month income tax relief to manufacturing workers with annual incomes less than US$14,000 with at least 75 per cent of female manufacturing workers qualifying for the relief.
ADB has also applied this gender lens in its investments and support to the private sector. As part of a COVID-19 Emergency Bridging Facility, it supported Fiji Airways to adopt gender targets which included increasing the number of women in technical and management positions, as well as training female cadets for the first time in its new Fiji Aviation Academy. The Bank will also be supporting a more gender-friendly workplace environment policy through the development and implementation of a gender inclusion policy and a family violence policy.
Secondly, gender transformative recovery and stimulus programs and policies would include budgetary and policy prioritization to address key social norm areas. For example, increasing budget support to grassroots organisations tackling gender-based violence was included across several ADB COVID-19 budget support programs in the Pacific. Expanding affordable, accessible and quality childcare services have also finally been recognized by policymakers as an essential policy priority for enabling women’s access to decent work. In developed economies of Australia, Canada and the United States, for example, the childcare sector saw unprecedented levels of attention and resources in national budgets in 2021. A thematic set aside focusing on social norms was also established for the Asian Development Fund 13 in 2019, which aims to encourage the integration of transformative gender approaches into investments in lower-income economies. This year, close to US$40 million has been allocated to wide-ranging transformative gender projects that also respond to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts on women and girls in the region.
Thirdly, a gender transformative recovery would see stronger investments in building women’s resilience to natural disasters and climate change. Women and girls in developing countries are disproportionally vulnerable to the impact of climate change and disasters including in terms of mortality, morbidity, and economic shocks. Women are rarely in a position of power or influence at the household or community level to significantly contribute to the decisions concerning what measures they need to put in place to mitigate against the impacts, and what services and/or support they require to return to normalcy.
As countries shift away from fossil fuels, pursue policy transition towards net zero carbon emissions, and build resilience to climate change, there is an unprecedented opportunity to create a new paradigm for women’s economic empowerment through the creation of quality jobs for women. This will require targeted investment in science, technology, engineering and maths education for women and girls, including technical and vocational training, to prepare them with the necessary skills for jobs in the growing renewable energy sectors.
ADB, through a Strengthening Women’s Resilience to Climate Change and Disaster Risk in Asia and the Pacific technical assistance project, partnered with Habitat for Humanity Fiji to provide women with carpentry skills to build disaster-resilient homes. This has enabled them to contribute and make decisions around shelter preparedness in their communities, as well as to access employment opportunities within a historically male-dominated construction industry.
Finally, gender transformation of Asian economies will require harnessing the potential of disruptive technologies to disrupt gender inequalities. There are some relatively easy wins which would bring significant returns. For example, a recent International Finance Corporation report estimates that reducing the gender earnings gap in ecommerce in Southeast Asia could bring an additional US$280 billion to the regional value of online commerce. In the Philippines, ADB supported the development and roll out of a cloud-based banking app which aimed to contribute to financial inclusion, including of unbanked women in remote rural communities. Such easy wins, however, need to be complemented by longer-term strategies to address the gender digital divide, and building women’s digital skills to compete in a rapidly evolving digital economy.
Learning from the disruption for future development policy
Development partners like ADB and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade can play an important role in enabling such positive disruptions for gender equality in developing Asia by setting gender transformative priorities in our investments and support. One takeaway from COVID-19 is that promoting transformative gender approaches should not be limited to traditional sectors such as health or education. A transformative gender recovery will need to look at all aspects of Asian economies and directly tackle the stubborn discriminatory social norms that have maintained glass ceilings and gender gaps despite the region’s pre-pandemic growth. Just as pre-pandemic GDP growth was not able to eliminate gender gaps, development partners and regional governments cannot expect pandemic recovery to bring about gender equality without targeted and transformative approaches.
It is important to note that the journey to a gender transformative recovery is a shared one across developed and developing Asia. There will be valuable lessons learned for low, middle- and high-income economies grappling with the emerging and exacerbated gender challenges brought on by the pandemic. Already, some important lessons can be gleaned on how to leverage disruptions in favor of women and girls:
In Budgets: Gender-neutral recovery budgets and policies will recreate the unequal status quo of pre-COVID Asia. The economy was never a level playing field and to achieve positive disruption, targeted and tailored responses addressing social norms and prevailing gender inequalities are needed. This would not only promote inclusion and equality, but also make business sense. Indeed, in Mongolia, ADB has estimated that reducing gender gaps could lead to a 0.5 per cent increase in per capita annual growth rate – a substantial and much-needed boost to pandemic-hit economies.
In economies: A gender-transformative recovery will need a whole-of-economy response: while governments should play a central role through standard-setting regulations, resource allocation, stamping out discrimination, or incentivising change (e.g., through fiscal subsidies in favor of childcare), coalitions for transformative change will need to be forged and reinforced with the private sector and civil society organisations.
In governance: Accountability mechanisms for government and corporate recovery programs are essential for assessing public commitments vis-a-vis results and resources for gender equality. Scaling up the use of governance tools such as gender-responsive budgeting or sex-disaggregated data collection and analysis should become part of the new norm in Asia’s recovery. Last year in Fiji, for example, ADB supported the government of Fiji to adopt gender-responsive budgeting in their public management systems.
As Asia’s economies emerge from the pandemic, ADB will continue to invest in these lessons on how to capitalize on the disruptions of 2020 in order to foster a gender transformative recovery that may, at last, enable women and girls to positively disrupt and shape the new normal.
Keiko Nowacka is a Senior Gender and Development Specialist, Riana Puspasari is a Gender and Development consultant, and Samantha Hung is the Chief of the Gender Equality Thematic Group, at the Asian Development Bank.