Asian Women: Same Countries, Different Worlds

Op-Ed by Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of ESCAP on International Women’s Day

Date: 08 March 2012

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 recognized 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, Viet Nam 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 thirty 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 finishing 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 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.