UN Women Asia and the Pacific Regional Director Mohammad Naciri discusses the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on women, efforts to implement a gender-fair and gendersensitive pandemic recovery plan, and the continuing partnership between UN Women and ASEAN. He also talks about the role of male leaders, allies, and champions in advancing the gender equality agenda.
Emerging data and narratives from the ground indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the burden on women and girls and may be reversing the global progress made on achieving gender inclusion and equality.
How and to what extent has the pandemic rolled back or eroded the gains made in empowering women and eliminating inequality, especially in the Southeast Asian region? How will this impact the SDG commitments of ASEAN countries and what can be done to manage the setback?
The Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and the SDGs challenge the status quo in the way we define countries’ success stories. It places gender equality and human rights at the heart of development, calling for a fundamental shift in how we live, work, and think. The COVID-19 pandemic has put unprecedented challenges towards achieving the SDGs, but it also calls into question the growth and development models at the expense of environmental sustainability and widening inequalities everywhere, and Southeast Asia is not the exception.
In every crisis lies great opportunity. Despite its negative impact, the pandemic underlies a sense of urgency for us to course correct. More than ever, the COVID-19 crisis puts a magnifying glass into the unfinished business of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the most progressive blueprint for advancing gender equality and women’s rights. In light of this, the pandemic reveals the critical importance of care work, which has been invisible and undervalued. All societies and economies, whether rich or poor, are dependent on care work to survive and thrive. COVID-19 has brought to the fore the critical need to address a very gendered structure of our economy.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, UN Women was among the first agencies to come up with the Rapid Assessment Surveys on the Consequences of COVID-19 that provide a clear evidence on the disproportionate impact on women and girls. For instance, women were more likely to note increases in unpaid care and domestic work. In most countries in Southeast Asia with available data, women in formal employment are more likely than men to say they now work less paid hours, while women in informal employment are more likely than men to say they lost their jobs.
Since the pandemic respects no borders and has affected the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development, an integrated and multidimensional response is necessary to manage the setback. ASEAN provides a critical platform for regional and multilateral cooperation to address cross-border issues together with the UN and dialogue partners. Investing in gender-responsive social protection is more urgent than ever. We need to get people back to work, while recognising the importance of care work in the economy, as well as creating a pathway for environmentally sustainable development.
To build back better, a gender-sensitive post-pandemic recovery plan is advocated. What should be the key features of this plan?
Let me highlight three key important features: gender data and analysis to inform policy decision-making, cross sectoral collaboration in the COVID-19 recovery plan, and finally gender-sensitive measures and action backed by strong indicators and resource allocation.
First of all, the plan must be grounded in a strong gender analysis as well as multi- dimensional approach to address challenges that are interrelated. We are proud to be a trusted partner of ASEAN in the journey to advance gender data and statistics to inform evidence-based policy decision-making. Much of our efforts to generate gender data and analysis of the COVID-19 impact can inform the implementation of the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework as well as national recovery plans.
For instance, while countries are focusing support on economic recovery through various stimulus packages to support businesses and unemployed people, more efforts are required to ensure better targeting of small businesses and informal workers, particularly in sectors where women workers tend to concentrate. UN Women’s analysis of survey data and big data on digitalisation in Indonesia indicates that women-owned micro and small businesses are able to benefit more from leveraging digital platforms to cope with the crisis and to balance work and home responsibilities. Though they are unable to access social assistance support, especially those in the informal sector. Gender data can help to enhance targeting and prioritisation of beneficiaries in the social protection response to COVID-19.
In addition, the COVID-19 recovery will be further complicated with overlapping natural disasters given that ASEAN Member States are geographically located in one of the most disaster-prone regions of the world. Since COVID-19 has affected the management and use of natural resources, it is also critical for policy response to include the gender and environmental perspective. For instance, ensuring women’s participation in natural resource management can help to conserve the region’s remarkable biodiversity as well as ensure resilience through integrating gender into disaster preparedness, risk mitigation, and prevention of future crises.
Secondly, cross sectoral collaboration is key. We have seen encouraging progress towards gender mainstreaming and integration into ASEAN’s sectoral priorities, such as disaster management. Lessons learned on key “features/enablers” can help to promote gender integration into a post-pandemic recovery plan. For example, the newly established Technical Working Group (TWG) on Protection, Gender, and Inclusion (PGI), co-chaired by the ASEAN Committee on Disaster Management (ACDM) and the ASEAN Committee on Women (ACW), serves as a cross-sectoral platform to ensure commitments towards gender equality is translated into policy to enhance protection and empowerment of women and girls in the region. In line with the new ASEAN-UN Plan of Action 2021-2025, gender mainstreaming is placed as priority across all three community pillars, including new areas that are not traditionally engendered, such as environment and climate change.
Thirdly, we have also seen some important progress in this region for the adoption of gender-sensitive measures. Based on the UN Women and UNDP’s COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker, eight of the 10 ASEAN Member States have already adopted policy measures for COVID-19 response or recovery that address violence against women. Nevertheless, measures to target women’s economic security have been adopted only in four ASEAN Member States, while measures to directly support unpaid care work have been adopted in three. So, there is definitely room to do more.
To ensure that commitment in policy and plans are translated into action, we need gender-relevant indicators to track progress towards gender-sensitive post-pandemic recovery. Simultaneously, dedicated investment to close resource gaps are needed to achieve gender equality. ASEAN together with the UN and dialogue partners can pull resources together to advance these efforts. Some concrete examples of integrating women and girls in COVID-19 recovery can be found in our recent report, Standing Up to the Challenge: Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic in Asia and the Pacific.
One significant pattern that surfaced during the past year is that countries and communities with the best COVID-19 response were led by women. What do you think accounts for this? What can be done to increase female leadership and make sure that women are represented in all levels of decision-making in the region?
We are pleased to see increasing recognition of women’s leadership in the COVID-19 response. Notably, the power of collaborative and empathetic leadership is key to diversity of ideas and flexibility that is much needed in response to the crises, especially the face of the unknown and uncertainties.
Yet, women are still underrepresented in the COVID-19 response in this region. According to the UNDP-UN Women’s Global Gender Response Tracker, across 11 COVID-19 task forces in eight ASEAN Member States, where data was available, women represent only 25 per cent (or less) in these COVID-19 task forces. Three out of 11 do not have women representation at all. UN Women believes that more diverse representation of women and men is important to ensure that specific needs of the marginalised groups, especially women and girls, can be included in the development, planning and budgeting of COVID-19 response and recovery.
In 2020, we have seen significant momentum for women’s leadership in ASEAN, including at the ASEAN Special Summit Session on Women’s Empowerment in Digital Age, Meeting of ASEAN Women Parliamentarians at the ASEAN Inter Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA), and the first ASEAN Women Leaders’ Summit. The ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework has also put strong emphasis on gender equality as the cross-cutting priorities.
UN Women has been advocating for women’s participation and leadership in policy decision-making, including a wide range of measures, from addressing unpaid care and domestic responsibilities to promoting temporary special measures and social norm change. Building capacity, knowledge exchange and peer to peer support among today and tomorrow’s women’s leaders in the region will be an important step forward.
Similarly, convening and building strategic partnerships, including engagement of men and boys are equally critical. In addition, harnessing the existing network of gender equality institutions and mechanisms is important to raise public awareness as well as advocating for changes in policy and practice.
UN Women has partnered with ASEAN on the production of two recent landmark studies, the ASEAN Gender Outlook and the ASEAN Regional Study on Women, Peace and Security (WPS). The ASEAN Gender Outlook points to gaps in sex-disaggregated data in many SDG areas which create an incomplete picture of women’s well-being and ongoing challenges and deprivations. What are the most concerning/pressing data gaps that countries in the region should prioritise and address?
ASEAN has made substantial progress towards achieving the SDGs in recent years. However, data gaps might have obscured the efforts required to fulfil the promise of leaving no one behind. By showcasing new analysis, the ASEAN Gender Outlook points out that women living in poor households and rural areas, especially those belonging to minority ethnicities, are further from achieving each of the SDGs, compared to the average population in the region. With clearer data and evidence, we hope that countries can put policies in place to better target women and girls of the marginalised groups.
Nevertheless, enormous gender data gaps remain in the environment-related SDGs. Prioritising data production in this area will accelerate progress towards achieving gender equality across the SDGs as a whole.
For instance, the publication shows evidence that women in rural areas are more likely to be in charge of collecting water and fuel, breathe unhealthy air at home and be disproportionately affected by climate change. Yet, women have relatively less control and ownership of land and natural resources, which makes them less resilient to shocks, such as natural disasters. Measuring women’s contribution to natural resource management and biodiversity conservation can provide essential clues to advance economic, social and environmental progress. As the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted, there are enormous connections between environmental sustainability and human well-being. Filling these genderenvironment data gaps should be a key priority for sustainable development.
Last but not least, the ASEAN regional platforms can be leveraged to ensure that Member States are able to exchange good practices, expertise, and lessons that can be shared across the region. UN Women is looking forward to supporting ASEAN to enhance South-South Cooperation to promote gender and data and statistics for monitoring the SDGs.
The ASEAN Regional Study on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) raised a number of recommendations at the national and regional levels. How do these recommendations intersect with the WPS agenda of UN Women and what are the possible areas of collaboration going forward?
The ASEAN Regional Study on WPS is the first regional flagship publication that examines the development and implementation of WPS in the context of ASEAN and taking into account the effects of the pandemic. The WPS agenda has never been more relevant than during the COVID-19 crisis. Women have been frontline responders to the pandemic that has a spillover impact beyond health and the economic downturn. It has threatened to destabilise social cohesion. In and of itself, the crisis is a threat to international peace and security. The pandemic is also a conflict multiplier, and women’s roles in preventing conflict and in responding to the health crisis become even more critical.
Owned and led by ASEAN, the study has helped to consolidate good practices and lessons learned on WPS, including key recommendations that have emerged from ASEAN experiences and context to pave the way forward. It provides a strong foundation to establish a common understanding on WPS and how it has been localised at the regional and national levels within the region. We are very pleased to be a strong partner of ASEAN in this important journey towards advancing the WPS agenda, particularly in support of ASEAN’s vision to work towards establishing the Regional Plan of Action (RPA) on WPS. This will also inform areas of priority for implementation of WPS in the region.
Building on the established collaboration between ASEAN and the UN, the new ASEAN-UN Plan of Action 2021-2025 includes multiple areas in which technical expertise from the UN Women and UN partners can be mobilised in support of ASEAN’s efforts to advance the WPS agenda. This includes support to mainstream gender inclusive conflict prevention, including prevention of violent extremism as well as capacity building support to ASEAN Women for Peace Registry to promote the role of women in peace mediation and processes, and further strengthen women peacekeepers from ASEAN Member States deployed to UN peace operations. In close collaboration with ASEAN, UN and dialogue partners, UN Women is very keen to provide technical support to ASEAN to integrate gender into implementing the RPA to Counter and Prevent the Rise of Radicalization and Violent Extremism 2019–2025.
Gender equality and empowerment will succeed if more men share this vision and step up to help advocate for change. Are you seeing this development in Southeast Asia? What insights can you give about your own role as a male advocate of UN Women’s gender equality and other agenda in the region?
I proudly call myself a male Muslim feminist. Since early age, I have been taught to respect women and have had a number of female role models growing up. I truly believe that gender equality and empowerment of women will transform the world. Everyone will win when we come together and build a more equitable, inclusive and peaceful society that values equal opportunities for women and men, girls and boys. We will all be stronger if everyone can thrive and fulfil their potential. Women’s leadership and contribution are invaluable to society and we have seen this first-hand during the COVID-19 pandemic. I am very encouraged to see more and more recognition of this in Southeast Asia. I am even more hopeful for the younger generation in the ASEAN region, who have been enthusiastically engaged in the Generation Equality Forum and propel us towards gender equality.
Breaking up the gender stereotype is not only beneficial for women, but also for men to be liberated from an immense societal pressure and expectations that they need to be the sole provider, protector, and the ones who lead. Sharing the space in collaboration and partnership between women and men will create stronger family units that help to build a solid foundation for resilient communities and nations. Ultimately, we cannot hope for change without engaging men and boys to advocate for this agenda, and to understand that this is not a threat to their leadership and positions in the society. Rather, everyone has even more to gain when we have greater diversity in leadership and decision making. So I would like to encourage male leaders, allies, and champions in ASEAN to join me in this effort.