Speaking in New York City earlier this year, Hillary Clinton’s former speechwriter Lissa Muscatine reflected on the muted response initially given to her boss, then first lady of the United States, as she delivered the famous “women’s rights are human rights” speech at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing in 1995. In the end neither the speaker nor writer of those words should have worried: this being a UN event, the delegates were simply waiting for the translators in their earpieces to catch up before offering the rapturous applause that had been expected.
Nearly 20 years on, Clinton’s sentiments and the agenda of that Beijing conference – including directives to reduce violence against women and improve female health, economic opportunity and media representation – are the subject of much stocktaking in New York and other UN outposts as the international community measures just how much progress has been made and sets new goals for the next few decades. Unfortunately, when it comes to Asia, there is still a great deal of uncertainty as to whether the message is getting through, despite the impressive relative gains the continent has made by other measures, predominantly economic, over the same period.
Barring a miraculous end to the current year, observers turning their eyes to the region in 2015 will still find a collection of countries that significantly trail Western counterparts on measures such as women’s economic contributions, education, health and political participation. The latest edition of the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Index continues to rate many of its states poorly according to a range of such indicators. Across all measures, the continent as a whole is positioned fourth out of six regions, and that could even be considered positively skewed by the strong contributions of outlying members such as the traditionally matriarchal Philippines and the culturally Western nations of New Zealand and Australia, which occupy fifth, seventh and 24th positions, respectively, in the survey of 136 countries.
While the report shows that the Asia-Pacific has recently improved according to some measures, such as female educational participation, its overall contribution continues to be dragged down mostly by its most populous countries – China remains halfway down the list in 69th position, Indonesia barely improved on its 2012 position to reach 97th, and India occupied 101st position despite gaining four places. Japan and South Korea, meanwhile, languished in 105th and 111th and lost ground on their already poor 2012 records, despite continuing to have some of the region’s highest standards of living. The overall picture is therefore hardly in keeping with the “rise of Asia” narrative so dominant in Eastern and Western media.
Given this disconnection, most observers tend to stress the importance of the region’s distinct culture in maintaining and occasionally exacerbating its wide gender gaps. Rising to the Top, a report published by the Asia Society and National University of Singapore in 2012, found that tackling entrenched norms – such as the pressure many women in Asian countries felt to drop out of the labor force once married or pregnant – will be key to achieving the necessary improvements in female leadership from which other outcomes, such as education and health improvements, could flow.
That study’s author, Astrid Tuminez, said that taking on the patriarchal societies of many Asian countries, whether they were influenced by Confucianism, Islam or other belief systems, would necessarily involve much time and require “a very concentrated effort” by policymakers, corporations, educators and others.
Thus, while Japan might be making progress towards greater gender equality through the policies of Shinzō Abe, who says that Abenomics is “inseparable” from Womenomics, and South Korea recently appointed both a symbolically and pragmatically important female president in Park Geun-hye, it is not expected to eradicate problems such as the disappointing representation of women in either country’s work force – both of which are among the lowest of OECD countries – any time soon. And here it bears remembering that the challenges faced by Asian women have persisted despite the region having a long history of female representation at the very top level of society, including boasting the modern world’s first female head of government in long-serving Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and political dynasties such as that of India’s Gandhi family.
Tuminez, who is now the Regional Director of Legal and Corporate Affairs for Microsoft in Southeast Asia, told The Diplomat that there would obviously be considerable gain for the region’s economies and societies if these cultural norms were challenged, ultimately leading to meaningful participation for women in all walks of life.
“You have countries like Malaysia, Japan, South Korea and India where you could definitely enhance the wealth that women generate in their economy by deploying them in the labor force or increasing opportunities for them and allowing them or supporting the pathways to leadership,” she said, in an example that could also extend to a China that has never quite lived up to Mao Tse Tung’s pronouncement that women “hold up half the sky” in terms of membership of the politburo or the other mechanisms of state.
Tuminez cited the removal of the retirement age of 55 for women in Vietnam, which effectively precludes females from obtaining senior management or other positions of authority, as the type of outcome she would like to see in the future. She also called for the extension of the quota system of between 30 to 50 percent female representation among local councils in India to a wider swathe of nations in the region. According to the Head of UN Women, Lakshmi Puri, who herself hails from India, this mandated representation has made a significant contribution to improved communities, with a reported 62 percent higher number of drinking water projects in areas with female-led councils when compared with those with male-led ones.
As the individual most responsible for noting the progress on the Beijing goals, Puri shares Tuminez’s frustrations with the complex and often contradictory nature of much Asian culture, which she said was often characterized by “stubborn tradition, culture and religious influences that mitigate against, and continue to jostle with, if not fight against this progressive and modern outlook.”
Nonetheless, she believes the situation is slowly changing, noting that there were more girls in schools and universities than ever in most countries, and that women were making inroads into entrepreneurship and the lower rungs of non-traditional fields such as manufacturing, though naturally she would like to see more representation in the middle and top ends of supply chains, particularly in countries such as China that dominate global industrialization.
An area of huge concern for all regional observers also continues to be the worrying level of violence against women in many Asian societies, including in India, which has made headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent years.
“Alarm needs to be raised and we need to make sure that it is no longer…regarded as normal, but unacceptable, and is criminalized, penalized, and the state has to accept responsibility,” Puri said
She highlighted the example of Thailand, which had established exclusive courts to try perpetrators of violence against women, as worthy of emulation in this regard, and also called for the establishment of more “one-stop crisis centers” to provide avenues for reporting violence, receiving treatment, obtaining legal counsel and more.
“In South Africa it has been found that where cases are brought to these centers, conviction rates are 87 percent, compared to 17 percent in other centers where you go separately to a police station, to a hotline, to a health check up, and legal counseling and psycho-social counseling.”
Puri said that next year’s period of reflection would be looking to build firm bridges between the process started in Beijing and the UN’s wider development of new Millennium Development Goals, with these also set to expire in 2015.
“We are looking at Beijing plus-20 and post-2015 goal-setting as two sides of the same coin,” Puri said.
Or, if the message still hasn’t sunk in for some in Asia: “Women’s rights are human rights.”
James Bowen is a former Australian Government speechwriter, international relations scholar, and freelance writer based in New York City. His work has been published by The Atlantic and on foreign policy blogs such as The Lowy Interpreter and that of the EastWest Institute.