Education Key to Gender Equality in Asia & the Pacific

By Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana
BANGKOK, Thailand, Mar 1 2019 (IPS)

Equal rights have been demanded and promised for generations, but last year a shift occurred in the women’s movement. Across Asia and the Pacific and around the world, women demonstrated to condemn a status quo which continues to deprive too many women and girls of respect and equal opportunity.

This is a momentum we must maintain to achieve gender equality in Asia and the Pacific, an ambition which lies at the heart of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Education is key. It remains the passport to better jobs, higher incomes and improved life chances. Progress in our region has been made and rightly celebrated, but equal numbers of boys and girls enrolled in education belies high dropout rates and lower attendance and attainment levels for girls.

This is particularly acute in rural areas, where in many countries only very few girls from poor households complete secondary education. Improving health care coverage, particularly sexual and reproductive health, is another imperative.

Again, women living in rural and remote areas are particularly disadvantaged, contributing to high maternal mortality rates in parts of Asia and the Pacific and teenage pregnancies with enduring societal consequences.

Executive Secretary Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana

This inequality of opportunity contributes to placing women at a considerable disadvantage in the labour market. Over the past thirty years, female labour market participation has declined in Asia and the Pacific, where only half of all women are economically active.

This is in part because women are relied on to give up to six hours of unpaid care work a day, stifling careers and ambitions and undermining equal political representation. Corporate leadership positions remain the preserve of men.

Today, for every ten men in work in the Asia-Pacific region there are only six women, the majority of whom are trapped in precarious, informal employment, characterised by low wages and hazardous working conditions.

With such considerable barriers remaining to gender equality, the United Nations Economic Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific is supporting a bold coordinated response, which must include gender responsive budgeting.

This approach ensures the different needs of women and men are part of budgetary decisions for the public expenditure which underpins the design of government programmes and activities. This is particularly important in shaping the provision of social protection, education and health care and the design of infrastructure.

By placing a greater focus on women’s needs, gender responsive budgeting has been shown to make a major contribution to reducing the burden of unpaid work and enhancing women’s opportunities for leadership in the workplace and in political and public life.

Gender responsive budgeting could also be used to create a more supportive environment for women entrepreneurs who are proven catalysts for change and a reliable means of increasing women’s share of the workforce.

Women employ other women, who in turn, are known to spend more on their families, helping give children a healthy diet, a solid education and reliable health care. As potential GDP gains from gender equality in work and society are enormous in our region, up to eighteen percent in parts of South Asia, this is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.

Yet this entrepreneurial potential is currently frustrated by a lack of access to finance and ICT tools for business development. Seventy percent of women-owned micro, small and medium enterprises are underserved by financial institutions in developing countries.

Women-owned enterprises are consistently smaller and concentrated in less profitable sectors. Innovative technology could be deployed to reduce gender barriers and promote digital inclusion.

This requires support for businesswomen to mainstream ICT across business operations, make their financial management more robust and their outlook more responsive to new technologies.

Put simply, women’s empowerment requires action on all fronts. It begins with equal opportunity to education and health care services, delivered through targeted investments, better attuned to women’s needs.

Supporting women entrepreneurs with better access to finance and ICT can then keep women in work, enabling their businesses to innovate, remain competitive and expand.

These businesses are essential incubators for future generations of women’s leaders, but will also contribute to a more gender equal environment today. Women’s empowerment cannot wait in Asia and the Pacific.

The Misconceptions of Contraception

Condom use is low among youth aged 15-19. Credit: M.Sayagues/IPS

By Tharanga Yakupitiyage

In light of rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unintended pregnancies, governments are exploring ways to tackle taboos around condoms.

In a new study, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) reviews the availability and accessibility of condoms, hoping to dismantle potentially harmful misconceptions.

“Many countries want to implement [CAP], but they are very anxious because they will be asked where the evidence is,” UNFPA’s senior HIV prevention advisor Bidia Deperthes told IPS.

“We don’t put enough money to really understand the behavior and to have this study that can really guide us and put condoms in places where people really need them…the condoms in terms of volumes seems to be out there, but are they really reaching the people who need to use them?” she added.

Increasingly, it is youth that need them the most.

According to the UN Children’s Fund, HIV rates among adolescents and young people aged 15-19 are rising. In 2016 alone, 260,000 young people of the same age were newly infected with HIV.

With a new generation who did not face the HIV epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, Eda Algur, who headed the research, pointed to the importance of condoms.

“Because of things like pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and the fact that we have so many medications for [HIV], it may be less on people’s minds,” she told IPS.

“Rates are going down in all other age groups but teenagers of high school age are particularly at risk in 2019. It should be a main concern and a main reason for advocating for condoms,” Algur added.

Beyond HIV, more than 1 million STIs are acquired everyday worldwide with the second highest rate occurring among 15-19 year olds.

However, a majority of adolescents do not have access to any adequate or affordable STI services.

While male condoms are among the most effective methods against HIV and STIs, misconceptions around contraception have resulted in backlash.

“The contention comes from a lot of civil society and parents and students voicing concerns that making condoms available would kind of be a green light for students—almost telling them that it is ok to have sex,” Algur said.

Deperthes echoed similar sentiments, noting that governments also shy away despite the statistics.

For instance, when countries such as the Philippines and South Africa considered implementing condom availability programs (CAP) in secondary schools, communities pushed back, noting that it will promote students to initiate sex.

UNFPA also found that opponents of CAP believe such programs will increase promiscuity and sexual activity among students as well as adopt other risky sexual behaviors.

“This stems from view of condoms as a device for sex, rather than for protection during sex,” the study states.

However, upon reviewing existing research across seven countries, UNFPA observed that such fears are unfounded.

Data overwhelming show that CAP does not increase sexual activity nor does it lead to more sexual partners.

Rather, CAP has lead to an increase in condom acquisition and use, suggesting safer sex among students.

In fact, some were up to three times more likely to acquire condoms with CAP than without.

All studies also found a decrease in STI rates for students with CAP compared to those without.

In New York City, CAP has been implemented since the early 1990s, largely as a result of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. Similar programs can be seen across the United States, and it has led to a decrease in risk of HIV infection.

Surveys also showed that a majority of students and parents believed CAP would not increase sexual activity, and 60 percent of parents in one study thought that condoms should be made available in high schools.

While condom use has generally increased over recent decades, there is still a gap between availability and need in sub-Saharan Africa. In 47 countries in the region, the estimated male condom need in 2015 was 6 billion but only approximately 3 billion were distributed.

Algur highlighted the effectiveness of CAP, especially when combined with comprehensive sexuality education.

Two studies revealed that combining CAP with sex education programs resulted in the greatest uptake of condoms.

But the lack of published data on the subject is a missed opportunity for countries to understand and tailor programs.

“I think this study showed us that there is a real value to evaluating these programs when they exist…by presenting in that fashion that this is a program worth investing money into because it does have a positive outcome on students’ health will be the way to go,” Algur told IPS.

Deperthes stressed the need to be inclusive, starting with the parents who must be involved at every step of the way in order to ensure the success and effectiveness of such programs.

“You educate them, you advocate them, you show them the data—they will be your partners, not opponents. If you don’t do that, then of course it will backfire,” Deperthes said.

We Are the Invisible. We Are the Invincible. We Will Overcome.

By Vijay Prashad
Mar 1 2019 (IPS-Partners)

(Tricontinental) – The mood in Caracas (Venezuela) is sombre. It appears that the attempted coup against the government that began on 23 January is now substantially over (as the Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza tells me). The Lima Cartel is divided. The Europeans have cold feet. On the one-month anniversary of that attempt, a massive crowd of the poor gathered in the centre of Caracas to demonstrate their support for the Bolivarian Revolution. An elderly couple carried a sign which captured the mood – Somos los Invisibles. Somos los Invensibles. Venceremos (We are the Invisible. We are the Invincible. We will Overcome).

It is hard to gauge the numbers of people at that rally. A picture from a drone suggests a large crowd, but it misleads. Most crowd counting software assumes a certain body size and a certain amount of space between people in a crowd. Those assumptions do not apply in this case. The supporters of the government and of the Bolivarian Revolution bear the marks of their history on their bodies. They are small and thin, darker skinned and worn by decades of work that has earned them just about enough to survive. The reason why they adore Hugo Chavez – his image everywhere – and why they call themselves Chavistas is that it was the arrival of Chavez in the 1990s that gave them hope and that inspired their political activity. Not for them the accusations that this government – led by Nicolas Maduro – is responsible for their hunger. They know that their Bolivarian Revolution is a process and that they are active in that process.

This Wednesday, thirty years ago, thousands of Venezuela’s poor felt maligned by the increase in bus fares. They ran across their country, their rage captured in the disorder they produced. That event is called the Caracazo. It is this event that inaugurates the Bolivarian Revolution. A few days before the anniversary, I visited Mariela Machado, a Black, poor, working-class woman who leads a community in one of the many self-organised housing projects in Caracas. It was the Caracazo and Chavez that gave her the strength to overcome the centuries of disparagement and poverty that weighed on her. She, and her neighbours, had done their best to build a community – with a common kitchen, a bakery, a meeting hall and shared space that is clean and decent. Most of the leaders of such neighbourhoods are women – all are poor, most are workers, many are Afro-Venezuelans. I asked Mariela what would happen to her and her neighbourhood if this government fell. ‘We would be evicted,’ she told me. The fierce defence of the Chavistas against the overthrow of their government is linked to their fear that whatever changes had come in their lives would now be reversed. The old humiliation would return.

Even if the attempt to overthrow the government in Caracas is now mostly over, there is fragility in the Venezuelan government. It is a fragility shared with most countries of the tricontinent – of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Public finances across the world have been damaged by the departure of trillions of dollars away from the reach of governments and of productive activity. It is estimated that there is between $21 and $32 trillion in the tax havens. Global financial stock markets toy with over $200 trillion. This is social wealth diverted to unproductive uses. No schools are built with this money. No hospitals are built with this money. Profits on financial investment race to the rich, who have ceased to pay taxation and have ceased to risk their wealth in productive investments. The billionaires are on a tax strike and an investment strike. These two strikes – tax strike and investment strike – are their weapons in the class struggle (as laid out in our first Working Document, In the Ruins of the Present). Because of these strikes and the fragile global commodity chain, almost a billion people cannot find work that sustains them, while those who have work find their humanity broken by their jobs.

There is fragility in Venezuela’s reliance upon oil and its lack of food sovereignty. There are some long-term fundamental problems of the Venezuelan economy that long predate the arrival of Chavez and that will continue for some time yet. These are problems common to most countries – such as Nigeria – that have large populations, that rely upon oil exports that finance the imports of just about everything. The vulnerabilities are many. Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara would say, ‘he who feeds you, controls you’. It is an important reminder. Talk of increasing food production in Venezuela is important – and urgent (take a quick journey with Ricardo Vaz to Mérida, where the native potato is being rescued). All this will require deeper land reform, but also changes in the culture of consumption that have been produced by the inflow of oil rent. Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonso – one of Venezuela’s great oil ministers – called oil the ‘devil’s excrement’. He remains correct.

Over the course of the past week, almost five hundred people from 87 countries representing political groups and movements came to Caracas for the International Assembly of the Peoples – a new initiative that aims to create a platform for solidarity campaigns and to better connect sections of the Left. Reports of the deliberations – which were smart and imperative – made it to no mainstream press. Reporters from People’s Dispatch and ALBA as well as a few other services covered the discussions, which ranged from solidarity for the Venezuelan people to serious consideration of the way money and fake news has subverted electoral democracy. It will take time to digest the implications of these discussions – and it will take time to see what kinds of common actions develop. Certainly, the first common action is to make sure that there is no military intervention in Venezuela and to push for an end to the strangulation of the Venezuelan economy.

The governments of India and Pakistan are playing with fire. Aerial attacks on each other’s territory threatens to widen the conflict. The majority of Indians and Pakistanis – like the majority of Venezuelans – will not gain from a war. Suffering will be their coin. There are so many real problems that bedevil the countries of South Asia – hunger being one of them. Just before the aircraft fired across the border, hundreds of workers marched to the Indian parliament to demand higher wages and pensions and to prevent the privatisation of the child care centres. They handed over a petition that had 40 million signatures to the government.

The protest of the child care (anganwadi) workers brought to mind Wislawa Szymborska’s poem, The End and the Beginning (translated by Johanna Trzeciak):

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone has to drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone has to glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

We’ll need the bridges back,
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls the way it was.
Someone else listens
and nods with unsevered head.
But already there are those nearby
starting to mill about
who will find it dull.

From out of the bushes
sometimes someone still unearths
rusted-out arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.

A Global Imperative: Empowering Women is Critical for World’s Economy & People

Illustration: Michael Waraksa

By Christine Lagarde

March 8 marks International Women’s Day, which provides a chance to reflect on the struggle for greater gender equality.

The roots of this annual event reach back more than a century, yet its focus on respect and opportunities for women remains strikingly relevant today—from sexual harassment and violence to unequal laws and unfairness in the workplace, where women are too often underemployed, underpaid, and underpromoted.

Unequal or unfair treatment can marginalize women and hinder their participation as productive individuals contributing to society and the economy in invaluable ways.

Yet when I consider the rich tapestry of organizations and individuals who can make a difference to ensure women have equal opportunities, I also see a crucial role for policymakers.

They can use their positions to design policies that help women and girls access what they need for a fulfilling life—including education, health services, safe transportation, legal protection against harassment, finance, and flexible working arrangements.

The IMF recommends these kinds of policy measures to its member countries—and works with many governments to examine how policies affect women.

In recent years we have increased our emphasis on women’s empowerment precisely because, beyond the important ethical considerations, it also represents a missed opportunity in the pursuit of macroeconomic stability and inclusive growth—where the IMF’s expertise lies.

Our research has shown, for example, that if women’s employment equaled men’s, economies would be more resilient and economic growth would be higher.

Our new estimates show that, for the bottom half of countries in our sample in terms of gender inequality, closing the gender gap in employment could increase GDP by an average of 35 percent—of which 7–8 percentage points are productivity gains due to gender diversity.

Adding one more woman in a firm’s senior management or corporate board—while keeping the size of the board unchanged—is associated with an 8–13 basis point higher return on assets. If banks and financial supervisors increased the share of women in senior positions, the banking sector would be more stable too.

The IMF’s 189 member countries face many different challenges, but empowering women remains a common denominator and a global imperative for all those who care about fairness and diversity, but also productivity and growth of societies and economies that are more inclusive. If we can achieve this, we all gain.

*Opinions expressed in articles and other materials are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect IMF policy.