News about women is getting better these days. From the new law in Saudi Arabia that will set a minimum age for girls to marry in order to prevent child marriages, to the banning of female genital mutilation in Iraqi Kurdistan, advances in the status of women are evident the world over. the Human Development Report of 2008, prepared by the United Nations Development Programme, confirms these encouraging developments. the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) provides indications of progress in achieving gender equality and advancing the rights of women.
Malaysia, for example, reports that 40 percent of professional and technical workers are female, indicating significant participation among women in the upper occupational hierarchy. also, 13 percent of parliamentary seats is occupied by women, and 23 percent are female legislators, senior officials and managers. Similarly, the Philippines portrays an optimistic portrait. some 22 percent of parliamentary seats is occupied by women. 61 percent of professional and technical workers are female. all these indicate a very high rate of participation among women in the labor force. China and Vietnam have made impressive strides in improving adult literacy rates for women. Maternal mortality is on the decrease, and women’s health status has improved overall in countries like Cambodia and Laos. this has translated into increasing life spans among women, and thus far, several countries show longer life spans among women relative to men. Countries that have performed well on the Human Development Index — a composite measure of income, health, and education — simultaneously report good scores on the Gender Empowerment Measure. this proves that governments who make investments in health and education contribute greatly to gender empowerment, and thus, to overall socio-economic progress. still, much remains to be done. A cursory look at some of these countries indicates a relatively low status in the arena of earned incomes. in Malaysia, the ratio of estimated female to male income is 0.36, suggesting rather surprisingly that women earn less than half of their male counterparts. the same is true for Fiji (0.48), Samoa (0.38), and Indonesia (0.46). in contrast, women’s earning capacities in Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark are almost at par with their male counterparts. in the current volatile economic situation, women are especially affected. According to Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Secretary of United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), women are especially threatened in the global supply chain which “starts with a woman sewing a shirt in South Asia to it being sold at an upmarket department store in a developed country.”Women workers constitute 60 to 90 percent of the global labour force in the garment industry, and therefore constitute one of the most robust features of the industry. yet they are now the most threatened when global trade declines. During the sharp downturn in 2008, an estimated 22 million women have lost their jobs in the manufacturing sector alone, according to the International Labour Organization. an additional challenge is in the area of migration. many countries in the Asian and Middle East regions are labour-sending and labour-receiving countries, among them, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand, and all the Gulf countries. Majority of these are women who are deployed in the domestic sector and largely unprotected. yet the remittances they send home year after year serve to augment national incomes and keep their home economies afloat. to address these, here are five areas in which future action might be considered. first, assist women entrepreneurs, especially women in countries where these have shown some success. Thailand’s example is noteworthy, as rural industries and social enterprises have mushroomed all over the countryside. Government support is crucial by way of providing market linkages, assistance of product design and quality control. for countries like Cambodia that was hard-hit due to the contraction of the garment industry, women entrepreneurship should be encouraged via the route of social enterprises. this assistance will go far in augmenting incomes and changing the opportunity structures especially for poor women.Second, provide social protection to women migrants particularly from countries where a very large number of low- and medium-skilled women leave the country and participate in the unprotected domestic sector. Long-term savings schemes, retirement schemes and pension plans are especially beneficial for migrant workers, both men and women, who have spent their most productive years overseas, but are not able to benefit from any schemes that guarantee their future. third, women in post-conflict situations are most vulnerable due to the lack of a legal and regulatory framework to support and protect them. the cases of Afghanistan and Pakistan are particularly noteworthy, and so are the transition countries in Central Asia. Lack of economic opportunities in countries emerging from civil strife is particularly disadvantageous for women who frequently end up in the highly unregulated service sector, many of them vulnerable to prostitution and trafficking. Fourth, much still remains to be done in terms of upgrading our knowledge on how social, political and economic systems are heavily genderized. One area of emerging interest is the intersection between gender, energy, water and poverty. Women are particularly affected in terms of their inability to access energy and water requirements at the household level, and therefore this contributes to an increased work burden, which in turn exacerbates poverty. the tedious and painstaking task of searching for firewood and water for household use, for example, has been well documented. Finally, there should be no let-up in the support for traditional gender concerns in the areas of health and education. in an era of economic contraction, the temptation to cut back spending on education and health is strong. These cutbacks immediately reflect on women’s education and health outcomes. Spending on social services ought to continue, and investments on women’s health and education should be seen as a larger part of social investments that have future economic payoffs. the outlook for women in developing countries is positive, thanks largely to a global movement that strives for the advancement of women’s rights regardless of age, race, ethnicity, or religion. Bear in mind, however, that there are countries where the fight for female mutilation and girl marriages is still raging. While the laws banning these practices have been passed, it will be a challenge to the political systems of these countries to enforce them. These are sobering thoughts indeed. Teresita Cruz-del Rosario is Visiting Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. She was formerly Assistant Minister during the transition government of President Corazon Aquino. She has a background in sociology and social anthropology and specializes in development and development assistance, migration, governance, and social movements. She can be reached at )