• Ishwinder Kaur, Manager, Partnerships, Grow Asia

Advancing women’s economic empowerment in South East Asia

We all like to have choices in life; and, best of all, choices that appeal to us. There is much said about the differences between women and men, but this we have in common. However, the way most of the world works is that men get more choices than women – a reality that is, unfortunately, reflected in the agriculture space. This is partly about power and agency, but also because of the lack of choices offered by businesses operating in our sector.

Although there has been progress in South East Asia, differences still exist between men and women due to gender. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that whilst women and men are broadly equally active in agriculture, except in Indonesia and the Philippines, women still lag far behind men in agricultural holding, with the female share at only 13 per cent.

Women also have less access to fertilizer and machinery than men and are 14 per cent less likely to own a mobile phone than men in Asia Pacific. Compared to men, women are systematically paid less and are more likely to find themselves in vulnerable employment with low wages, no formal contracts or labour rights and minimal social protection. In 2015, the gender pay gap in the region reached 20 per cent.

So why does this matter?

The ethical argument should be our first response: women and men should have equity in society; but there is also an economic argument which is of great relevance to business. The gains from closing the gender gap would be considerable. UNESCAP recently stated that “annual global output could be boosted by $28.4 trillion by 2025 through increasing women’s participation in the economy. Similarly, closing gender gaps in hours worked, participation and productivity could result in GDP gains of up to 48 per cent in South Asia and 30 per cent in East and Southeast Asia (excluding China) by 2025.”

The OECD has also shown the link between agricultural productivity and gender inequality: countries with lower levels of gender inequality tend to achieve higher average cereal yields.

The recipe for equality: ability and power

A woman is economically empowered when she has both the ability to succeed and advance economically and the power to make and act on economic decisions.

Grow Asia is a partnership platform that brings together stakeholders from multiple sectors across Southeast Asia to advance the productivity, farmer incomes and sustainability of agriculture in the region, with a specific focus on smallholders. To achieve this, a core part of Grow Asia's strategy is to increase the range and suitability of choices offered to women by businesses.

By driving dialogue, we can spur action. Grow Asia educates stakeholders on how gender affects the participation of women in a value chain and encourages companies to operate in a way that supports women. Grow Asia also helps establish crop working groups in sectors that are particularly relevant to women and supports the design and implementation of projects that increase women’s jobs and incomes.

Since the partnership’s formation by the World Economic Forum and ASEAN Secretariat in 2015, Grow Asia has acquired some influence over the norms and institutions in the five countries it operates within (Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam). In particular, we have seen great improvement in the way that businesses perceive women as workers, suppliers, intermediaries or customers, and local partnerships including women in their growing businesses.

We should look forward to the day when seeds, veterinary medicines and fertilizer are marketed in ways that suit women, where buyers of farm products contract women too, and providers of support services like loans, digital apps, and advisory services design their offer in a way that makes it easy for women to choose. Giving women more and better choices will lead to their economic advancement and that of the region.

This post originally appeared on the Chicago Council on Global Affairs blog, "Global Food for Thought".

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