Global Summit of Women 2001 Plenary Session

“Asia-Pacific Women: An Economic and Social Profile”(只備英文版)— Speech by Ms Anna Wu, Chairperson, Equal Opportunities Commission


An ancient Chinese belief has it that, of the 18 levels of hell, the lowest – and worst – level is reserved for those guilty of the most heinous crimes: children who kill their parents and wives who kill their husbands. No special punishment is prescribed for the relatively innocuous crime of a man killing his wife.

Such a predisposition favoring men over women – if not favoring wife-killers over husband killers – was not peculiar to China. In England, for a long time, the law allowed a man to beat his wife so long as he did it with a stick no thicker than his thumb. The "rule of thumb", as it became known, was practiced well into the late 18th century.

So what else is new? Well, life never fails to surprise you. On my trip to Brunei for the APEC Women Leaders' Network meeting in 2000, my husband and my then 10 year old son went with me. On the flight going there, my son asked what I would be doing there and I explained. He proceeded to give me his perspective of the world. He said, "I think women are less suited to being leaders than men. There are so few of them around!" He applied logic in reverse. You see fewer of them and therefore they are not as good.

These three stories just about sum up the social position of the Asia-Pacific women.

Asia is the largest continent in both size and population, covering almost a third of the world's land area and has about 60% of the world's population. The Asia-pacific comprises over 60 countries.

An assortment of political systems, economies and fiscal governance systems operate in the region. Among developing countries, East Asian economies have achieved rapid economic growth in the last few decades. As a result, the socio–economic development in Asia-Pacific countries can vary enormously from place to place.

To develop a socio-economic profile of women in this very diverse landscape is not easy.

In order to paint a more meaningful picture, I have decided to use the country groupings that have been adopted by the World Bank in its "World Development Report 1998/99". In this report, countries are divided into the categories of least developed countries (LDCs), low income countries (LICs), middle-income countries (MICs) and high-income countries (HICs).


Over the past decades, countries in Asia have outperformed the rest of the world in its rate of economic growth. In this process, women have also benefited in that labor force participation rate (LFPR) for women has increased although it still lags behind that of men. In 1998, women's labor force activity rates were 32% for LICs, 49% for MICs and 42 % for HICs.


Nearly 2/3 of the world's 876 million illiterates are women (UNESCO, 1999). The female literacy rate of 36 % in South Asia is the lowest among all regions of the world. Over the years, the gender gap in education is closing but it still exists.

In certain parts of the region, the enrolment rate of girls to primary and secondary education is particularly low. In the year1996, 22% girls in Afganistan had access to these 2 levels of education compared with 49% boys; 26% girls in Pakistan compared with 53% boys; and 38% girls in Bangladesh compared with 49% boys. There are some exceptions, such as in Vietnam, an LIC, where girls and boys had equal access to education in 1995.

Girls who receive little or no education go on to face enormous disadvantages in all aspects of their lives, such as access to employment, health, housing etc. They also tend to lack resources to tackle their poverty more effectively.

In stark contrast, access to education for girls in HICs was virtually equal to boys in all levels from primary to higher education. However, there seemed to be a consistently lower number of girls entering the science and technology streams. Although there are no comprehensive data for Asia-Pacific, the Equal Opportunities Commission's own research for data found that the significantly lower number of girls studying information technology in Hong Kong was also reflected in the US and Europe.


Women's participation rate in public life has generally increased over the years but remains very low compare to men. In the year 1999, the highest reported percentage of women in Parliament and the Legislature can be found in New Zealand at 29%. For the rest of the HICs, the percentage ranged from 4% (Singapore) to 22% (Australia). For the Hong Kong Legislature, it is 18% currently.

The political representation of women in countries with lower income reflected a similar pattern. In MICs, percentages ranged from 5 % (Sri Lanka) to 22% (China). In LICs, the percentages ranged from 2% (Pakistan) to 26% (Vietnam) while in LDCs, the range was from 2% (Bhutan) to 21% (Lao People's Democratic Republic).


Access to health care is generally better for women in HICs because of more resources to improve the general health of the nation. Life expectancy continues to increase for both women and men in this region. However, in LICs, women are still deprived of even the most basic care for their reproductive health, such as pre-natal care.

Infant mortality rates for boys are generally higher than for girls although figures for 1995-2000 for India, China and less developed parts of Eastern, Southern and South-Eastern Asia showed a higher number of infant deaths in girls. Gender-based discrimination in favor of boys might have been a factor. A study done in Hong Kong some years ago showed boys getting more pocket money than girls!

Women are vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections and the number of women who are infected with HIV, mainly through heterosexual contact, is rising. Globally, women represent 46% (14.8 million) of adults living with HIV/AIDS. In Asia-Pacific, the number of women infected with HIV/AIDS is also increasing but is more serious in countries where there are also problems associated with the trafficking of women into prostitution. In Southern and South-Eastern Asia for the year 2000, 35% of adults living with HIV/AIDS were women. This has ramifications for child birth, breast feeding and child care.

Many developing countries in the Asia Pacific region do not provide high quality primary health care, yet more countries are reporting a growing trend of privatization of public health services and the introduction of user-fee, e.g, Cambodia, Lao, Philippines, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.

• In Indonesia, user-fees are even charged for childbirth services:

• In the Philippines, privatization has led to the sale of government land and closure or scaling down of vital public hospital services in mental health, leprosy and TB;

• In New Zealand, government officials say that health rationing is now a fact of life

Under globalisation, domestic markets are opened to multinational corporations. NGOs in China, India, the Philippines and Indonesia, due to financial crises, report that spiraling costs of medicines are a growing barrier to healthcare. Women place their health needs last when cost is an issue, seeking medical care too late or not at all.


Education is one of the most effective equalizer for women. Education investment in young women has been regarded by economists as the best form of investment and the benefits can be quite dramatic. Increase in average schooling has enhanced productivity and output.

In India, increasing average primary schooling of the work force by one year increased output by 23%. More specifically, education has had the following effect on women:

• In urban India, when mothers were uneducated, the child mortality rate was as high as 82%, but it dropped sharply to 34% when mothers were educated.

• In Bangladesh, contraceptive use was only 27% for women with no education but increased to 66% for women with more than secondary school.

• In Sri Lanka, high female literacy (87%) has contributed to decline in the rate of population growth to only 1.3% a year.

Education has led to many social benefits including improvements in hygiene, reduction in mortality rate, decline in population growth, increase in labor participation and in productivity and greater political empowerment.

Education is an investment in human capital and sustainable development both of which help to narrow the gender gap.

Women in the family play a unique role. They are able to transfer the benefits of their own advancement to the family and thus multiply the effect of the benefits. In the process, the women become an agent of change for themselves and the family. Let me give you a few examples (information provided at a previous Global Summit of Women):

Studies have shown that as mothers become better educated, the health and education of the children also improve. In the Philippines, studies have shown that families whose household incomes derive from women are less under-nourished. In the Ivory Coast, it was found that if women had as much control as men over cash income, the amount spent on food would rise by 9% while spending on cigarettes would fall by 55% and on alcohol by 99%.


Besides education, information technology (IT) will be another major empowering factor in the coming decades. Anyone who has recently visited major cities of China will have seen young Mainlanders, bright, enterprising and eager to take on the world. Many of them are computer-literate and web users. They eagerly adopt bulletin boards and chat rooms to express themselves and exchange ideas. They have access to information and events that do not appear in the official press. This has made them attuned to what is happening around the country and the world. China already has 51 million mobile-phone users and as wireless technology develops, China will soon have one of the world's largest group of wireless Internet users.

Web studies by the Angus Reid Group showed 35% of the Hong Kong population used the Internet in 2000 while the percentage for Urban China Mainland was 12%. The percentage for the US was 59% and for Japan 33%. About 59% of Internet users in 2000 were male and 41% female; however, for people who intended to go online in a year, an estimated 54% would be female and 46% male.

We say knowledge based work is genderless and we know the New Economy is being propelled by the spread of IT.

Many women in Asia-Pacific cannot enjoy what knowledge IT is offering, because of a lack of resources to access it, and because of a lower level of education and a lack of English skills. 80% of the web information is in English. Techno access and literacy are main obstacles.

A recent University of Hong Kong survey showed far fewer female students have confidence in using IT (1:10). This is going to put young women at a disadvantage in both learning and employment.

For the significant number of women who are confined to their homes, IT also offers the potential to help them develop new careers at home. The promotion of the Small Office Home Office (SOHO) concept can open new avenues for women.

The corporate world can, in partnership with governments, offer on the job training in IT and education programmes. Social accountability is being discussed in boardrooms far more seriously than before. The UN Global Compact is calling upon businesses to promote human rights in their sphere of influence. Corporations can be agents of change.


Now, I would like to talk about money. Women have trouble getting credit cards or borrowing money from banks with which to start small businesses, although women are in fact incredibly good repayers.

UNIFEM has made it clear that women's progress depends on economic progress. Micro-credit is one of the most effective tools that we have at our disposal. We have to ensure that women, too often shut out from commercial bank credit, have access to the loans.

At the Microcredit Summit Meeting of Councils held in India in February 2001, 32 countries worldwide gathered to discuss the actions that could be taken in eradicating poverty in the Asia-Pacific region as well as the rest of the world. One of the core themes of the Microcredit Summit is to reach and empower women because women are often the ones with access to the least resources as well as employment and education opportunities.


After years of boom and expansion, the economies of Asia faced a sudden contraction. The Asian economic crisis had caused severe political, social and human rights consequence. Countries that experienced decades of rapid economic growth suddenly faced steep declines in GDP of up to 20%. The devastating social consequences include:

• acute food and medical shortages,
• massive unemployment,
• reduced public spending in areas such as health, housing and education,
• sharp price rises for essential items,
• shrinking purchasing power.

The World Bank estimated that some 400 million people were affected. Widespread discontent caused instability and undermined development. Against this background the shadow was cast that the gender gap would increase and not decrease. It is telling that the Asian Development Bank in its education loan to Indonesia required that half be spent on girls.


The process of globalisation has had a dramatic impact on the world economy. Removing trade barriers can leave countries vulnerable to global changes. The push for competition, deregulation, privatisation and open capital markets is found to have undermined the economic prospects for many of the world's poorest people, many of whom are women.

The power of the corporations in an open border scenario can be enormous. This can result in exploitation of people, deprivation of rights, damage to health and devastation to the environment.

The one good thing that came out of the Asian Crisis was the call for sustainable development built on the basis of equity, human rights and good governance and corporate partnerships in the area of human rights.

The World Bank for instance has begun instituting judicial reforms for the protection of human rights to achieve more sustainable and broad-based economic growth.

International law has now also raised the prospect of using international human rights covenants, such as the right to health, to mitigate against the restrictions created by patented drugs for HIV/AIDS treatment and allow generic drugs to be produced, International human rights norms are being used to balance the encroachment of unmitigated globalisation and patented monopolies.

Aid program and international trade have now taken a stronger rights approach to promote sustainable growth, and social accountability of business is becoming a more significant part of commerce. The corporation can bring in a large body of policies to benefit the local economy. It is the rights approach that will narrow the gap for women.