Women key to ASEAN’s Covid-19 response and economic development

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Women work at a leather factory in the Vietnamese northern province of Hung Yen. ASEAN needs to implement economic policies and strategies that will promote the empowerment of women and girls by ensuring that they are recognised as important economic players. AFP

The Covid-19 pandemic has posed challenges and uncertainties on a global scale, and no one is spared including ASEAN whose ambition of becoming a global player by 2025 through economic integration is suddenly in peril.

The Centre for Strategic and International Studies predicts that at the minimum, a sharp slowdown or recession is expected in all of the ASEAN economies this year, as business closures and the disruption of supply chains led to lost jobs for millions of people in each member state. The scenario is not encouraging, particularly for women who remain invisible in government-led Covid-19 response throughout the region.

Data collected by Global Health 5050 show that sex disaggregation of confirmed Covid-19 cases is only available in three out of the 10 ASEAN member states, with the Philippines being the only country that has data disaggregation by age. This gender-neutral approach fails to capture the differentiated impact of the pandemic on women and girls; yet, it continues to set the narrative and serve as the basis for policymaking.

For instance, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) Blueprint – which envisions a “highly integrated and cohesive” economic community by 2025 – follows a mainstream economic framework where a nation’s progress is measured by its economic growth. This fixation towards economic growth, however, tends to disregard the needs of women and girls in the region as well as their contributions to the economy.

Gender-based violence, which has escalated during the lockdowns, is addressed separately in the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) when, in reality, reversing the poverty that disproportionately exposes women and girls to gender-based violence through economic development is within the purview of the AEC.

Vietnam as chair this year envisions a “cohesive and responsive” ASEAN community, and this is an appropriate call for ASEAN in its collective response to the pandemic. During the turnover ceremony at the 35th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok in November last year, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc stated that Vietnam “wants to focus on solidarity and unity, economic connectivity, promoting the values and identities of the ASEAN Community” as its priority areas, among others.

Women in central agenda

Indeed, solidarity among all member states and with all ASEAN people is the region’s only way out of the pandemic. To ensure that no one is left behind, the ASEAN must consider the differentiated impact of the pandemic on women and girls and include them in its central agenda.

Now more than ever, the need for a feminist economic justice agenda for the ASEAN that addresses economic development holistically and structurally is critical. To truly realise ASEAN’s ambition of being cohesive and responsive, we urge the ASEAN heads of states to take into consideration the following recommendations during their 36th virtual ASEAN summit:

1. Develop economic policies that take into consideration the distinct experiences and contexts of women and girls to prevent and eliminate discrimination, gender stereotyping, violence against women and girls, and reduce women’s unpaid care work in the region.

2. Implement economic policies and strategies that will promote the empowerment of women and girls by ensuring that they are recognised as important economic players. Economic policies must improve their disadvantaged position in society.

3. Recognise that sexual violence and any forms of violence resulting from the implementation of “ASEAN Community Vision 2025” must be prevented and addressed.

4. The AEC to provide a mechanism for the meaningful and substantive participation of women in designing the ASEAN’s policies and programmes on economic integration to ensure that women’s voices and stories inform the ASEAN’s central agenda.

Efforts to address the economic impact of Covid-19 are futile if the specific contexts and distinct experiences of women and girls across the region are not considered. If women and girls continue to be invisible in ASEAN’s economic development paradigm, then they will continue to be excluded in the ASEAN’s vision of a cohesive economic community by 2025.

Jelen Paclarin (Quezon City, Philippines) is co-coordinator of the Weaving Women’s Voices in Southeast Asia (Weave). Jocelyn Villanueva (Cagayan De Oro, Philippines) is Oxfam’s Inclusive Markets and Women’s Economic Empowerment adviser.