Insights and Analysis

Throughout Asia: Effectively Addressing Women’s Empowerment Needs

May 16, 2007

By Carol H. Yost

In the last fifteen years, women throughout Asia have made significant gains in the political, social, and economic spheres. Growing prosperity has enhanced women’s positions in several countries, and there have been substantial investments in girls’ and women’s education, health, and overall social welfare, benefiting families. Women have made inroads in the political realm, particularly in local-level decision-making”despite under-representation of women in formal bodies. In part, this progress can be attributed to domestic and international forces that have first, challenged traditional gender stereotypes, and second, encouraged countries to adhere to universal standards for women’s rights.  However, much remains to be done.

There are three issues of central importance to women in Asia today: decentralization, economic development (especially small-medium enterprises), and gender-based violence. 


Most Asian countries are decentralizing authority “including budget decisions — to the local level. So it is absolutely critical to ensure that decentralization works to benefit, not further marginalize, women and poor people.  Many local Asian governments do not yet have the awareness, capacity, or political will to formulate policies that will improve government services and increase economic opportunities for groups and individuals who desperately require it.  Sub-standard service provision to women stems from there being no explicit incorporation of gender considerations in budget formulation. So service provision for women becomes an afterthought. This is unacceptable.

To address this problem, it is necessary to equip civil society, parliaments, and governments with the skills required to incorporate women’s needs into budget and policy formulation. International and bilateral donor agencies must take responsibility for asking key questions such as: What local capacities need to be improved to meet public needs?  How does decentralization affect diverse populations, including women, as well as diverse, distinct geographic and economic regions?

If agencies are serious about supporting gender equity and empowerment of women as key Millennium Development Goals, they have an obligation to base foreign assistance decisions on gender-disaggregated data and analysis.  Otherwise, the best-intentioned foreign assistance can end up advancing policies and budgets that do not support women and men equally, and that may in fact, hinder, rather than help, women and other vulnerable groups and slow the overall development of society.

Economic Development

It is estimated that approximately 30% of small and medium enterprises are owned by women. For women and for Asian countries this is good news because SMEs constitute one of the fastest growing segments of Asian economies today”and are an important engine for economic growth overall. In fact, SMEs have been called the backbone of Asian economies. And yet, women still face barriers to starting and growing businesses.

In some countries, women are barred from registering a business in their own name or getting a loan without the approval of their husband. Legal restrictions on women’s right to own or inherit property or sign contracts impedes their access to credit and hinders their independence as entrepreneurs.  And in general, women have yet to organize to form many women’s business associations.  Women business owners are barely represented in major trade negotiations, nor are their particular concerns woven into trade-related policies.

Women face other challenges as entrepreneurs.  Micro-credit programs in some countries have helped millions generate income, but the challenge is to go beyond meeting basic needs to scale up their businesses to lift their families out of poverty.  And some local governments, wittingly or not, undermine the economic prospects of their own poor citizens, specifically women, by imposing crippling levies and charges on trade and commerce. When governments impose arbitrary and burdensome levies and charges, these SMEs are the first to feel the pain.

Moreover, because of their small size, SMEs bear a proportionally higher cost of bad policy than larger enterprises. Job prospects for the poor evaporate as local SMEs lose competitiveness and profitability slumps. Local governments need to raise revenue locally, but must search for ways to do so that do not damage economic prospects and employment opportunities for the poor.

Indonesia is a case in point.  A recent study by The Asia Foundation and Regional Autonomy Watch (KPPOD) in Indonesia surveying 134 districts showed that 38% of all new local regulations distort the business environment. This can wreak havoc on local businesses”the main source of employment for ordinary Indonesians.  To hold government accountable for promoting pro-business policies, The Asia Foundation helped establish more than 70 independent business associations across Indonesia”and ensured that all have high proportions of women members.

In North Sulawesi, for example, 65% of business association members are women. These associations can put pressure on government to reduce barriers to business growth”including discriminatory policies toward women.  Many countries have found that a thorough analysis of the costs and benefits of proposed regulations has helped avoid unintended negative consequences, such as harming SMEs, women, and the poor.  Perhaps in no development sector is it more important to promote gender-sensitive policies that support women’s participation than in the SME sector.

Gender-based Violence

Sadly, no Asian nation is free from this egregious human rights abuse that leaves untold numbers of women physically and psychologically damaged”or dead.  Domestic violence against women is a crime and an urgent global human rights issue”but it is also a problem with wide-ranging socio-economic consequences.  To put this in context, a 2005 World Health Organization multi-country study found that 13- 61% of women had experienced physical violence from an intimate partner (the majority of respondents fell within 23 ” 49%).  And even where laws exist, often inaccessible legal systems and outdated societal attitudes add to the trauma experienced by victims. Women are often held responsible for the violence committed against them and in many places the law or the attitudes of judges and prosecutors enable perpetrators to act with impunity, and go unpunished.

Combating domestic violence requires a long-term, multi-faceted effort.  First, raising public awareness of the problem is crucial.  Challenging social norms that condone violence and providing assistance to victims is also necessary. And finally, establishing a legal framework for protection of women in the home and in the public domain — and building constituencies to hold governments accountable for enforcement of such laws — is required.

Most policymakers, unfortunately, do not consider violence against women a development issue. But unquestionably it is.  Violence is a leading cause of women’s absence from work, and naturally, there are health costs associated for treating injuries. On a larger scale, violence deters women from being full participants and beneficiaries of economic growth, which in turn hampers community and national development.

Trafficking in persons is another serious threat to women’s personal security, and continues to disproportionately affect women and girls. In recent years, nations have mobilized to combat this terrible problem, but far more can, and should, be done.

It is critical that policymakers and donor organizations understand how women are affected by policies related to decentralization, economic development, and gender-based violence, to ensure that policies support, and not impede, women’s full and equal participation in social, economic, and political life. Also, it must be recognized that women’s specific needs are often best addressed separately and intensively.

Carol Yost is the Director for The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program.


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