Insights and Analysis

Advancing Gender Equality in Asia

September 12, 2018

By Eileen Pennington, Elizabeth Romanoff Silva

Earlier this year, the G7 launched the Gender Equality Advisory Council to promote the integration of gender equality and gender-based analysis across all G7 activities and outcomes. As part of Canada’s presidency of the G7 during 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “Gender equality must play a key role in creating lasting solutions to the challenges we face as a world.” The Gender Equality Advisory Council’s first report, Make Gender Inequality History, was released in June. It details commitments, investments, and measurable targets that G7 leaders should embrace to advance gender equality around the world. We see one recommendation as key to all the others: to adopt a feminist approach to international assistance by making gender equality a standalone objective and mainstreaming it throughout all development-assistance policies and programs. A few countries have already been leading the charge, including Sweden, which released its feminist foreign policy in 2014.

Asia Foundation Senior Vice President Gordon Hein moderates a donor panel with representatives from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Australian High Commission, Global Affairs Canada, and the European Union.

As countries and international entities have increasingly focused on mainstreaming gender within their foreign-assistance policies and operations, The Asia Foundation has been building a commitment to gender equality in both our programs and our internal practices for many years. Our Gender Smart Initiative is cultivating an organizational culture and staff capacity to advance gender equality both institutionally and programmatically. As part of this organizational commitment, the Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program team organized the State-of-the-Art Gender Equality Workshop in Sri Lanka in August. The three-day workshop brought together more than 50 gender specialists, program leaders, and senior staff from The Asia Foundation’s 18 country offices for a mix of plenary and small-group discussions of key topics, from how to conduct a gender analysis, to implementing a gender and social-inclusion focus within programming, to combatting sexual harassment, as well as program topics like empowering girls and expanding women’s economic opportunities. Here are five key takeaways from the discussions.

  1. Donors are deepening their commitment to gender equality, both in their funding priorities and by putting their own houses in order, and they expect those they fund to do the same. In the past ten years there has been a groundswell of support among bilateral and multilateral donors for gender-equality issues, along with a push for measurable goals for their institutional commitments. In one workshop panel, senior representatives from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Australian High Commission, Global Affairs Canada, and the European Union all voiced their commitment to mainstreaming gender equality internally and their firm expectation that partner organizations would institute structures, systems, and reporting that advance gender equality. 

    Mi Ki Kyaw Myint from our Myanmar office and Shabbir Shawkut from the Bangladesh office discuss The Asia Foundation’s gender analysis framework during an interactive skill-building exercise.

  2. Strong organizations invest in their staff as the key change agents for their work. Over 90 percent of Asia Foundation staff come from the countries where we work, and their insights into how to advance gender equality and empower women are critical to developing programs that are locally rooted and engage the right partners to make lasting change. Yet investing in staff is often an afterthought for organizations that are focused on the bottom line or on short time horizons. As a not-for-profit organization with almost seven decades of history in Asia, we are fortunate to have trustees and supporters who know how important it is to provide participatory training and skills building so that our staff have the tools they need to be on the cutting edge.
  3. Face-to-face engagement is critical. There’s a temptation in a globally connected world to imagine that most of our interactions can be achieved more efficiently through conference calls, webinars, and social-media connections. Yet the direct connections we make when colleagues working on similar issues are sitting across the table from each other are tangible. We quickly see that, despite the different country contexts in which we work, we are grappling with the same sticky issues of changing negative gender norms so that both men and women can realize their greatest potential. Brainstorming, debating approaches, and sharing the lessons of successes and failures spark new ideas and a readiness to collaborate that virtual connections cannot. Once those personal relationships have been built, virtual collaborations, which are important, are far more likely to yield meaningful results.
  4. To be a leader in gender equality, an organization needs to scrutinize its own practices. These types of interactive workshops are a springboard to conversations about our own institutional policies and practices and how we can learn from each other to “walk the walk” of a gender-equitable organization. Earlier this year, to further our commitment to our women’s empowerment and gender equality goals, The Asia Foundation endorsed the eight Minimum Standards for Mainstreaming Gender Equality. These are a set of agreed-upon standards for gender mainstreaming in international development programming launched by the Gender Practitioners Collaborative, a community of practice of gender advisors and technical gender experts from key international development organizations, of which The Asia Foundation is a member. Endorsing the minimum standards prompted some terrific discussion at the workshop about innovative practices that some of our country offices are undertaking—like bulletin boards and lunch chats that provide prompts for colleagues to talk about gender issues—that other country offices can adopt. Several offices have established Gender Committees, composed of staff working on different project teams, that enhance cross-learning and set action plans for the office to achieve and measure. We were struck by how creative and engaged our colleagues were, and we all came away with individual action plans to further the work.

    Roshan Shajehan from the Sri Lanka office presents a group action plan at the close of the workshop.

  5. There are tangible and immediate benefits to conducting in-depth gender and social inclusion analyses and building that new understanding into our programs. Discussions throughout the three-day workshop centered on the importance of conducting a gender analysis for every project. Staff from 18 country offices, working across programmatic areas, enjoyed a rich discussion of practical challenges and ways to overcome them. A gender analysis conducted for a labor-reform project in Malaysia was presented as a promising approach. The analysis found that women reached by the project were less likely than men to know their labor rights, and a higher percentage of women workers suffered labor-rights violations of which they were not aware. The findings informed the project’s outreach activities and communications materials, and informational flyers and additional educational workshops for women workers were organized as a result.

The State-of-the-Art Gender Equality Workshop provided an opportunity to examine the breadth and depth of the gender-smart work being carried out across the Foundation. We left with a renewed sense of purpose to move forward at a time of great change in Asia, which we hope will translate to greater gender equality and the advancement of women’s rights across the region.

Eileen Pennington is a senior gender advisor and Elizabeth Silva is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program in Washington, DC. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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