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A New Year for Gender Equality

January 16, 2019

By Barbara Rodriguez

On January 2, I had the privilege of leading a gender workshop for university students from across the United States, South Korea, and Japan who were in Washington, DC, to participate in the U.S.-Japan-Korea Trilateral Forum. There is nothing quite like a room full of millennials, challenging their own assumptions and yours, to give you hope for the future. I was impressed as they interrogated stereotypes of women as natural caregivers and the relative ease of being a man in today’s world, and humbled as they reflected on how their gender identities intersect with their race, economic status, religion, and sexual orientation. These motivated young men and women adeptly navigated the space between self-disclosure and diplomacy, finding comfort in their common ground and exhilaration in their disagreement, while plotting out actions they will take to dismantle harmful gender norms in their families, communities, and careers. It was a fitting way to kick off a new year that brings with it the momentum and high expectations of last year’s auspicious developments.

There is no denying that 2018 saw signs of change and notable gains for gender equality and women’s empowerment in Asia and the Pacific, particularly concerning political participation and legal rights. In Afghanistan, a record 417 female candidates participated in the October parliamentary elections. Japan adopted new legislation to promote women’s political participation by urging political parties to make the number of male and female candidates as equal as possible and set targets for gender parity. Though nonbinding, this law is an important gesture in a country with consistently low representation of women in politics. Last year also brought significant progress for transgender rights in Pakistan, decriminalization of gay sex in India, and the introduction of paid leave for victims of domestic violence in New Zealand.

In addition to these national developments, the #MeToo movement spread throughout the region as the year progressed, directing unprecedented attention to the historic injustices and inequalities experienced by women, specifically those related to sexual harassment in the workplace. Led by grassroots activists, this movement gained traction across Asia, opening space for countless stories of harassment and new opportunities to hold perpetrators to account. Combating sexual harassment can seem Sisyphean, but 2018 showed that from Hollywood to Hong Kong, survivors are strong, and systems can change.

LGBT activists hold a long rainbow-colored flag demanding equality during Queer Swabhimana Yatra Photo/reddees /

Some of the most exciting developments I encountered in 2018 were within the development community and among donor governments. Though catalyzed by scandals and reports of rampant sexual assault in the humanitarian and development aid sectors (as detailed in this report, among other outlets), efforts like DFID’s enhanced safeguarding standards for preventing and responding to harm caused by sexual exploitation, abuse, harassment, or bullying have enormous value. It would be wise for other governments, donors, and aid agencies to follow suit.

The year just past also saw multilateral agencies like the Asian Development Bank expand their focus on gender equality by pledging that at least 75 percent of their operations will promote gender equality by 2030. And the largest economies in the world outlined ambitious commitments, in the Charlevoix G7 Summit Communique, related to advancing women’s full economic participation, improving access to quality education, and ending all forms of sexual and gender-based violence. Civil society is standing by, ready to help bring these commitments to fulfillment.

And so, as 2019 gets underway, we have much to build on. Every year we see individual women break boundaries, shatter ceilings, and set records. These victories are always a cause for celebration. But the change we need is systemic. The new year began with the 385-mile Women’s Wall across Kerala, India, to protest gender inequality, and a conference room in DC full of ambitious students from the United States and Asia preparing to transform gender norms for the next generation. As we forge ahead in this new year, my resolution is to appreciate the progress, painfully slow though it sometimes feels, and keep an eye on those systems. The future is feminist. Let’s build.

Barbara Rodriguez is associate director of The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.


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