Women in ICT: Entering a Forbidden Space

Tovkhon Monastery, Mongolia. Photo: Torbenbrinker / Wikimedia Creative Commons

Traveling last year in Mongolia’s Arkhangai Province, I joined a party climbing the Shireet Ulaan Uul, a rocky, forested mountain that rises to 2,600 meters from the ridges west of the Orkhon River. At the top of this peak, in 1684, the revered monk and polymath Zanabazar founded the Tovkhon Monastery, one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia. As we approached the summit, our guide gave us a quiet warning: the women should not climb to the top; the sacred pilgrimage site was reserved for men.

My work introducing Mongolian women entrepreneurs to information and communications technology (ICT) often brings to mind my experience near the summit and this remote, historic monastery with its lingering taboo, because of a more modern taboo—that ICT in Mongolia is only for men.

Paradoxically, the World Economic Forum in 2018 ranked Mongolia third best among all Asian countries in gender equality, after the Philippines and Bangladesh, and multiple studies have noted Mongolia’s “reverse gender gap” in tertiary education, where female university enrollment exceeds male enrollment by a ratio of 1.43 to 1. Mongolia’s score on the World Bank’s Global Gender Gap Index is a better-than-middling 0.71, where 1 represents perfect gender equality and 0 represents complete inequality, and the ratio of female to male labor-force participation is a near-median 0.81, 75th of 149 countries surveyed.

On the other hand, men still dominate top management in the public and private sectors. Women hold just 17.1 percent of seats in parliament and 36.7 percent of management posts in business. And despite their disproportionate college enrollment, just 1.4 percent of women take degrees in ICT, compared to 5.4 percent of men. As Mongolia, like many other countries, lacks sex-disaggregated statistics on ICT employment, there are no studies that have tracked how many of these women eventually pursue an ICT career, but we can assume it is fewer than the number who graduate.

KOICA and SOLUTEK visiting a client’s worksite

The Asia Foundation has recently launched an effort to bridge this gap between women and ICT in Mongolia. Working with a new partner, Korean IT company SOLUTEK Systems, Inc., and with continued support from the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), the Foundation is integrating ICT into the second phase of its successful Women’s Business Center and Incubator (WBC) project.

As we have written here in the past, the WBC has been a stand-out success in its three years of operation, with a growing base of more than 3,300 registered clients, an ongoing training and support program that has reached 7,500 small businesswomen, and an intensive business incubator that has produced 43 graduates. Significantly, most of these incubated businesses had previously been unregistered in order to dodge government regulations. The incubator increased the number of registered, taxpaying businesses in this group from eight to 37.

Beyond the numbers, the WBC has helped clients change their lives. In a survey concluding phase one of the project, clients spoke of discovering their own talent for business, gaining self-confidence, feeling supported and connected within the WBC community, and, most importantly, successfully building their own independent enterprises.

The second phase of the WBC project, with its emphasis on ICT, kicked off in November 2018. Since then, it has provided practical ICT training to more than 200 businesswomen on essential computer and online business skills. Equipping women entrepreneurs for the e-commerce era is crucial in Mongolia, where more than 80 percent of the population has internet access and many have already started buying and selling on Facebook. The WBC is also expanding its e-commerce platform to allow Mongolian businesswomen to reach international markets.


Phase two of the WBC also includes changes to the business incubator to support women who are running IT startups, including opportunities to pitch their ideas at startup events in Korea; a fund for developers, engineers, and office space; intellectual property support; and mentorships with successful IT businesses. Four women CEOs are currently enrolled, with businesses that vary from an online marketing service for restaurants—a new concept in Mongolia—to an online sales platform for handicrafts, which already has 40 sellers and over 1,000 customers.

Small and medium enterprises of all kinds are a vital part of Mongolia’s economic future. In a nation still overwhelmingly dependent on extractive industries, equipping women entrepreneurs with the latest ICT tools for marketing, sales, and business management is an important step towards a more balanced economy. It is also a step towards a more gender-equal Mongolia, opening the path, if you like, to that mountain peak where women were not allowed in the past.

Soomin Jun is a program specialist for The Asia Foundation in Mongolia. She can be reached at soomin.jun@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

City Life Survey: Myanmar’s Urban Voices

Yangon is a city rich with history—a former capital, a center of commerce, and today, a city bristling with construction cranes, clogged with vehicles, and throbbing with the aspirations of its swelling population. Demographic changes, economic growth, and Myanmar’s new international openness have left the Yangon City Development Committee, the city’s municipal government, scrambling to deliver public services and provide effective governance for a population of almost six million.

Yangon. Photo/James Owen

After decades of international isolation and government secrecy that left a lasting deficit in public trust and participation, the governments of Myanmar’s major cities have begun to recognize that effective governance is built on communication between a city’s leaders and its citizens. Quite simply, governments cannot serve the governed if they don’t know what’s going on. Elected officials, who must provide effective public services with limited resources, are awakening to the information value of public participation. The Development Affairs Organization of Taunggyi, a city in Southern Shan State, and the mayor of Mandalay City, for example, have been actively corresponding with city residents on Facebook. In Yangon’s recent election debates, one candidate proclaimed that citizens would be able to call him personally to register complaints.

As a citizen of Yangon City, I understand the importance of this public dialogue. Government decisions on routine matters such as public transit, waste collection, deteriorating air quality, the proliferation of concrete high-rises, or the growing intensity of traffic jams affect the well-being of every resident of this city every day. But while openness to public opinion is an important step for an emerging democracy, anecdotal information from Facebook posts and phone calls from dissatisfied citizens can be treacherously unreliable, amplifying the voices of a motivated, but not necessarily representative, few. Clearly, the first step in responsive, democratic policymaking—understanding the will of the people—is a tall one.

This is why my team at The Asia Foundation, Myanmar, has developed the City Life Survey (CLS), a modern data tool for democratic policymaking by urban decision-makers.

Taunggyi. Photo/James Owen

Launched as a pilot in 2017, CLS is a multiyear, multicity, public-perception survey designed to provide reliable information about the lives and concerns of Myanmar’s urban residents. In 2018, CLS conducted a scientific poll in five Myanmar cities: Yangon, Mandalay, Mawlamyine, Monywa, and Taunggyi. A sample of 2,400 respondents answered 135 questions encompassing their social, economic, and physical well-being and their opinions on urban problems. The substantial sample size and formal survey methodology assure that results represent an accurate cross-section of the urban population, from prosperous residents of city centers to recently arrived migrants on the outskirts.

The survey yielded a variety of practical information for improving the responsiveness of local government. It showed, for example, that if the citizens of Yangon could choose how to spend public funds, they would put most into roads, drainage, and garbage collection. My own, highly unscientific survey, in the form of informal conversations with multiple citizens at municipal election debates, agrees with these findings.

In another interesting result, more than half of CLS respondents revealed that they do not clearly understand what their municipal government is responsible for or how it pays for its operations. This government opacity has sown mistrust, fostered suspicions of corruption, and created a destructive mismatch between government operations and public expectations. I used to be one of these residents. I would see workers filling potholes or clearing drains, yet I never understood why these roads were mended while those on another side of the city were not. The insight from CLS that this incomprehension is widespread should be a call to action to municipal governments to increase public outreach and transparency.

The Author

On a positive note, the survey found high levels of social trust among urban residents, with 48 percent saying that the people in their city are trustworthy. Social engagement is also very high, with a whopping 92 percent donating to a charitable cause and 60 percent volunteering their time every few months. This reservoir of social capital will be a valuable source of public support for local governments as the seek to rationalize vital public functions such as the tax system.

Even with good will and a commitment to serving the public, identifying and prioritizing urban issues is complex. As CLS continues to collect data and expands to include additional cities, policymakers across Myanmar will be able to hear clearly the voice of the urban public as a community. We hope that CLS will spark a demand for more reliable data, systematic research and analysis, healthy competition among cities, and better-informed urban policymaking.

Hillary Yu Zin Htoon is a program officer for The Asia Foundation in Myanmar. She can be reached at yuzin.htoon@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

The Book Effect

At this moment, news feeds are flooded with stories of disparity and division. On the heels of the “varsity blues” college admissions scandal, we are reminded that the gap between privileged and disadvantaged children is wider than ever. Tension between cultures is mounting, and the global cooperation of nations is at an all-time low. These realities are hitting low-income countries hardest, where resources are too scarce to conciliate diverse populations. While there are many efforts to address the world’s biggest challenges, key problem-solvers are overlooking a powerful and proven tool—books.

Here’s the truth: despite all we know about privilege, a child’s passion for reading better predicts their academic success than their family’s socioeconomic status. Let me say that again: a child’s passion for reading better predicts academic success than their family’s socioeconomic status. Children who develop a love of reading are more likely to read better, write better, build their vocabulary, and comprehend more in their reading. Sharing books in a household and talking with children about these stories helps children be safe and successful and supports their emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and social health. People who develop a love of reading at an early age see lifelong benefits and are better able to care for themselves and their families as adults. Even more, reading children become reading adults who are more likely to be employed and able to contribute to local economies.

The benefits books offer to children and families ripple beyond the home and into the communities where they live. When children discover themselves in the pages of books, they begin to find confidence in their own identity and their potential to contribute to society. At the same time, books that introduce children to the immense diversity of identities in the world can cultivate empathy, tolerance, respect, and a richer understanding and acceptance of other cultures. The unique ability of books to act as both mirrors that reflect our own identities and windows that introduce us to the experiences of others makes them a valuable tool for the growth of collaborative communities and tolerant societies.

But creating diverse books for diverse populations of children is impractical for market-driven publishers and cost-prohibitive for community-based NGOs. In places that are remote, war torn, or postconflict, books and reading are often not a priority. As a result, there is today a massive book scarcity in parts of the world that leaves millions of teachers and families without one of education’s most critical tools, and millions of children without the opportunity to fall in love with the characters in colorful storybooks.

To unlock the enormous multigenerational and societal benefits of reading, we need to work with communities to spark demand. At the same time, we must support the development of book ecosystems: networks of authors, illustrators, and translators able to produce high-quality children’s books that reflect local languages and cultures. Finally, in a digital age, we can and must use the power of technology to create equitable access to the transformative power of The Book Effect.

This op-ed originally appeared, in slightly different form, in Thomson-Reuters Foundation News.

A new film, shot on location in Cambodia and Laos, explores how The Asia Foundation’s free digital library, Let’s Read, is building sustainable book ecosystems in Asia. The film debuted at the 2019 conference of the Comparative & International Education Society, in San Francisco.

Morgan Belveal holds degrees in children’s studies, international educational development, and human development and is a program specialist for Let’s Read. He can be reached at morgan.belveal@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Giving Voice, Leading Change

When The Asia Foundation says it believes, and invests, in emerging leaders in Asia, it goes a step beyond leadership programs. The Foundation opens itself to be steered by the very leaders it cultivates. I saw this first hand when, as a graduate of the Asia Foundation Development Fellows program, I was appointed to a two-year term on the Foundation’s board of trustees.

Those two years, from January 2017 to January 2019, expanded what I had learned in my 13 years as a development professional. It was one thing, I found, to have expertise in governance and development in the Philippines and Southeast Asia; it was another to have a voice in shaping programs in the 18 countries where the Foundation works. Understanding the broad thematic issues in Asia was, again, one thing; confronting the perplexing nuances of intra- and intercountry issues was another.

Meeting and working with the Foundation’s program officers and country representatives, with government officials and civil society partners, were rocket boosters for my understanding of the wellsprings of change in Asia. I saw how the Foundation nourished civil society in Myanmar by introducing mobile software to disseminate information about elections and candidates. I saw them help women and small entrepreneurs in Vietnam gain access to vital banking and financial services, transforming talent and ambition into economic opportunity. I learned how the Foundation’s program officers and country representatives could marshal the organization’s technical expertise to nurture the seeds of democratic reform in contentious political environments. And I marveled at the courage of Foundation staff, whose commitment to their work was unwavering in the face of serious security concerns.

Issues of economic empowerment, gender and development, civil society, security, and democratization are common themes across Asia, yet it is striking how particularities of the political and economic landscape in each country, region, district, or village can destine an initiative to failure or success. Through decades of learning, the Foundation has built a body of expertise that is unique to each country. It is this kind of deep local expertise that makes it possible to venture further and attempt new initiatives that will advance the state of the art.

As a trustee, I witnessed this blending of experience and innovation first hand. I sat on committees with distinguished ambassadors, prominent academics, philanthropists, and industry leaders with decades of experience in their respective fields, many of whom I had been reading, and reading about, since my earliest years in the profession. Yet, when I offered a contribution to the discussion, they listened, because, they said, I was giving voice to the communities that the Foundation serves and the changemakers on the front lines where the Foundation’s most important strategic and operational decisions can change lives.

That is the lesson I will take with me from my intense exposure to the Foundation’s work. Any effort to foster change and development in Asia must begin by creating a space in which the voices of people can be heard—the voices of individuals and communities, of advocates and emerging leaders, of women, of entrepreneurs. The Foundation’s commitment to hearing those voices extends all the way to its board of trustees.

My greatest personal satisfaction has been the affirmation that the contributions I made in the two years of my term were valued by my exceptional colleagues. As I said my thank-yous and farewells in January, they sent me off with a heartening “see you again.” I look forward to that eventuality with enthusiasm, knowing that The Asia Foundation, led by its board of trustees and managed by its exceptional staff all over the world, is equal to its commitment to improving lives in Asia.

Czarina Medina-Guce is a public-policy and development practitioner in the Philippines and a former Asia Foundation development fellow. She recently completed a two-year term as a Foundation trustee, and now serves as senior adviser to the Foundation’s Leadership and Exchange programs. She can be reached at czarina.medina-guce@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

FRAME: Filmmakers Making Women’s Lives Visible

An Interview with Jane Sloane 

“Making women’s lives visible is a political act,” says The Asia Foundation’s Jane Sloane. “There are many women human-rights defenders who are akin to modern day Joans of Arc. I wish more of their stories could be the inspiration for feature films.”

Sloane was recently awarded an Atlantic Fellowship from the London School of Economics’ Inequalities Institute. She used the opportunity to launch an exhibition called FRAME: How Asia-Pacific Feminist Filmmakers and Artists Are Confronting Inequalities.

A collaboration with photographers and art directors Ariel and Sam Soto-Suver, and Maxine Williamson, artistic advisor and exhibition manager, FRAME showcases eight Asia-Pacific screen artists who are exploring and confronting inequality through their work both in front of and behind the camera: Anida Yoeu Ali, Jan Chapman, Mattie Do, Rubaiyat Hossain, Erica Glynn, Leena Yadav, Van Ha, and Anocha Suwichakornpong.

With FRAME now touring internationally, we invited Sloane to talk about her film series with InAsia

Anida Yoeu Ali. Photo/Ariel and Sam Soto-Suver

What made you focus your fellowship project on film?

Part of my passion for films is due to the influence they’ve had on me. Deepa Mehta’s Elements trilogy, Earth, Fire, and Water, the last of which focused on the plight of widows in India, profoundly affected me and set me thinking about the power of film to expose viewers to different realities. I was also greatly influenced by Jane Campion’s The Piano and the strength of the female character, Ada.             

I’ve also felt some frustration that so many women filmmakers in Asia and the Pacific aren’t being recognized for their work. I believe focusing on feminist filmmakers is a way to address the broader inequalities that women face as filmmakers.

Is this an important moment for women filmmakers in Asia?

Well, I think it’s a tipping point because of movements such as #MeToo, the Sustainable Development Goals, and 50/50 by 2020. With Asia now producing over half of the world’s films, it has real potential as the ground from which a lot of women filmmakers can spring.

One of the biggest issues in Asia and the Pacific is violence against women, and film is a powerful way to engage people in that conversation. I lead the work to empower women at The Asia Foundation, and something really interesting from the Foundation’s latest survey in Bangladesh is that boys around the age of nine and 10 are at a key moment in formulating their lifelong attitudes towards girls and women. Film is one of the most accessible mediums for young people in many Asian countries, and it has huge potential to influence the attitudes and behavior of the next generation.

Jan Chapman. Photo: Ariel and Sam Soto-Suver

Tell me about the films that are featured in FRAME. Are they very different from one another?

They are. There’s Mattie Do—her filmmaking captures the phenomenal wealth disparities that exist in Laos. Van Ha’s documentaries in Vietnam have focused on the dislocation of people living in poverty because of the effects of urbanization and corporatization. Erica Glynn, an indigenous Australian filmmaker, is really focused on issues such as the entrenched illiteracy that’s a reality for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples. Anida Ali’s work spectacularly challenges assumptions around gender, race, class, and religious identity, including Islamophobia, which is particularly important given the recent terrorist attack in New Zealand. Anocha Suwichakornpong has used film to make visible the roles that women have played as leaders and change-makers in history. And Jan Chapman, producer of The Piano, has played an instrumental role in lifting up strong female figures in filmmaking. I think that is the power of film, that it can challenge the audience at so many different levels.

With civil society under pressure in many places in Asia right now, how have these women been able to navigate the political landscape to maintain some freedom of expression in their films?

I think that the space for women to organize is closing down at the moment. It makes it harder for women to speak—in public spaces and in film. Often, it’s been a combination of tactics—diplomacy, organizing, networking. These filmmakers are so committed to their filmmaking that they have become very skilled at finding money, finding talent, and negotiating where they can film and under what conditions.

When I was in the Philippines recently, a group of feminist filmmakers specifically asked whether I could capture the story of their work in Mindanao tracking the role of women organizing and speaking out to end conflict and save lives. So, I feel like FRAME has really struck a chord, and that it’s something whose time has come.

FRAME opened at the Griffith Film School in Brisbane, Australia, in November 2018. Here is the text of Jane Sloane’s opening remarks. After featuring at the Australian Embassy in Berlin during the Berlin International Film Festival in February, FRAME will appear at the Sydney International Film Festival, followed by scheduled runs in New York, San Francisco, Italy, and Washington, D.C.

Jane Soane is director of The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program. She can be reached at jane.sloane@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the interviewee, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Watching and Waiting: Indonesia’s Upcoming Elections

On April 17, Indonesia will hold its sixth democratic election since the Reformasi protests brought down the authoritarian government of President Suharto. On streets thick with election posters, a mix of hope and trepidation fills the air. Development has begun to move faster in this complex archipelago of over 260 million people, particularly in the urban centers, and the standard of living is starting to improve after two decades of fits and starts. With clear vernal skies, a new underground rail system, and the macet—the capital’s infamously jammed traffic—moving smoothly as never before, Jakarta has a distinct spring in its step. Yet, as elections approach, the complex tensions beneath Indonesia’s sometimes fragile equilibrium—religious and ethnic differences, identity politics, and the massive gap between a wealthy and powerful elite and a poor and vulnerable population—are on vivid display to the world.

On the surface, the 2019 elections are an echo of 2014. The rags-to-riches incumbent, President Jokowi, now sporting a less secular demeanor and with debate raging over his first-term achievements, again faces former general Prabowo Subianto, with his less-than-resplendent record on human rights.

A multitude of new parties, the nouveaux riches of Indonesian politics, have been active this election season. As Indonesia’s government has decentralized, new centers of money and influence have arisen in many of its 514 newly empowered districts, and next week’s elections will turn as much on local as on national issues—that is, when they turn on the issues at all. Recent additions to Indonesia’s complicated political landscape rely on these powerful elites in local communities to fund their operations. These parties are money driven, personality centered, and powered by social media in a country saturated with mobile phones. While the Solidarity Partai stands out as having no direct link to the powerful Suharto or Sukarno dynasties, two new parties are connected to the Suharto name: Garuda, founded by a Suharto daughter, and Berkarya, founded by a son.

Large swaths of the country’s vast and vibrant civil society, previously vocal supporters of Jokowi, are taking a back seat in this election. There is a sense of ambivalence towards both presidential candidates—not just Prabowo—particularly among those who trace their lineage to the protest movements of 1998. That ambivalence is apparently mutual: a few weeks ago, one of Jokowi’s inner circle was heard to declare, “We can’t work with civil society.”

Stepping into the breach, school and university “alumni associations” have emerged as a new force for social advocacy. Political parties court these huge, membership-based alumni groups, while members of civil society organizations have joined them to stay relevant. In a sense, “alumni association” has become a politically acceptable term for “civil society” in a context where civil society represents an ideal of human rights and individual freedoms belonging to an era now past. Jokowi’s choice of Ma’ruf Amin, head of the Indonesian Ulama Council, as his running mate is emblematic of this antisecular trend. Amin has issued fatwas against the Ahmadiyya, a marginalized religious minority, and joined those who argued that former Jakarta governor Ahok, a Christian, should be jailed for blasphemy for claiming that Muslims are free to choose non-Muslim leaders. Amin’s nomination bodes ill for the outcome of these elections and for civil society itself.

This election, the relawan—the thousands upon thousands of local volunteers who took to the streets to mobilize voters—have seemingly disappeared, at least from the election coverage. At the same time, social media has burgeoned. Reminiscent of the U.S. and European flash mobs of the 1990s, this election is full of “events” announced on social media and attracting thousands of interested voters and observers, the first of which was a huge rally at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta at which Jokowi spoke some weeks ago. Not to be outdone, Prabowo held a “mega-rally” at the same stadium on April 7, claiming attendance of over a million.

While President Jokowi routinely attracts hundreds or thousands to his speaking events, he has also been challenged by social media. The hashtag #gantipresident, “change the president,” is at the heart of a debate over Jokowi’s posture toward the nation’s rising illiberalism and the competing discourses on Islam among Indonesia’s 260 million citizens. Some paint quite a dark picture of a president who came to power promising liberal democracy and more equitable development, accusing him of abandoning that promise and turning to illiberal methods, including the use of legal action to ban or silence opponents.

While there is truth in these observations, they are too simplistic. Jokowi clearly has his policy comfort zones—land clearing and the environment, infrastructure development, and anticorruption among the most obvious. But he has been weak or ineffective in engaging with the political dynamics of religion, preferring to avoid rather than address the issue. Since Jakarta’s deeply contentious gubernatorial election in 2016 and the subsequent imprisonment of Ahok, the defeated incumbent, rising intolerance has become an urgent public issue. Yet, the underlying ideological competition and confrontation between moderate Islam (in particular Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim mass organization) and the more radical Wahhabist strain has been ongoing for some time, and its social impact, in the form of rising intolerance, had already been felt at least since the decade in which Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was in power. A common depiction of this election is of a sudden erosion of democracy, tolerance, and inclusion. Arguably, however, that erosion has been happening for well over a decade.

By dodging divisive religious discourse, Jokowi effectively left himself without a position or an agenda on one of the most crucial issues facing Indonesia today. He now has no choice but to shift towards a more overtly religious platform.

And with that platform, according to the polls, he remains in the lead.

On April 17, despite recent efforts by Prabowo’s supporters to sow suspicion of the electoral process, Indonesia’s many local, regional, and national contests are quite likely to proceed smoothly. But there is a popular Indonesian saying: demokrasi prosedural baik tapi demokrasi substansial buruk—procedural democracy is fine, but substantial democracy has a long way to go. Indonesia’s procedural democracy has, in fact, come a long way, as this election may testify. Despite the severe technical challenges posed by Indonesia’s complex geography, April 17 will see legislative elections from the district to the national level in addition to the much-watched presidential ballot. It is a hugely ambitious effort, and evidence of the robustness of the democratic process. Yet, the intolerant discourse, laced with exclusionary identity politics, that has punctuated the last few weeks of campaigning, drowning out the articulation of clear or coherent policy platforms that might address the country’s urgent development needs, suggests that Indonesia’s substantial democracy is indeed a work in progress.

We watch and wait.

Nicola Nixon is The Asia Foundation’s governance director and Mochamad Mustafa is a democracy and governance program manager. They can be reached at nicola.nixon@asiafoundation.org and mochamad.mustafa@asiafoundation.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Big Hope, a Factory, and the Survival of Women in Bangladesh

In 1998, with her husband too sick to work and two children to support, Ashiron Nesa took an unusual step for a woman in rural Bangladesh: she started her own business. With no help from a bank, and just 40 Bangladeshi taka (BDT)—50 U.S. cents—in savings, she launched her company, Onek Asha (Big Hope), for the survival of her family. Twenty years later, she has her own factory, with 70 permanent employees and another 530 artisans working from home.

While Nesa’s remarkable success story is still unusual for a woman in culturally conservative Bangladesh, it is gradually becoming less so. The majority of women in Bangladesh are not only poor, they are caught between two vastly different worlds—the conservative world of culture and tradition, where their lives revolve around bearing and rearing children for a husband and provider, and another world, shaped by the harsh realities of increasing landlessness and poverty, where a woman’s independent livelihood can be a matter of personal and family survival.

As a result of these broad socioeconomic forces, entrepreneurship is growing among the female population of Bangladesh, and women now account for more than 10 percent of the nation’s entrepreneurs. They have made their mark in cottage industries and small-scale manufacturing, and they are even becoming a presence in traditional male preserves such as construction.

Since running a business inevitably draws women into the world outside the home, the influence of women entrepreneurs is also being felt in social and cultural settings, and women’s entrepreneurship has been recognized as an important contributor to national development more broadly. Business opportunities for poor, rural women like Nesa have become a special priority of the government and development organizations, and together they have promoted a range of programs offering skills training, access to credit, and marketing opportunities to support entrepreneurial development among women in rural Bangladesh.

In 2017, Ashiron Nesa began working with the WEESMS program—Women’s Economic Empowerment through Strengthening Market Systems—a partnership between The Asia Foundation and the market-based-development organization iDE that promotes entrepreneurship and employment opportunities for women. WEESMS provided Nesa with advanced business training, arranged “exposure visits” to learn new business and design ideas, and introduced her to Bangladesh’s first e-commerce platform, Bagdoom.com, which has significantly increased her sales. She also received training in workplace safety.

Nesa’s company makes jute products such as carpets, curtains, sandals, baskets, and floor mats. She employs mostly disadvantaged women—widows, divorcees, and victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse—whom she trains on the job. When she was first starting out, 20 years ago, her fellow villagers had little sympathy for a woman who chose to work. Her relatives were also unsupportive and pressured her to leave her disabled husband rather than be “forced to work and support the family,” which they saw as beneath her. But Nesa persevered, gradually winning over her critics in village meetings, growing her business, and eventually obtaining treatment for her husband, who recovered and now plays an important role in the business. He helps her obtain raw materials and promote and market her products, and he helps run their household.

In 2013, on Begum Rokeya Day, named for the famous Bengali writer and women’s rights activist, the government of Bangladesh presented Nesa with the Joyeeta Award in recognition of her success in the face of overwhelming challenges. Today she has monthly sales of BDT 100,000—roughly USD 1,200—2,400 times her original investment of just 50 cents. She recently bought a new plot of land to expand her factory, and she dreams of bringing financial independence to all the women in her village.

Women’s Economic Empowerment through Strengthening Market Systems (WEESMS) is a five-year project (2016–21) funded by the Embassy of Sweden.

Sukla Dey is a program manager for The Asia Foundation in Bangladesh. She can be reached at sukla.dey@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Making Federal Nepal Investment-Ready

The recently concluded Nepal Investment Summit 2019, convened by the government of Nepal in March in Kathmandu, has moved the country’s new economic agenda to center stage. The event, which drew industry leaders, senior government officials, and foreign delegates from over 40 countries, showcased a lineup of planned infrastructure projects and investment opportunities worth more than USD 24 billion. It was a watershed moment for Nepal’s first elected federal government as it seeks to redefine state and private-sector relations and promote the nation as an attractive investment destination.

Post-earthquake reconstruction of sites like the ancient reservoir in Patan, Nepal, is being fueled by a booming economy. Photo: Corey O’Hara / Shutterstock.com

“Prosperous Nepal, Happy Nepalis” has been the government’s campaign slogan since it assumed office in 2018, finally appearing to deliver on the 2015 constitution’s promise of political stability. This long-awaited stability is now allowing the country to focus on the national economic agenda after years of conflict and political impasse and the contentious process of drafting the constitution.

Postconflict Nepal has made significant gains in poverty reduction, averaging 4 percent annual GDP growth over the last five years, including a dip after the earthquake and then a resurgence as investor confidence, fueled by successful elections and post-reconstruction infrastructure investments, boosted the growth rate to 7 percent in 2017. FY18 results are expected to show 6 percent growth, and a target of 7–8 percent seems within reach.

Although foreign remittances, accounting for some 28 percent of GDP, have insulated Nepal from macroeconomic shocks, they have also led to dependency and consumption-driven growth that has hindered competitiveness, as reflected in the declining export sector and low rates of investment despite a high national savings rate. If Nepal wants to graduate to middle-income status by 2030, higher rates of productivity and investment will be needed.

The summit signals the unanimous recognition that economic growth is important. Pro-investment legislation in advance of the summit, including the Public-Private Partnership Act, the Special Economic Zone Act, and the Foreign Technology and Transfer Act, will streamline regulatory clearances and increase the ease of doing business to attract domestic and foreign direct investment. While the federal government has taken the lead, economic decentralization has been an important part of restructuring under the new constitution, and coordinated efforts by a consortium of subnational actors that includes provincial and local governments will be equally important to attract investment.

A busy market in Kathmandu. Photo: aiyoshi597 / Shutterstock.com

On the heels of the summit, Nepal is entering a phase of “competitive federalism,” with provincial governments vying independently for funds and investments. The devolution of economic roles and responsibilities under the new federal structure is changing old power relations, and subnational governments now have the flexibility to adjust their own expenditures and manage the business climate within their jurisdictions. Recent declarations by Province 2 proposing 20-year tax exemptions, one-stop business registration, and improved access to water and energy services are intended to signal an investment-ready environment. Sudarpaschim Province plans to establish a Provincial Investment Board that will approve and fast-track projects with capital investment above a certain threshold. It is only a matter of time before other subnational governments join the competition, with policies and incentives to attract investment to their own development corridors.

While this competition among subnational governments has many benefits, it could also leave them vulnerable to exploitation by reducing their individual bargaining power. This newly competitive environment will require stronger economic governance and improved regulation to avert a potential race to the bottom. Federal institutions like the National Natural Resource Fiscal Commission (NNFRC) will be called upon to regulate competition while maintaining an environment that is conducive to private-sector investment and sustainable economic growth.The new NNFRC commissioners have recently been sworn in, marking the inauguration of this critical agency of fiscal federalism. The commission has a long road ahead and will need to quickly establish clear rules of engagement between regional governments and private-sector partners. Critical issues like confusion over the tax jurisdictions of different tiers of government need immediate attention from the NNFRC, but they also present an opportunity to revamp tax policies to incentivize investment.

A woman roasts corn over a charcoal fire in Kathmandu. Nepal’s economy is growing rapidly, but unequally. Photo: Corey O’Hara / Shutterstock.com

As Nepal works towards an advanced manufacturing and service sector, human capital will be as important as physical infrastructure, and workforce development must be a priority. Corruption still looms large, and the government will also have to address this issue to attract quality investments and improve project efficiency. The advent of federalism is a unique opportunity to create the conditions for private-sector growth, investment, job creation, and economic restructuring that will eventually transform Nepal from an agricultural to a manufacturing and service economy. This moment is a chance to rethink fundamental institutions and, in the process, to develop a deeper understanding of how communities and businesses in Nepal can thrive.

Ashray Pande is a senior program officer in The Asia Foundation’s Local Governance Program in Nepal. He can be reached at ashray.pande@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

New Faces, New Chapter in Thai Politics

Thailand’s March 24 parliamentary election is still playing out, and uncertainty about the results is likely to continue for weeks. At the time of this post, the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) has announced a preliminary tally giving the Pheu Thai Party 135 seats, or 38.6 percent, and the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) 98 seats, or 28 percent (see election map here). In a major surprise, the PPRP won nearly half a million more votes than Pheu Thai, the first time in 20 years that Pheu Thai or its predecessor parties have not won the popular vote. The ECT has 60 days to confirm the final results, and members of the upper house—who will be selected, not elected, according to the current constitution—will not be determined until next month, meaning the vote for prime minister may not occur until mid-May. We will be waiting awhile longer.

Photo/Sek Samyan – Shutterstock.com

The media and election-monitoring groups have raised several legitimate concerns that have undermined the credibility of the outcome in the eyes of many Thai citizens and emboldened opponents of the current government. While the vote itself was relatively smooth, counting and reporting has been surprisingly chaotic. The announcement of results has been postponed several times, leading many to raise suspicions of vote-count manipulation. While there is no direct evidence to corroborate these accusations, the delays certainly give the impression of poor management and communication by the ECT.

According to the Asian Network for Free Elections, the only major international election-monitoring group to field observers, the election had several serious technical and management problems, though these are unlikely to affect the end result. Several parties are raising concerns about irregularities, but these issues will take weeks to investigate. A massive petition is in the works to remove the ECT commissioners. It seems that many Thais are frustrated with the conduct of this election.

A critical stage of the process is now beginning, as the two largest parties pursue rival efforts to form a governing coalition.

So, what is new about this election? Have Thai politics changed? Memories of political chaos cast a long a shadow over Sunday’s vote—massive street protests by red-shirts and yellow-shirts, occupations of government buildings, military coups, and political brinksmanship that paralyzed government for more than a decade. Have we moved beyond the days of polarized, red-yellow politics?

New faces, new parties

Probably the most exciting aspect of this election was the emergence of new faces and new parties. The new Future Forward Party was a breakaway success, with nearly 6 million votes and 87 seats making them the third-largest party. Led by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, FFP captivated millions of young people and urban voters with a progressive, anti-establishment message that provides a serious alternative to Pheu Thai. Despite their lack of a political machine, FFP managed to win all over the country with a strategy centered on social media. FFP won constituencies in the East (Trat and Chantaburi), the Northeast (Khon Kaen), the North (Chiang Rai and Phrae), and the Central Region (Bangkok, Samut Sakhon, Nakhom Pathom, Chacheongsao, and Phitsanulok).

Photo/Kan Sangtong – Shutterstock.com

If FFP does well in parliament, it could build a truly national constituency of progressive voters that spans rural and urban regions. This could help propel important issues like inequality beyond the traditional urban-rural divide and lead to real progress on critical reforms.

In the Muslim-majority Deep South, a new party has emerged, though with many familiar faces. The Prachachat Party won six of 11 seats in the southernmost provinces and is well positioned to become a strong voice for peace and reform in this troubled region. Party leaders include two prominent former government officials with historical ties to Pheu Thai and its predecessor parties, former interior minister Wan Muhammad Nor Matha and police colonel Thawee Sodsong, former head of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center. With an executive board of prominent Muslim leaders, there is some optimism that this new party will change the trajectory of conflict in the region.

Finally, there is the new PPRP. As the heir of the current government, and with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha as its sole candidate for the top job, PPRP does not seem like a new face on the surface. But its emergence as the second-largest party in terms of seats, and the largest in total votes, with nearly 8 million, has reshaped the electoral map, displacing the Democrat Party and other center-right parties. It seems that many former Democrat voters saw the current prime minister as more likely to deliver stability and gradual reforms.

Moving beyond red and yellow

The people associated with the red-shirt and yellow-shirt protests of the past decade fared much worse than in previous elections, especially on the yellow side. The Democrat Party, which was closely associated with the yellow-shirts, lost nearly all of its previous strongholds in Bangkok and surrounding regions. The Action Coalition for Thailand, led by a former yellow-shirt leader and Democrat deputy prime minister, won just a handful of seats. This election result, and the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the convictions of yellow-shirt leaders who occupied Government House in 2008, seem to presage the end of a political movement that sowed chaos and undermined elected governments from 2005 to 2014.

The retreat on the red side is subtler, but the direction seems clear. While the Pheu Thai party maintains its strongholds in the Northeastern Region, the new proportional representation system has reduced the party’s dominance. Red-shirt leaders were not included on the Pheu Thai candidate list, and their former leaders are plagued by ongoing legal troubles.

It is too early to tell whether the days of massive street protests are behind us. But the signs are hopeful that the red vs. yellow saga may be relegated to history.

Photo/Wadee Deeprawat

Coalitions will bring compromises

Finally, the new system of proportional representation has ensured that no single party can dominate the electoral landscape. For the foreseeablefuture, Thai governments are likely to be formed by coalitions, forcing the major parties to compromise on policies and leadership as they did not do under previous electoral systems. Already, Pheu Thai has publicly suggested supporting the leader of a smaller party for prime minister—Anutin Charnvirakul of the Phumjaithai Party—in exchange for forming a coalition. PPRP has significant incentives to form a broad coalition as well. Even with its advantage from the upper house role in electing the prime minister—which effectively means that PPRP may need as few as 126 seats in the lower house to win the PM vote, compared to 376 for Pheu Thai—PPRP needs to attract enough parties to raise its vote count to 251 to achieve a majority in the lower house. Without a majority, a PPRP government would face enormous difficulties in governing, including the inability to pass a budget and the ever-present possibility of a no-confidence vote.

Consensus on addressing inequality

After years of intense political debate over “populist policies,” this election has seen the emergence of a broad consensus on the need to address inequality in Thailand. Nearly every major-party platform, including the PPRP’s, included specific plans to improve the lives of people in the poorest regions of the country. The foundation is now in place for serious policy discussions on this critical issue (more on this next month, after we release a major study on this topic).

While we are still awaiting clarity on the outcome of the election, there is already evidence that Thai politics have changed in profound ways. Political divisions have not disappeared, and the problems with counting and reporting the vote have damaged the credibility of the electoral process. But there are also new faces, new messages, and potential avenues for cooperation that could lead to a different form of politics in the future. While the next government may give the appearance of continuity, the ground is shifting, with major implications for future elections and governments.

Thomas Parks is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Thailand. He can be reached at thomas.parks@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Meet One of Pakistan’s Rare Women Judges

The law is an overwhelmingly male profession in Pakistan. While women are now a significant presence in the nation’s law schools, female lawyers are rare, and judges even rarer. The patriarchal culture that prevails in the country generally deems women “unsuited” for the rough and tumble of legal practice, and they are routinely discouraged, in ways both subtle and overt, from joining the profession.

But with determination and persistence, a few women have broken the mold. Shazia Kausar is a judge, and a woman, in Punjab’s Okara district who has defied the gender stereotypes. Her swift ascent in her chosen profession has set an encouraging example for other women in the law.

Kausar’s modest office in Okara buzzes with activity. Ringing phones, clicking keyboards, and the muffled voices of colleagues discussing pressing deadlines can be heard from the adjoining room. Seated behind a gleaming wooden desk, Kausar flips quickly through a tall stack of files and signs a series of documents delivered by her assistant.

“I completed my schooling in Sahiwal,” she recalls, “where I went on to pursue my law degree. For my final exams, though, I had to shift to Lahore, where I stayed with a relative.” Moving to a new city brought its share of difficulties, Kausar says, but driven by her ambition, she immersed herself in her studies.

Her first cases as a young lawyer were personal. In one, she herself was a plaintiff. In another, she represented her father. “My first case involved a dispute over a check; I was on the plaintiff’s side,” she recalls.

She continued to grow professionally as a lawyer, but it was never her true calling. “I became a lawyer out of necessity, but I always harbored the ambition to become a judge. My father, an attorney himself, inspired me as a child, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”

Kausar passed the judiciary exam on her second attempt, and in 2010, her six-year tenure as a lawyer came to an end when she received her appointment to the bench. The work was intense. “Being a judge for two years is like being a lawyer for 40. One judge deals with around 80 cases a day,” she says.

As a legal professional, she says, she has encountered gender discrimination in many forms. It “irks” her, she confides, but says she was determined to prove herself. Owing to the widespread bias against women in the law, there are only a few active female attorneys. “Many people won’t refer cases to a woman, some even going so far as to say, how can a woman resolve a case!” she says. “Even women don’t favor a woman when it comes to selecting a lawyer; they consider men more competent for the task.”

Professional women in Pakistan face many occupational hurdles, and this is no less true in the legal profession. Among them is the overwhelming expectation in Pakistan that even a professional woman must carry the burden of managing the home and looking after children. This can be especially onerous for a judge, who must endure frequent, routine transfers to different postings.

“Even if a woman has a job, she is expected to perform her household duties like a full-time housewife, which puts a lot of pressure on time management. If she is posted outside her city and is living away from her husband, she also has to take on responsibilities traditionally held by men.”

Kausar has also found her work broadening in many ways.

Last year, she traveled to Rome—her first trip overseas—for a master class on alternative dispute resolution (ADR), part of The Asia Foundation’s alternative dispute resolution project. She says the expedition gave her a new perspective on ADR that broadened her intellectual horizons.

“The Rome trip enriched my thinking. I had, of course, already received basic training in ADR, but the master class in Rome introduced new dimensions and exposed me to a different cultural context, which gave me a deeper understanding of the concepts I had studied before.”

The alternative dispute resolution team in Italy

Asia Foundation research has found that women like Kausar are particularly effective in resolving family and community disputes, and the Foundation’s ADR project places a special emphasis on recruiting women from law schools and bar associations who can act as champions of women in the justice system. Kausar herself is a strong proponent of ADR as a way to provide quick and affordable justice. “Litigation is time consuming and costly,” she says. “ADR is useful because disputes are resolved once and for all without lengthy and expensive appeals.”

In addition to her own fierce determination, Kausar credits the exceptional support of her husband and her family for her successful career. “After marriage, women in Pakistan generally find it very difficult to keep working. We need the support of our male family members. In my case, my husband, who is also an attorney, pushed me to pursue my dreams, and even as a child, both my mother and father encouraged me to focus on my studies instead of household chores.”

Kausar wants to nurture the same values in her own children. She encourages them to participate in intellectually stimulating activities and to stay focused on education. As she reflects on the prospects for women in the law, her eyes sparkle: “Women should rise and shine!”

Abbas Hussain is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer for alternative dispute resolution in Pakistan. He can be reached at abbas.hussain@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.