Feminising the Economy: Women’s Empowerment and Economic Development in the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC)

ASEAN is labelled as one of the most economically dynamic regions, with a positive record and good projection of economic growth and poverty reduction. ASEAN was the seventh-largest economic power in the world in 2014. Its combined GDP placed it as the third-largest economy in Asia.1 ASEAN also has the world’s third largest market and labour force, after China and India. The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), kicked off in 2015 as the region’s economic integration project, is projected to bring more benefit as the Community promises to bind the bloc closer and integrate most of its economic activities. And yet, ensuring an inclusive economic growth for everyone, especially in regards to ensuring gender equality, remains one of the key challenges for ASEAN.
Recent research on gender and development suggest that there is an asymmetrical correlation between gender equality and economic growth. Whilst there is a consistent pattern that indicates gender equality does have positive impacts on economic growth, there is less robust evidence for the claim that economic growth will result in better gender equality.2 Evidence suggests that societies with lower gender inequality tend to grow faster, and that higher gender equality in economic participation, education, health, and political empowerment has contributed to higher level of competitiveness and increase in GDP per capita.3 However, as the World Development Report (WDR) suggests, income growth by itself does not guarantee to deliver better gender equality on all fronts.4 These findings highlight the importance of not only improving women’s contribution to economic growth, but also in ensuring that economic growth will contribute to women’s empowerment and gender equality.
This article aims to examine women’s contribution to economic growth and, conversely, on the impact of economic growth to women’s empowerment in the context of AEC in ASEAN. It explores the general trend of economic growth and the pattern of women’s involvement in ASEAN’s economy. The article analyses why gender inequality in ASEAN persists through a critical examination of the way economy works.
Framing gender and development agenda in ASEAN
ASEAN excels well in terms of economic growth. According to IMF, the region’s economy grew at an average of 6 percent annually between 1990 and 2015.5 As a region with the third-largest labour force in the world, ASEAN’s economy is forecasted to further grow at an average 5 percent annually until 2020, and its middle-class population is projected to increase by around 70 to 194 million by 2020.6 The region is currently one of the most attractive destinations for foreign investment and trade cooperation, and it has embarked on an economic integration project through the AEC since 2015.
It was the ASEAN Vision 2020, adopted in 1997, that laid the foundation for the establishment of an “ASEAN Economic Region.” The 2009-2015 Road Map was then agreed upon as the blueprint to establish the three communities – AEC, Political-Security (APSC), Socio-Cultural (ASCC) – that will form the ASEAN Community. The AEC is envisioned to turn ASEAN into a single market and production base, allowing free flow of trade and investment across the member states, which will jointly develop policy for competition, intellectual property protection, e-commerce facilitation, as well as investment protection and dispute resolution system. Some of the key elements of the economic integration project are promotion of exports in eleven priority areas, including automotive, electronics, fisheries, air travel, and textiles, and free movement of skilled labour. The AEC Scorecard was then established to monitor the progress on the implementation of AEC, as well as to identify the gaps and challenges in achieving the vision. Currently, the AEC Blueprint 2025 serves as the main guideline for the implementation of AEC.
In terms of gender equality, the AEC Blueprint and the Scorecard have failed to incorporate specific gender goals. Whilst the AEC Blueprint has envisioned to ‘engender a more equitable and inclusive economic growth in ASEAN,’ and to ‘widen people-to-people’ connectivity,7 the document does not mention a specific element to promote gender equality and ensure equal participation and opportunity for women. The Scorecard has no indicator to track the extent to which economic progress has impacted gender equality and women’s empowerment within the region. Within the ASEAN framework, social and gender issues are included under the ASCC pillar, in which there are only four out of 31 indicators to track the progress of men and women separately.8
The aforementioned condition exposes two main problems related to the pursuit of gender equality agenda in ASEAN. First, the agenda on gender mainstreaming across all three pillars of ASEAN community has not yet been fully implemented, and ASEAN still lacks the substantive institutional coordination, especially between the economic pillar and the social pillar. Secondly, in the context of the gender and  development agenda, ASEAN still largely focuses on the instrumental value of gender equality and has not yet incorporated the agenda to promote the intrinsic value of gender equality.9 This means that ASEAN principally only regards gender equality as an important instrument to economic growth, but has not valued gender equality as an intrinsic element of human rights to ensure the ability to live the life of one’s own choosing and to be spared from absolute deprivation, which should be independent of whether one is male or female.10 Indeed, looking at the report on ‘Gender Dimensions of the ASEAN Economic Community’ published in 2016, ASEAN, similar to the World Bank, regards the gender equality agenda mainly as ‘smart economics’ agenda, which regards gender equality as an important contributing factor to economic efficiency and to achieve other key development outcomes. Although, similar to World Bank, ASEAN has gone so far as acknowledging that trade expansion and economic growth is not gender neutral and might potentially worsen gender inequality, it has not yet taken any serious research agenda or measure to address this gap.
Snapshot of women’s empowerment in the ASEAN region
Following the ‘smart economics’ agenda, women’s empowerment in the context of AEC often implicitly defines as the ability of women to participate in productive market activities to contribute to economic efficiency and development.There is variation across ASEAN member states’ achievement in realising gender equality in this regard. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2016 by the World Economic Forum, the Philippines is the highest performer in the East Asia and the Pacific region in terms of closing the gender gap as measured by economic opportunity and participation, educational attainment, health and survival, as well as political empowerment.11 It was followed by Lao PDR, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia, in that order. However, a closer examination will reveal that whilst a country can excel in a certain indicator, it might lack in others. For example in the case of the Philippines, whilst it has achieved a high score for educational attainment, its score for economic participation and political empowerment was still lower.
Specific to economic sectors, women’s participation is persistently low across all ASEAN countries. Although women’s participation in the economy in general has expanded, this has not yet translated into improvements in gender equality in employment, wages, decent work and social protection. Women share of employment in ASEAN generally fluctuates and varies across countries. According to the latest data available, women share of employment was lowest for Malaysia (37 percent), followed by Indonesia (38 percent) and the Philippines (39 percent).12 Women share of employment is equal in Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Lao PDR, but the rate has generally declined over time in Viet Nam and Cambodia. The rate of women’s participation in the economic in the rest of ASEAN countries has generally increased or remained more or less constant.13
Better employment rates do not necessarily reflect better gender equality, especially because women employment is usually concentrated in the low-skilled and informal sectors. In Southeast Asia, women employment is mainly concentrated in the agriculture, garment, tourism, and care service sectors. On average, women share of employment in agriculture is about 39.2 percent, whilst in services it is about 44.4 percent.14 The majority of women in these sectors are employed in vulnerable jobs, usually at the bottom-end of the supply chain or in informal care work, with almost complete absence of access to benefits and social protection because they perform short-term, contractual work. Other than this, the problem of gender wage gap also persists. According to ILO, women in Southeast Asia will continue to earn 20 percent less than men in 2025.15 Meanwhile, the employment in the rising high-skilled sectors such as automotive, electronics, financial services, as well as oil and energy, is still dominated by men.16
In this case, low labour participation rate for women is often explained as a result of low level of human capital amongst women, which is usually measured by the rate of education attainment. However, it is interesting to note that the 2016 MasterCard Index of Women’s Advancement has revealed that more women are enrolled in tertiary education compared to men across ASEAN, and generally, ASEAN women actually outperformed their male peers.17 Looking at this data, it can be observed that the persistently low rate of women’s labour participation in ASEAN seems to be more influenced by specific social or cultural factors that hinder the translation of women’s full potential to contribute to the economy.
In spite of all the reports indicating that women in ASEAN do not have valuable contribution to the economy, women actually have always been the main contributor to the economy. The problem is, their contribution is largely invisible and not valued as a “formal” or “market” work. Women have contributed substantially to economic development through large amounts of unpaid care work, such as household tasks and child rearing. In fact, women in Asia carry out around 2.5 times the amount of unpaid care work that men do, which is estimated to be worth around USD 10 trillion a year globally.18 It is also reported that married women in ASEAN spend around 3.5 hours more per day than married men to do unpaid household and care work, which has resulted in time poverty that further hinders women to fulfil market’s expectation to participate in labour force.19 This is problematic because whilst women bear the most burdens to make a good household environment to enable better quality of human resources, their contribution is not considered as a part of productive market activity within the economic system. ASEAN should start to take this problem seriously.
Add women and stir: the problem with liberal economy approach in AEC
In responding to the grim reality of women’s empowerment in the context of AEC, a recent report put the blame mainly on the social norms, laws and regulations, and institutional barriers that have contributed in creating a specific gender stereotype of jobs and discrimination in labour market.20 Whilst it is true and the report indicates a good progress in finding solutions, such observation has ignored the inherent gender-biased nature of the market economy system promoted by the AEC. To promote gender equality agenda more sustainably within the AEC framework, ASEAN should change the way its economy works by expanding the terms that defines what kind of things are valuable to the economy.
To achieve gender equality, ASEAN seems to promote an apolitical vision of women empowerment in the region. The agenda of women empowerment is put under the social-cultural pillar, and it is mainly framed as a way to boost economic growth and development, not necessarily to advance women’s well-being. As mentioned in the previous section, this means that ASEAN still has not taken the intrinsic value of gender equality as human rights in its development agenda. There seems to be a lack of efforts to go beyond the mainstream development narrative, which is mainly framed in terms of liberal market approach, to include women not just as an addition to labour force and a part of market instrument to generate growth.
The market economy is not gender-neutral. In fact, as long argued by feminists, labour markets are “bearers of gender” because they operate based on conventional gender construction that values men and women’s labour differently, and thus in doing so the system perpetuates the narrow gender views in the economy.21 Women’s undervalued contribution in the household sector is the case on point to illustrate this.
Women’s significant contribution in supporting the economy through household and care work remains largely invisible and unaccounted because of the limitation in defining what can be considered as valuable to the economy. The System of National Accounts (SNA) limits the kind of production that can be measured in the gross domestic product (GDP), which is used as the key indicator to measure economic development. Only works included in the category of “paid market work,” “unpaid market work” and “unpaid nonmarket work” are allowed to be counted.22 On the other hand, domestic and care services that include the care of the children, preparation of meals, as well as the care of the sick, the elderly, and persons with disability are not counted because it is considered to be both “unproductive” and “nonmarket.”23 This shows the way economic growth is counted is indeed gender-biased, and as a consequence, roles attached to femininity, and women’s potential roles in the economy, has always been undermined and undervalued.
ASEAN should start to tip the balance and acknowledge the intrinsic value of gender equality in the AEC, not just adding women to the current gender-biased system as an addition to the labour forces. Women’s contribution, wherever they wish it to be – from the public or private sphere – must be regarded as valuable and protected with adequate remuneration and social protection. ASEAN should start to build more robust substantive coordination between the three pillars of ASEAN Community, especially in integrating gender equality agenda to economic development goals. The main goal in gender equality agenda should not just limit to increase the participation of women in the economy, but also to ensure the quality of their participation and the consequences they will have to bear. Economic growth should not be the sole end, but must be used as the mean to enhance gender equality, both in realising its instrumental value and intrinsic value. Approaching its 50th years anniversary, ASEAN should promote this new way of promoting the intrinsic value of gender equality in AEC as its new priority.
ASEAN has a positive economic growth and development projection, but the landscape of women empowerment and gender equality in its economy has not shined as brightly. Women’s full potential remains largely inept and their contribution has not been fully counted, if not dismissed. Economic growth and gender equality should be mutually reinforcing, and ASEAN has the potential to promote this. ASEAN should pave the way to fully integrate gender equality agenda in its economic development targets, especially in the context of AEC. It should move forward from the mainstream policy discourse that promotes women’s economic empowerment mostly in terms of women’s instrumental potential and contribution to the narrowly defined market economy. As an organisation that priorities human rights protection and promotion, ASEAN should formulate new ways of doing business to ensure economic growth does not perpetuate gender inequality and does enhance the intrinsic value of gender equality as an important element of human rights. To ensure the sustainability of gender equality agenda, ASEAN should also address the social or cultural factors that hinder the translation of women’s full potential to contribute to the economy.Feminisation of AEC should be at the top priorities for ASEAN to actualise its 2025 vision.
1    Wolfgang Lechmacher. 2016. “The ASEAN Economic Community: what you need to know.” World Economic Forum. Retrieved from: <https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/05/asean-economic-community-what-you-need-to-know/>.
2    NailaKabeer. 2017. Women’s Economic Empowerment and Inclusive Growth: Labour Markets and Enterprise Development. GrOW Working Paper Series, GWP-2017-01-Concept Paper. ISID – Institute for the Study of International Development.
3    ASEAN Secretariat. 2016. Projected Gender Impact of the ASEAN Economic Community. Jakarta: ASEAN Secretariat.
4    The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank. 2011. World Development Report 2012 – Gender Equality and Development. Washington DC: The World Bank.
5    Trini Leung. 2016. “Asian Women are Working a Double Shift. Here’s How to Redress the Balance.” World Economic Forum. Retrieved from: <https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/06/gender-equality-in-asia-heres-how-to-make-it-happen/>.
6    Christopher Fossick. 2016. “Can ASEAN Compete with the World’s Economic Superpowers?” World Economic Forum. Retrieved from:  <https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/05/can-asean-compete-with-the-world-s-economic-superpowers/>.
7    See ASEAN Secretariat. 2015. ASEAN Economic Blueprint 2025. Jakarta: ASEAN Secretariat. Retrieved from: <http://astnet.asean.org/docs/AEC-Blueprint-2025-FINAL.pdf>.
8    ASEAN Secretariat. 2016. Op. Cit.
9     Refer to The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank. 2011. World Development Report 2012 – Gender Equality and Development. Washington DC: The World Bank for the definition of instrumental and intrinsic value of gender equality.
10    The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank. 2011. Op. Cit.
11     The full table of global gender gap rank can be seen in World Economic Forum (WEF). 2016. Global Gender Gap Report 2016. Retrieved from:  <http://www3.weforum.org/docs/GGGR16/WEF_Global_Gender_Gap_Report_2016.pdf>.
12    ASEAN Secretariat. 2016. Op. Cit.
13    Ibid.
14    Ibid.
15    International Labor Organization (ILO) and Asian Development Bank (ADC). 2014. ASEAN Community 2015: Managing Integration for Better Jobs and Shared Prosperity. Bangkok, Thailand: ILO and ADB. Retrieved from: <http://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/42818/asean-community-2015-managing-integration.pdf>.
16    ASEAN Secretariat. 2016. Op. Cit.
17    MasterCard. 2016. MasterCard Index of Women’s Advancement 2016 – Asia Pacific. Retrieved from: <https://newsroom.mastercard.com/asia-pacific/files/2016/03/Report-MasterCard-Index-of-Womens-Advancement-2016-Asia-Pacific.pdf>.
18    Oxfam. 2016. “Underpaid and Undervalued: How Inequality defines Women’s Work in Asia.” Oxfam Issue Briefing. June 2016. Retrieved from: <https://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/file_attachments/ib-inequality-womens-work-asia-310516.pdf>.
19    UN Women Asia-Pacific. 2016. “Infographics – ASEAN Women are a Potential Boost to the Region’s Labour Force and Economy.” Retrieved from: <http://www2.unwomen.org/-/media/field%20office%20eseasia/docs/publications/2016/07/migrationinfographics.pdf?vs=4947>.
20    ASEAN Secretariat. 2016. Op. Cit.
21    ShahraRazavi. 2011. World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development an Opportunity Both Welcome and Missed (An Extended Commentary). UN Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD). Retrieved from: <https://gdnonline.org/resources/razavi-extended-commentary-wb2012.pdf>.
22    Paid market work refers to the production of goods and services for the market by remunerated labour and remunerated self-employment. Unpaid market work is the production of goods and services for the market by contributing family workers belonging to economic units producing for the market. Unpaid nonmarket work here refers to the production of goods and services for own consumption or own capital formation of the household. For complete information on these definitions please refer to Asian Development Bank (ADB). 2015. Balancing the Burden? Desk Review of Women’s Time Poverty and Infrastructure in Asia and the Pacific.Mandaluyong City: Philippines. Retrieved from: <https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/177465/sdcc-balancing-burden.pdf>.
23    Asian Development Bank (ADB). 2015. Balancing the Burden? Desk Review of Women’s Time Poverty and Infrastructure in Asia and the Pacific.Mandaluyong City: Philippines. Retrieved from: <https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/177465/sdcc-balancing-burden.pdf>.
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