Your Excellency Mr. To Anh Dzung, Deputy Minister, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Viet Nam;
H.E. Dr. Sok Sipana, ASEM Senior Official for Cambodia – Host of the 13th ASEM Summit, Cambodia;
H.E. Ms. Robyn Mudie, Ambassador of Australia to Viet Nam, Australia;
H.E. Mr Giorgio Aliberti, Ambassador of the EU Delegation to Viet Nam;
H.E. Mr. Kari Kahiluoto, Ambassador of Finland to Viet Nam, Finland;
H.E. Mr. Guido Hildner, Ambassador of Germany to Viet Nam;
Excellencies from ASEAN member states, European states;
Representatives from line ministries and colleagues from development partners;
Ladies and Gentlemen.
It is my honor to deliver the opening remarks at the ASEM high-level dialogue on the very important and timely topic of “Women’s Economic Empowerment amid the COVID-19 Pandemic”.
As the UN Secretary-General’s policy brief “The impact of COVID-19 on women” indicates: the year 2020, marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, was intended to be ground-breaking for gender equality. Instead, with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, even the limited gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back.
The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic: nearly 60 per cent of women around the world work in the informal economy, are earning less, saving less, having less access to social protection and at greater risk of falling into poverty. As markets fall and businesses close, millions of women’s jobs have disappeared. At the same time as they are losing paid employment, women’s unpaid care work has increased exponentially as a result of school closures and the increased needs of older people. These currents are combining as never before to defeat women’s rights and deny women’s opportunities.
In Viet Nam, the UNDP-UN Women recent rapid assessment of COVID-19 impact on vulnerable households and enterprises conducted during April and May 2020 in Viet Nam (as well as UNDP-supported assessments of COVID-19 socio-economic impact in many other countries in the region) shows that the pandemic has disproportionally impacted women. Jobs and incomes of women have been reduced in heavily-affected sectors such as garment and footwear, education, healthcare, tourism and related services where female workers dominate, temporarily pushing many of them into poverty or deeper in poverty. The recent UNDP Human Development Index Updates for 2020 estimated that for the first-time since the index was introduced 30 years ago, poverty has been increasing globally. Women-led household, micro and small businesses, especially in informal sector, and female migrant-workers have been among the hardest hit. Women’s pre-pandemic burden of household work and care of children, elderly and family members with illnesses, as well as gender-based violence, have been exacerbated by the pandemic and associated social distancing, school closure and quarantine measures.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Women’s Economic Empowerment – the topic of the today dialogue – is more important, if not vital, to integrate in countries’ response and recovery plans and actions if they are to be effective.
While highly commending the impressive commitments and timely actions of ASEAN countries in containing the spread of the virus and addressing the negative socio-economic impact, we would like to further recommend the importance of the following:
1. Maintaining the focus on accelerating and sustaining progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, (SDGs), gender equality and Leaving No One Behind. We recognize and highly commend the commitment made by ASEAN Leaders at the ASEAN Leaders’ Special Session at the 36th ASEAN Summit on Women’s Empowerment in the Digital Age, hosted by Viet Nam in June this year, to ensure the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls for making significantly contribution to the effective realisation of the SDGs.
2. Recognizing the COVID-19 pandemic as a health crisis with serious and far-reaching socio-economic consequences. As the risk of a COVID resurgence will remain high until a safe and effective vaccine and/or treatments are widely available, governments should prioritize public health and safety, especially in healthcare institutions where women comprise 75% of the health workforce in the world. Governments have a key role to play in promoting strict adherence to public health guidelines on physical distancing and other preventative measures including rigorous testing, tracing and quarantining of new cases as they appear. It is critical that contingency plans are in place in the event of further waves of infections, including measures to ensure the continued functioning of markets for essential goods, including food, medicine and protective equipment.
3. Considering the importance of (i) reform the social protection system away from heavy reliance on self-insurance and ad hoc relief programs, to a more inclusive and shock-responsive system; (ii) ensuring universal health coverage and less reliance on out of pocket expenditures and (iii) applying flexible policies and innovative service delivery models (such as tele-health and distance learning)
4. Recognizing the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women and women-led businesses it is key that gender equality is mainstreamed in responses and places women’s economic empowerment at the center of recovery actions. As the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in his introduction to the policy brief “The impact of COVID-19 on women”, and I quote: “I urge governments to put women and girls at the centre of their efforts to recover from COVID-19” – end quote. ASEAN Leaders at the Special Session at the 36th ASEAN Summit (on Women’s Empowerment in the Digital Age) agreed that during this challenging time of COVID-19, addressing gender inequality and upholding women’s rights as well as preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence are essential to responding effectively to the pandemic’s multi-sectoral impacts, and to recovering faster and building a better future. ASEAN Leaders are to be commended for urging governments and all relevant stakeholders to consciously mainstream the need of women’s and girls’ concerns in their efforts and place women’s leadership and contributions at the heart of the COVID-19 response, resilience, and post-pandemic recovery efforts.
5.The top priority must be to assist women and men and communities vulnerable to extreme poverty. Governments’ action should prioritize those women who have the smallest margin of safety, for whom loss of income for a few months or even days can be catastrophic. Support to prevent closure of small and micro businesses can help avoid creating long-term problems as owners lay off workers, sell-off equipment and possessions or migrate in search of income, and this in turn delays or slows the recovery.
6. Providing specific support for women-led businesses in four ways:
(i) Expanding access to credit which is critical for women-led household businesses and micro and small enterprises working in the informal sector. Innovative solutions, such as supporting financial service providers including banking agents that serve these enterprises to bring digital financial services to underserved groups, especially in rural and ethnic minority area, are needed. These solutions should be designed and implemented in a gender-sensitive manner to address the chronic issue of women-led enterprises having less access to credit and the risk of widening “digital divide” between men and women.
(ii) Expanding women’s access to agricultural credit. Government credit can help some agricultural and industrial producers, especially those that employ more women, to remain solvent during a prolonged period of contracting global demand. This could take the form of purchasing/storing unsold production or extended working capital credits to enable them to continue to function during the downturn.
(iii) Supporting women-led MSMEs’ to have stronger linkages in domestic/ regional and global supply chains could help limit the impact of international supply chain disruptions and help MSMEs recover faster. Recent experience of UNDP-supported ethnic minority women-led cooperatives and household businesses shows that digital literacy, access to digital finance, expansion to new markets in other provinces and big cities through e-commerce platforms and online marketing tools, using more diverse supply sources and logistics services, and better experience in meeting the changes of domestic demands, were key for businesses to suffer less revenue reduction in April and recover faster in May 2020.
(iv) Enhancing women’s labour mobility through reskilling and job matching services as well as other barriers to mobility that female workers face such as child/elderly care responsibilities and access to labor market information to smooth employment across unevenly recovering sectors, taking into account the more slowly recovering sectors that employ more female workers such as tourism and related services, garment and footwear.
In closing, I would like to express our appreciation and recognition that the anticipatory, adaptive and agile actions of ASEAN governments combined with the innovation of the people in ASEAN countries, have been key to the region’s initial success in containing the COVID-19 pandemic and in limiting its negative socio-economic impacts. I believe that similar anticipatory approaches and innovations in women’s economic empowerment and the promotion of their financial inclusion in the digital age will play a critical role in helping ASEAN governments and people achieve a bold, sustainable, resilient and gender sensitive recovery. This, in turn, is foundational to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and Leaving No One Behind in the context of the ‘new normal’ of co-existing with COVID-19. UNDP and sister UN agencies are proud to be partners of ASEAN governments and people in this journey.
I look forward to the presentations and fruitful discussions on this interesting topic.
Thank you very much.