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Women's economic opportunity in Asia
Tuesday, 22 May 2012 00:19

In many traditional societies, women were treated as commodities -- bought and sold, and beaten and mistreated.  While the 20th century saw a revolution in women's political and economic empowerment, economic opportunities for women still lag behind those for men.

The Economist Intelligence Unit's women's economic opportunity index makes a good attempt at measuring this.  In particular, it shows that Asia, the world's most dynamic region, is still way behind in providing women with economic opportunity.

In most countries women's economic opportunity is still restricted through laws, regulations, practices, customs and attitudes that prevent women from participating in the workforce under the same conditions as men.  In many countries, women have fewer educational and employment opportunities than men, are more often denied credit, and endure social restrictions that limit their chances for advancement.  In some developing countries women still can cannot vote, own property or venture outside the home without a male family member.

In this context, the EIU seeks to measure women economic opportunity through its index made up of the following components: labor policy and practice; access to finance; education and training; women's legal and social status; and the general business environment.  Sweden, Belgium and Norway are the top 3 countries.  These countries have particularly open labor markets for women, high levels of educational achievement, and liberal legal and social regimes.  They are followed by Finland, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Canada and Australia which complete the top 10.  The UK and the US are further down the list at 14th and 15th.

Leading the Asia group is Hong Kong at 23rd which ranks in the top 25% in most categories.  Japan is further down at 32nd, Singapore 34th, and Korea 35th.  Asia's poorer countries are much further down the list -- Thailand 48th, Malaysia 49th, Philippines 63rd, China 65th, Sri Lanka 73rd, Vietnam 79th, Indonesia 82nd, India 84th, Cambodia 92nd, Laos 100th, and Pakistan 108th.

China, Japan and Korea score very poorly for de facto discrimination at work, insufficient action to address violence against women, and legal restrictions on jobs that women are allowed to hold.  Hong Kong and Singapore score poorly regarding action to address violence against women.  China also scores poorly on the education of women.  In China, the state provision of childcare has fallen sharply in recent years, especially with the reform of state-owned enterprises in the late 1990s, many of which provided kindergarten and similiar facilities.

In the Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, women do not have equal ownership rights to men over moveable and immoveable property.  India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan score poorly for the freedom of movement of women outside the house -- this includes the freedom to travel, freedom to join a club or association, freedom to go shopping without a male guardian, and freedom to see one's family and friends.

The EIU's women's opportunity index is useful in that it estimates and confirms that which is obvious to the casual observer of Asian society, and reminds us only too vividly of the negative consequences.

In North East Asia's most developed countries of Japan and Korea, the dramatic consequences include: some of the very lowest birthrates in the world; a declining population in Japan, and a soon-to-be declining population in Korea; a highly accentuated ageing of the population with all the financial and economic effects that entails; a failure to mobilize scarce human resources (namely females) to cope with ageing; a growing outward migration of talented women who are frustrated by lack of opportunity; and human rights abuses of female migrants who may often be the subject of human trafficking.

In the lesser developed countries of Asia, development prospects are greatly hindered by low investments in female health and education, and policies and cultural practices and norms which limit women's capacity to participate in the economy.  On a global basis, women could be considered the world's most underutilized resource.  Female labor force participation reached just 52% in 2008, well below the 78% rate for men.

Organizations like the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank are forever harping on about "inclusive growth".  Perhaps the most important contribution that could be made to this lofty goal is to make great strides in improving women's economic opportunity.  This is not just a question of social fairness, but good economics.  Greater opportunity for women can only make our economies stronger.

Economist Intelligence Unit.  "Women's Economic Opportunity: a new pilot index and global ranking from the Economist Intelligence Unit".

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