Rebuilding Regional Economies through Women’s Economic Empowerment

The current pandemic has wreakedhavoc, over the last two years, on the productive capacity of ASEAN’s economy, which may make the economic shocks from this pandemic deeper and longer lasting. A return to a ‘business as usual’ scenario is no longer a feasible plan of action.

In addressing economic recovery, the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework (ACRF) has highlighted five broad strategies, namely: to enhance health systems, strengthen human security, maximise the potential of intra-ASEAN market and broader economic integration, accelerate inclusive digital transformation, and advance towards a more sustainable and resilient future. The recovery framework also acknowledges the need for inclusivity in both design and implementation and gives due recognition to the vulnerable groups and sectors that are hardest hit by the pandemic, in the hope that moving forward and engaging in recovery strategies will not lead to a widening of inequalities, in any form.

It is heartening to note that there are specific priorities in the framework that hopes to address the severe setbacks on human capital accumulation including prioritising digital skills and higher education, re-skilling and up-skilling for employment, strengthening labour policies through social dialogue, and most importantly, for all this to be done with strong consideration to the gendered impact of this pandemic. The pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability and disadvantages faced by women. At the same time, it had also showcased their resourcefulness and resilience, especially in times of crises.

Pre-existing gender discrimination connects with the economic insecurities of women. This is especially so in this global crisis as the lockdown and closures of economies have shown unprecedented adverse impacts on the working lives of women. Economic security can be the way that other aspects of human security – health, food, political, and individual, for example – are measured. It allows women a level of freedom. It prevents further victimisation through forced prostitution, slavery, human trafficking, and a host of other vile operations women may be forced into just to survive both during and after crises.

But in moving forward, there is also a need for care in the type of economic opportunities provided, which can, under the guise of financial independence and “empowerment” merely perpetuate further inequalities through imbalanced power relations between men and women in the workplace.

After crises, the general pattern is to usually fall back to known and comfortable ways of acting and doing – and letting a crisis “go to waste” as an impetus for change for the better. Better recovery strategies that are sustainable get sacrificed when reverting to previous methods of operation. But it is this phase of recovery that is most pertinent to insecurities and inequalities faced by women and other disadvantaged groups. Greater inclusion at this point will lead to more effective policies because they will be based on realities on the ground– especially in the aftermath of an upheaval.

Attempting to build back better, with greater inclusivity, is to be mindful to promulgate empowering economic strategies. This mean engaging with different groups of people and allowing for economic opportunities where disadvantaged people have a say in how such opportunities will be designed and offered – for instance, the ability to organise initiatives to meet their needs, being able to allocate their time between work in the public and private spheres, and fair remuneration for work done. This is especially the case for women workers.

Engaging women as leaders and decision-makers in COVID- 19 response and recovery plans, including stimulus measures and other support to the business sector, is essential to its effectiveness, as well as to ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable workers are met. Therefore, including and investing in women is key to post-pandemic recovery. Women’s economic empowerment will be essential to ensure that the economic recovery from this global pandemic, in ASEAN and elsewhere, is both rapid and sustainable.