APEC’s Crucial Role in Championing Gender Equity in the Asia-Pacific

by Chantelle Stratford PSM

APEC can create a ripple effect that will enhance the economic and social well-being of women and girls in the region | Screengrab from APEC YouTube

Chantelle Stratford

In an era where gender disparities remain starkly visible across the globe, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) is positioned uniquely to champion transformative change. With an agenda firmly rooted in economic inclusivity, APEC has the opportunity—and the responsibility—to reshape the economic landscape for the 1.5 billion women and girls within its member economies.

No matter the setting—at home, at work, at school, in communities, or online—whether socially, politically, or economically, women and girls deserve to participate and enjoy life on equal terms with men and boys. And we should be able to do so safely and free from violence.

Yet, there is not now, nor has there ever been, a single economy (or place) on earth where women have enjoyed equality with men. Not one. It hasn’t happened in the history of humanity. Globally, women are worse off by almost every measure.

Whether it is the pay gap or that women shoulder the majority of unpaid care and labor, face higher instances of gendered violence, have their health issues misdiagnosed or overlooked, or are underrepresented in positions of power, leadership, and decision making, it all boils down to one thing: gender inequality.

Our current global context and economic landscape are dominated by the escalating cost-of-living crisis, climate change, the impact of disasters and extreme weather, geopolitical tensions and escalating conflicts, and notably, the erosion of social cohesion and quality of life.

These are not isolated threats or abstract global risks. They intertwine and amplify one another, creating a complex web of challenges that directly and indirectly impact gender equality and amplify existing fault lines.

The global economic landscape has remained largely unchanged in recent decades. There is equality improvement, but the pace is glacial. We only need to look at the Women and the Economy Dashboard and last year’s La Serena Roadmap Implementation Report to be reminded that APEC must do better for the 1.5 billion women and girls in our region.

To see no improvements in five years on fundamental equities, including promoting women into formal work, closing the gender pay gap, improving access to decent employment, preventing gender-based violence, and countering gender stereotypes in education and skills development demonstrates that APEC is not yet doing enough to get to the root of gender inequality: the harmful stereotypes, gender norms and attitudes embedded in our institutions that continue to harm women.

In all of my experience across APEC and other multilateral systems, there is a global pattern where women’s potential is being overlooked to all our detriment. And when I say to all our detriment, it is undeniable.

Closing the global participation gap alone will deliver USD 28 trillion in GDP annually. This equates to USD 17 trillion in the Asia-Pacific. We are leaving USD 46 billion on the table every day in lost productivity.

If women are not at the center of our thinking in APEC—whether we are considering trade policy, skills frameworks, new technologies, structural and institutional reform, the green transition, artificial intelligence, disaster recovery, etc.—then we are choosing bad policy and even worse economics.

We are choosing inequity every day. This is deliberate, willful, and unacceptable.

Women’s economic empowerment is central to our mandate in APEC. Not valuing the participation and contribution of women costs economies billions in lost revenue.

We are at a tipping point, driven by this context and the many women who hold hopes, aspirations, and courage greater than what our current institutions can muster. Yet, I find limited, if not superficial, interest and attention being given to this enormous and unrealized prospect. And that says a lot.

I am surprised that the economic incentives and the opportunity cost of doing nothing fail to stimulate more than passing interest. We are an economic forum, after all.

“We are at a tipping point, driven by this context and the many women who hold hopes, aspirations, and courage greater than what our current institutions can muster. Yet, I find limited, if not superficial, interest and attention being given to this enormous and unrealized prospect.”

Let’s never forget that, at their core, economies are people. Economies aren’t abstract from the human experience; people drive economies. Gender equality makes economic sense, and we are at an inflection point where gender equality is at risk of regressing.

If we are to deliver on the aspirations of the APEC Putrajaya Vision to realize an open, dynamic, resilient, and peaceful Asia-Pacific community by 2040 and a future that includes prosperity for all its people and future generations, we must do better for our women and girls.

The La Serena Roadmap clearly sets our course for women’s economic integration and empowerment. In contrast, the Women and the Economy Dashboard frequently reminds us of the gains and regressions of this pursuit.

If we are to materially impact the daily lives, livelihoods, and futures of the 1.5 billion women and girls in our region, it is crucial that we ground our efforts across APEC in basic, actionable principles that ensure gender equality across all economic and societal spheres, and ensure women have equal access to capital and legal standing in financial autonomy, property ownership, and inheritance; equal access to employment, education, training, and technology; freedom of movement and residence; and that we remove all incidences of discrimination under the law and consider the gendered dynamics of all policies and responses.

This requires APEC’s much stronger and more deliberate focus on mainstreaming equality and equity across the breadth of its work, centring a gender lens in the business of all committees, subcommittees, and working groups and in our economies at large.

The Policy Partnership on Women and the Economy has been promoting this since at least 2017, when the Gender Inclusive Guidelines were adopted under Viet Nam’s host year. This has provided us with accepted terminology on gender equality and the very important principle and process of gender equity that leads to substantive equality for all.

We amplified this commitment in 2019 with the La Serena Roadmap, when all APEC members agreed to catalyze policy actions to drive greater inclusive economic development and participation of women in the region and strengthen progress across the five pillars.

The PPWE can be nothing less than the model forum in APEC for promoting gender equity and equality. We must hold ourselves to the highest standard and center our work both domestically and collectively on improving outcomes for women and girls.

We must never forget who we are here for.

It is crucial for member economies to adopt and implement policies that not only promote gender equality but also ensure that women can participate safely and freely in all aspects of economic life. This includes addressing gender-based violence, which remains a critical barrier to women’s economic participation.

APEC must leverage its influential platform to set ambitious targets and foster collaborative efforts among its member economies. By prioritizing gender-responsive legislation, supporting women-led businesses, and advocating for equitable economic policies, APEC can create a ripple effect that will enhance women’s economic and social well-being throughout the region.

The role of APEC in advancing gender equity is more crucial than ever. As the economies of the Asia-Pacific continue to evolve, integrating gender equality measures into all aspects of economic policy and decision-making will be key to achieving sustainable and inclusive growth. The time is ripe for APEC to continue its advocacy and amplify its efforts, ensuring that the future is equitable for all, especially for the women and girls who are the backbone of our economies.

In that spirit, economies should raise their ambition for what we can collectively achieve together in 2024 and what we can do in 2024 to future-proof, sustain, and amplify outcomes for women and girls in our region for generations to come.

Chantelle Stratford PSM is the chair of the APEC Policy Partnership on Women and the Economy. This article first appeared in Ms. Stratford blog at APEC during its conference this month.

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