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DEVELOPMENT-ASIA: ‘Poverty Still Has a Woman’s Face’

MANILA, Feb 17 2010 (IPS) - Women and poverty still share an uncomfortable spot on the development matrix of countries across Asia-Pacific that are struggling to end deprivation, according to the newly launched third joint report of the United Nations and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

“A woman’s face remains the picture of poverty,” Dr Noeleen Heyzer, U.N. under-secretary-general and executive secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, told IPS following the launch today of the report at the ADB headquarters in the Philippine capital Manila.

“Some countries have moved forward but this picture keeps recurring. Sadly, it is a disservice to women,” she said.

The Asia-Pacific Regional Report 2009/10, titled, “Achieving the Millennium Development Goals in an Era of Global Uncertainty,” said “most countries across Southeast Asia have reduced extreme poverty by half, but the other half has a woman’s face.”

Across the region, some countries have managed to cope with multiple threats of economic crisis, health shocks and pandemics, and natural disasters, but most are still hurting from the impact of these crises and have yet to cope with the little time left to realise the development goals they pledged to achieve by 2015, the report added.

“The report is a wake-up call to Asia to put an equal and clearer direction towards growth,” said Dr Ajay Chhibber, U.N. assistant secretary-general and concurrently United Nations Development Programme assistant administrator and director for Asia and the Pacific.

Among vulnerable populations in the region, women are among those likely to be hurt most by the impact of the crisis on poverty in the region. According to the report, this sector constitutes the majority of Asia’s low- skilled, low-salaried and temporary workers – part of the flexible workforce that can easily be left behind during economic downturns.

Many of them have lost their jobs in export manufacturing, including garments, textiles and electronics – and in tourism and related services. Employers are also more likely to lay off women workers if they consider that they are not the primary heads of households.

Women form nearly two-thirds of the total Asian migrant population, said the report. Yet, they have little protection.

In most Asian countries, less than 20 percent of female workers belong to labour unions. The loss of female income is likely to have a greater impact on welfare, as women tend to spend a greater proportion of their income on meeting the basic needs of household members.

Dr Heyzer cited the Philippines as one of the countries in the region that has achieved gender parity and maintained economic stability while dealing with the economic crisis, but it is still wanting in protection for women in migration and employment.

“Migration patterns of Filipino women are phenomenal, and although they helped caution the economic crisis through remittances, but they do not receive the care that they need,” she said.

She also said the Philippines registered a five percent growth rate in its remittances, totaling 17 billion pesos (368.72 million U.S. dollars) in 2009. This helped push the growth of the South-east Asian country’s national economy from three percent in 2009 to 3.5 percent in the first months of 2010, she said. Yet, she noted the disturbing problem of de-skilling, where educated and professional Filipino women are forced to work as housemates and domestic helpers in other countries.

Between 1997 and 1998, the report said male and female labour force participation rates increased, but while the weekly work hours of employed men fell, those for unemployed women rose – partly because women working at home did more work on a subcontract basis. Moreover, women in the Philippines typically spend more than eight hours a day on housekeeping and child care compared to about two and half hours for men.

Prior to the global economic crisis in 2007, the International Labour Organisation estimated that there were some 86.5 million people unemployed in the Asia-Pacific region. The number of unemployed had been projected to rise to more than 98 million in 2009, an increase of nearly 12 million. Between 2007 and 2009, the regional unemployment rate was expected to increase from 4.7 percent to 5.1 percent.

The report warned that the global crisis could trap an additional 21 million people in the Asia-Pacific region living in extreme poverty, surviving on less than 1.25 dollars a day. It noted that in 2009, the crisis forced an additional 17 million people into extreme poverty, and in 2010, another four million, translating to a total of 21million or roughly the equivalent of the population of Australia.

ADB vice-president Dr Ursula Schaeffer-Preuss said the region is still home to the largest number – at more than 50 percent – of people in rural and urban areas without basic sanitation, of under-five children who are underweight, of people infected with tuberculosis and without access to clean water.

“To most of Asia-Pacific, the MDGs are still a distant reality,” she said during the launch. But there is still time to reach the targets with the five years left, she said. “Countries must pour more investments in human capital, specifically in health and education. They also have to care to protect their physical environments.”

The MDGs are development targets intended to be achieved by 2015.

The region had been making notable gains, including being on track to achieve three important targets: gender parity in secondary education, ensuring universal access of children to primary school, and halving the proportion of people living below the 1.25 dollars poverty line.

But the report also said the economic crisis undermined the momentum. These factors were categorised in the “on track” list. In the “achieved” list, the region made it in such targets as providing access to safe drinking water, reduction of gender disparities, and slowing down HIV transmission and the incidence of tuberculosis,

UNDP’s Dr Chhibber said that overall, the region is doing well but it is a scattered picture of development.

While many communities have access to clean water, he said, there are still 406 million people without access, and this is only one of the specific areas, or “multiple threats,” that can undermine any improvements in the next five years if countries do not do more. He added that 98 million children under five years of age are still hungry and malnourished.

“What happens in Asia will have a great impact on global targets,” he said. “With the build-up of a new generation of poor people, the region has to reinvest through regional cooperation so that countries on track can help other countries who are struggling.”

Worldwide, Asia-Pacific as a whole has made more progress than Sub- Saharan Africa, but less than Latin America and the Caribbean. Among the sub-regions, the greatest advances have been in South-east Asia, which has achieved the targets in 11 out of the 21 indicators assessed in the report.

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