For several emerging markets across Southeast Asia, the need for gender equality goes beyond basic human rights; it instead forms a cornerstone for building progressive and sustainable societies. According to United Nations Development Programme, the empowerment of women and young girls can lead to a direct contribution in achieving sustainable development goals linked to poverty, education, and climate change.
Yet societal norms, cultural expectations and a patriarchal mindset restricts women from several strata in society to access equal rights, such as a formal education and workplace opportunities. For example, women make up half of Malaysia’s population but only form two fifths of the workplace. Indonesia’s gender inequality index continues to remain the highest amongst other ASEAN countries, further widening the gender gap.
The global pandemic, political conflict and climate change have pushed the fight for gender equality to the curb. It has become increasingly important to shed light on the role women representation and leadership can have in building a gender equal and sustainable future.
In emerging markets, women continue to be disproportionately affected by climate change and natural disasters as they are key members of the household in providing food, water, and energy for their families. Several women from lower income communities are still dependent on natural resources and agriculture for their livelihoods. Considering the knowledge women hold in the areas of natural resource management and the role they often undertake as primary nurturers, this makes women powerful agents of change in reversing the climate equation.
From increasing women’s representation in leadership to strengthening the care ecosystem and from focusing on women health to supporting women led organisations, here are some ways in which we can close the gaps related to gender equality and sustainability.
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#1 Increasing women representation in leadership roles
A recent report conducted by TEAM LEWIS Foundation, in support of HeForShe, explores the effect climate change has on women. The survey found that 45% of respondents agree that when women are involved in climate change solutions, the solutions are much more effective.
Women’s participation and leadership in national and community work appear to drive better outcomes for the environment. Women leaders tend to drive more force on policies associated with lowering carbon emissions and think about the long-term effects of the environment on community. This also involves indigenous women and women farmers who are better equipped to understand natural resources and its more efficient management.
Women leaders also place added emphasis on families and communities, driving them to form policies that are more holistic and in effect more sustainable.
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#2 Investing in care to reduce the bias associated with unpaid work
The chores of the day kill dreams of lifetime. This phrase perfectly sums up the disparity between paid and unpaid work, women are often subjected to. On average, women around the world spend seven years more than men on unpaid work (domestic chores, hard labour, homecare). This is the same amount of time it takes to complete a bachelor’s and a master’s degree.
According to UN Women, the global economy depends on the unpaid care work primarily carried out by women, which became even more prominent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Giving care work the value that it deserves and acknowledging its importance has the potential to create new jobs and foster sustainable economic opportunities without increasing carbon emissions. This primarily stems from recognising that care work focuses on strengthening communities rather than consuming resources. If we can throw in flexible hours and paid family leave to the care work matrix, we can potentially look at increasing women participation in the workplace by 20% and cutting down the bias associated with unpaid work.
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#3 Empowering women smallholder farmers
For economies that are largely dependent on agriculture, empowering women smallholders and increasing their productive capabilities can help to promote sustainable farming practices whilst addressing issues surrounding food security.
A majority of women smallholders cultivate crops that are local in nature, climate resilient and more diverse than cash crops grown for commercial farming and food. This represents a huge opportunity to shift the needle for climate change within this group. If smallholder women farmers are made to be more productive, they can harvest a better yield, grow more nourishing produce, and feed their families while preserving local produce and ethnic eating habits. This not only encourages local and sustainable farming practices but can also help them to improve their livelihoods, prevent malnutrition and better support their families without the threat of urban migration.
#4 Supporting organisations working to protect women health and wellbeing
While climate change affects everyone, 80% of people displaced by climate crisis are women. This includes the detrimental effects climate change can have on women health such as negative reproductive health impacts. Climate change and natural disasters are also linked with increase in gender-based violence as evidently seen through the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, Malaysia reported in 44% increase in calls to domestic violence within the first month of the lockdown. Along similar lines, Thailand reported a 34% increase in first responder calls to domestic violence during the same period.
With more resources being diverted to support economic recovery post pandemic, supporting women led organisations that are working to improve women health and safety is a critical step in overcoming gender bias. In underserved communities, these organisations act as trusted partners to support women health and safety, guiding them towards the right resources and help in situations of emergency.
As we work to build a climate resilient society, prioritising the wellbeing of women will only support the climate change agenda.
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Want to learn more about the disproportionate effects of climate change on women? Read the TEAM LEWIS Foundation HeForShe survey report here.