The recent celebration of International Women's Day came about a year into an unprecedented health and economic crisis that has destroyed lives and livelihoods globally. This has been a difficult period particularly for women as they have been hit much harder than men. Covid-19 is exposing and exacerbating gender inequalities in East Asia and the Pacific and across the world.
Countries in the region have made great strides in promoting gender equality in recent decades. Before Covid, the ratio of females to males enrolled in tertiary education stood at 1.15 to 1, surpassing all other developing regions except Latin America.
The participation of women in the labour force was relatively high in Vietnam, Cambodia and China, and had increased in Indonesia. Almost half of all small, medium and large firms were owned by women, the second highest rate in the world. However, the unequal impact of Covid is threatening to reverse these gains.
The pandemic has left women more vulnerable than men to income and job loss. More women were already working in precarious service-sector jobs before the crisis, and retail, accommodation and food services have been hit hard by containment measures.
In the first half of 2020, women in seven surveyed countries in East Asia and the Pacific were more likely than men to have lost their job as a result of the pandemic. For example, in Papua New Guinea 27% of surveyed female workers lost their jobs compared to 19% for men. Gender differences widened in Indonesia and the Philippines in the second half of 2020, with women staying at home amid containment measures that restricted mobility and increased childcare responsibilities.
Women are overrepresented in the informal sector, and tend to occupy jobs without basic protections such as paid sick leave and unemployment insurance. This means they have no safety net when jobs disappear.
Overburdened as they often are with unpaid care work and domestic workloads, many women require flexible jobs that allow time for their household responsibilities. However, most countries in the region lack robust regulatory frameworks that afford them such opportunities. For instance, the Philippines lacks a framework that would make it easier for women to find part-time jobs.
Women comprise about 70% of the healthcare workforce globally, and so have faced a comparatively greater risk of exposure to Covid. In addition, while anecdotal reports indicate a heightened risk of gender-based violence since the pandemic began, lockdowns impede women from reporting violence and seeking help through traditional channels. Papua New Guinea reports a 31% decrease in the number of clients accessing gender-based violence services.
Amid the challenges, however, there are also opportunities. Covid is making it clear that gender parity is not simply the right thing to do, but also the smart way forward. Globally, countries are losing US$160 trillion in wealth because of gender inequality. In East Asia and the Pacific, the estimate is $40-50 trillion in human capital wealth lost.
Increasing the participation of women in the labour force will be a vital component in building stronger and more inclusive societies. In Indonesia, we estimate that growth can be increased by up to 0.9% annually in the post-Covid period, if female participation in the labour force increases 25% by 2025.
The agenda for action in the region is huge as significant gaps persist in addressing longstanding challenges. These include access for women to productive assets such as land, credit, insurance and savings.
In addition, there are a few newer areas the pandemic is highlighting for urgent action.
The first is women's access to and use of digital technology. Covid has accelerated digitisation across the globe. In Indonesia for example, 65% surveyed indicated that they have started to or increased their use of digital technology in response to Covid.
But a World Bank survey on the Covid impact on female-led businesses revealed that many are struggling to make the shift to adapt quickly to digital operations. And women generally continue to lag behind men in use of digital technologies, and are therefore less likely than men to have access to vital services such as cash transfers, medical information, educational content or employment opportunities.
A second area for much greater action is quality, affordable childcare services. Even before Covid, our research confirmed the importance of such support for women's ability to participate actively in employment. In Vietnam, access to quality affordable childcare services increases the probability of women having a wage-earning job by 41%. In Malaysia, for every preschool that opened, an additional 89 women entered the labour force.
The importance of such support for women to be able to work has been highlighted by Covid. Coordination and strong collaboration and partnerships between public and private sectors will be critical for success.
Urgent action is also needed to prevent gender-based violence and provide online and offline access to services for survivors. Several governments have already adopted measures to respond to increased gender-based violence during the pandemic, including China, where an online platform facilitates the processing of protection orders.
More needs to be done, including intensive communication campaigns to change mindsets and to remove the stigma that leads to underreporting of the problem.
In short, governments, the private sector and citizens across East Asia and the Pacific need to recommit to gender equality, redouble efforts to safeguard gains and fully tap the power of women to contribute to strong, resilient and inclusive economies and societies.
Victoria Kwakwa is the World Bank regional vice-president for East Asia and the Pacific.