The Asian century, but not for everyone

As the global economy continues its fragile recovery, it was welcome news that Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, expects its economy to expand by 5.3 per cent next year. On the back of revived domestic consumption, investment and export, there are growing calls for Indonesia’s growth to be oriented towards equality: President Joko Widodo has called for helping less-developed regions, boosting village economies, and strengthening anti-poverty efforts in the proposed 2019 state budget.

Widodo’s push for equality is in line with a number of Asian countries’ policies as the region charges toward a wealthier future, but the road ahead is long, and much work still remains. One of the greatest barriers to a truly equal Asian century is pervasive inequality along gender and social lines, with those already struggling at risk of being left even further behind.

In Indonesia, despite the government’s best efforts, the gap between rich and poor has been widening for years. A 2017 Oxfam report revealed that the country’s four richest men now own more wealth than 100 million of Indonesia’s poorest people. So-called market fundamentalism is to blame: thanks to concentrated land ownership and structural gender inequality, the phenomenon has paved the way for Indonesia’s elite to capture most of the benefits of the last two decades of strong economic growth. Indeed, this is a story being played out across the region as a whole.

“The whole basis for East Asia’s success was this sense that everything was fair – you worked hard, you got ahead – but that is beginning to unravel a little bit,” says Sudhir Shetty, the World Bank’s chief economist for East Asia and the Pacific. Despite economic growth lifting millions of Asians out of extreme poverty since the 1980s, prosperity has done little to guarantee upward mobility, and the disappearance of labour-intensive factory jobs now threatens to push millions back below the poverty line.

Still, industrial growth-driven urbanisation remains, and new research has revealed the gendered underbelly of Indonesia’s rapid growth. Regression results have shown that urbanisation vastly benefits male workers compared to their female peers as gender discrimination ensures a wage gap at all levels of employment, in both the public and private sector. In the wider Southeast Asian region, women earn between 30 percent and 40 percent less than men, not least due to their long-standing exclusion from the same securities awarded to their male counterparts.

Worldwide, recent estimates indicate that some 400 million women work on farms, producing a sizable portion of the global food supplies. Even so, less than one-fifth of these women legally own the land they cultivate, and in more than 90 countries they lack legal titles and the same protections as men. Amid such structural social and legal discrimination, it is nearly always women who are forced into the lowest-paying jobs created by Asia’s rise. The glass ceiling is beginning to look more like one made of stone.

Yet women’s economic precariousness is only one facet of Asia’s gender gap. Gender inequality is also manifested by widespread violence against women, symptomatic of the still-pervasive sentiment that women are lesser human beings. Gender-based violence is both an enabler and enhancer of socio-economic disparity. Indeed, beyond the statistics, the human face of Asia’s gender divide is a tragic one, going back for generations.

Take, for example, the silenced victims of the Vietnam War: a generation of women raped by South Korean soldiers, now the sole carers of their mixed-race children, known as the Lai Dai Han. Exploitation of Vietnamese women during the war was rife, and the 1987 Amerasian Homecoming Act resettled tens of thousands of people on US soil as a result. Still, South Korea has never acknowledged allegations of abuse by soldiers, let alone taken steps to investigate. In the meantime, the women left responsible for a generation of children fathered through rape have been forced to eke out livelihoods from the crumbs of socially-sanctioned economic exclusion.

What’s more, sexual violence and discrimination against Asian women is hardly a thing of the past. In Indonesia, sexual and physical violence is a daily reality: a new nationwide survey commissioned by the country’s Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Ministry reveals that one in three Indonesian women will experience gender-based violence in their lifetime, with the offence remaining a fundamental means of relegating women to a subordinate position in their respective economic and social circles. As recently as 2014, female police recruits have been subject to discriminatory virginity tests, and Islamic tenets are increasingly being used – at a state level, no less – as justification for a host of limitations on women’s participation in society.

Meanwhile in Thailand, the election of a female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, in 2011 has done disappointingly little to improve the status of women in the country. Violence against widows and female heads of household is endemic, and pervasive stigma is keeping these women at the edges of society. In the same way, Thai lesbians, bisexual women, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons face a life of invisibility, unreported violence and abuse, societal pressure to conform and a comprehensive lack of appropriation legal protections. Objectification of the female body and misogyny is rife, creating a class of women forced into perpetual economic—and physical—insecurity.

As Southeast Asia marches headlong into an era of economic prosperity, discussions about equality cannot be divorced from very difficult discussions of gender and the status of women in Asian society. Behind the façade of Widodo’s feel-good rhetoric, pervasive discrimination and violence against women in Indonesia, and the region as a whole, still rears its ugly head. Prosperity without lifting up the other half the population is surely no prosperity at all.