Statement at the Chartered Accountants Women’s Committee of ICAP

Delivered at the the Chartered Accountants Women’s Committee of ICAP in Karachi, Pakistan.

Distinguished Participants,

Over the past few decades, the world has witnessed profound changes in development contexts and paradigms. In 2015, after prolonged debates and negotiations, UN Member States agreed to a shift from an exclusive reliance on growth centric development frameworks to promoting sustainable and inclusive development. At the core of the Sustainable Development Agenda is poverty eradication, which calls for the unequivocal recognition of the centrality and convergence of human rights and people oriented development.

Evidence confirms that despite a reduction in poverty over the years, South Asia is still home to more than 338 million people trapped in poverty, while inequalities have been pervasive and growing in the subregion. Not only do the marginalized and vulnerable groups, in particular women, lack empowerment and access to assets and services, but their contribution is undervalued and not effectively remunerated.

The value proposition of sustainable development for gender is substantial. Besides Goal 5 which focuses exclusively on “achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls,” the overall architecture of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) integrates the promotion and protection of human rights as the UN Charter binds States to promote respect for human rights and the fundamental freedoms for all without discrimination. Building on this, the preamble of the SDG framework underscores that the 17 SDGs and 169 targets subscribe to realizing human rights and dignity, to achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls while promoting equal opportunity that permits the realization of human potential.

These powerful and well anchored propositions and proclamations call for us to “Be Bold for Change” – the theme of this event. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was likewise crafted to be ambitious, bold, and transformative by its design and universal applicability. Among others, the scale of challenges facing women and girls are overwhelming and driven by the following:

  • First, the pervasive incidence and intensity of poverty in Asia and the Pacific. Four hundred million people still live in extreme income poverty in this region and 931 million people are trapped in multidimensional poverty. South Asia in particular accounts for more than 80 per cent of the region’s impoverished people.
  • Second, more than 60 per cent of the region’s population lives in countries where income inequality has been increasing. This has hurt women more, given that they are more likely to be employed in vulnerable employment and continue to face significant wage disparities.
  • Third, despite the significant strides that have been made in achieving universal primary education in our region, including doubling the number of children enrolled in pre-primary education to 78 million between 1999 and 2013, more than 18 million children are still unenrolled in primary school. Underinvestment in human capital formation in least and less developed economies continues to undermine the prospects for slashing chronic poverty. Furthermore, low educational quality and skill mismatch will magnify as the “world of work” rapidly changes due to advancements in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence.
  • Fourth, the mortality rate for non-communicable diseases in Asia-Pacific is as much as 22 times higher than that of communicable diseases and 9.8 times higher than that from injuries. Investments in health care are inadequate in most countries, with per capita spending as low as $4 per person in most low-income countries.
  • Fifth, ecosystem vulnerabilities are placing additional pressures on sustainability and human well-being in all of its dimensions. For example, the region is exposed to around half of all global disasters. Asia-Pacific’s per capita water resources are declining, and between 1990 and 2010, per capita water availability dropped by more than one third in some countries. According to the World Health Organization, of the 100 most polluted cities in the world, nearly 70 are in Asia. High levels of chemical inputs for food production, pollution from plastics and textile industry waste, mercury and dioxin emissions are further threats that require concerted and immediate action.

The hardships I have outlined above hurt women disproportionately. The good news is that there has been some progress in gender equality in the Asia-Pacific region. Gender parity has been achieved in primary education and maternal mortality rates have dropped by 64 per cent. However, significant gaps still remain. Education advances have not yet translated into more equal opportunities for half of the region’s population. Female labor force participation in the Asia-Pacific region remain 30 per cent lower than men’s, and in South Asia and South-West Asia the gap is as high as to 64 per cent in Afghanistan, 57 per cent in Pakistan and 56 per cent the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It is important to highlight that failure to achieve gender equality could derail achievement of the SDGs in a number of ways.

For instance, as women in Asia and the Pacific spend up to 6 hours per day on unpaid work, their contribution to GDP is often significantly understated in national accounts. Achieving inclusive economic growth (Goal 8) and reducing poverty (Goal 1) will thus not be realized if women continue to disproportionately bear the burden of unpaid work.

Similarly, in rural areas across the Asia-Pacific region, women often bear the brunt of environmental change (Goal 13) and inadequate infrastructure often exacerbates women’s time burdens. For example, women and girls are often responsible for finding clean water for household use and estimates suggest that women in India spend approximately 1 hour per day just collecting water. Lack of adequate sanitation also impacts women’s time burdens, with, for example, women in Cambodia spending over 605 million hours per year in accessing open defecation sites or shared toilets.

In addition, the scale and severity of violence against women and girls in the region, while not only being unacceptable, threatens the achievement of several SDGs and their targets. For example, school-related gender-based violence contributes to girls’ poor educational performance, higher dropout rates , and costs low and middle-income countries $17 billion annually.

Dealing with these vulnerabilities calls for addressing the root causes of multidimensional poverty. The SDGs recognize the interdependence and interlinkages among the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development. Moreover, gender equality (Goal 5), if effectively pursued, will have multiplier effects across the spectrum of sustainable development and boost collective progress across the goals.

Tackling gender-based inequalities in health, education and labour markets will support the broader 2030 Agenda by reducing poverty (Goal 1), creating decent jobs, stimulating higher and more inclusive economic growth as well as greater productivity (Goal 8), reducing inequalities (Goal 10) and creating more resilient communities (Goal 11). For instance, annual global output could be boosted by $28.4 trillion by 2025 through increasing women’s participation in the economy. A drop in the Gender Inequality Index of just 0.1 will result in almost 1 percentage point of higher economic growth in countries of the Asia-Pacific region. Similarly, closing gender gaps in hours worked, participation and productivity could result in GDP gains of up to 48 per cent in South Asia by 2025. Achieving these gains will depend on designing and implementing policies for sustainable development that are informed by adequate and comprehensive sex-disaggregated data. However, very few countries have conducted surveys to measure differences between men’s and women’s use of time. Furthermore, current surveys differ in scope and methodologies, making adequate measuring and comparisons difficult.

Along with other countries around the globe, Asia-Pacific countries are steadily mainstreaming the SDGs into their national legislation, plans and policies. They are also strengthening coordination mechanisms, and in some cases even setting up new ones, as well as mapping out the institutional responsibilities for the implementation of SDGs. Achieving results calls for:

  • Astute political leadership;
  • Stepping up governance, institutions and policies;
  • Enhancing the statistical capacities and capabilities of national statistical offices by facilitating benchmarking, review and monitoring;
  • Implementing pro-active fiscal policies linked to performance based budgeting to mobilize the significant domestic resources needed for SDG implementation; and
  • Integrating gender concerns into national planning and budgetary processes through gender-based budgeting. Gender-based budgeting can better ensure a whole-of-government approach to empowering women and girls through institutionalizing roles and responsibilities within supportive accountability frameworks of agencies and line ministries.

Getting these elements right will be critical for the realization of the 2030 Agenda and ensuring that “no one is left behind”, particularly in South Asia.

Recognizing this, in a recently released ESCAP study for South Asia, we recommend governments of the subregion focus on seven key priorities to accelerate achievement of SDGs by leveraging the relationships and interlinkages between goals. These include emphasis on:

  1. Job generation through sustainable industrialization;
  2. Closing gaps in access to basic services and infrastructure;
  3. Providing universal access to education and health;
  4. Providing universal social protection and financial inclusion;
  5. Addressing food security and hunger with sustainable agriculture;
  6. Promoting gender equality and women’s entrepreneurship; and,
  7. Enhancing environmental sustainability through low-carbon, climate-resilient pathways to development.

Our assessment reveals that progress in these areas will provide an impetus to sustainable development. More specifically, ESCAP policy simulations show that if South Asia effectively implements a regionally coordinated sustainable industrialization strategy (Subregional Priority 1) more than 56 million new jobs could be generated and an additional 71 million people could be lifted out of poverty by 2030 relative to a business-as-usual scenario. The 2030 Agenda therefore presents a unique opportunity for South Asia to eradicate poverty and other deprivations and provide a life of dignity to all of its people in a more sustainable, integrated and balanced manner.

To conclude, gender equality is critical for eradicating poverty and inequalities. Building a world where men and women have equal opportunities is not an isolated objective of the 2030 Agenda. The SDG policy framework offers a holistic approach to harnessing sustainability. Policy makers and implementers are expected to leverage the interdependence, interlinkages and balanced integration of the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development and manage the policy trade-offs, while also ensuring climate friendly and resilient infrastructure is developed to protect the environment.

I thank you.