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ASEM High-Level Dialogue on Women’s Economic Empowerment

ISSUE 2020
No 33
Release 13 October 2020
By H.E. Dr. SOK Siphana*

First of all, I would like to express my sincere thanks to the government of Viet Nam, particularly to my colleague, Her Excellency NGUYEN MINH HANG, ASEM SOM Leader of Viet Nam, for giving me the honour to make the opening remarks at today’s event. It is indeed an honour for me to contribute to this ASEM High-Level Dialogue on Women’s Economic Empowerment Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic. Amidst this health and economic crisis, I congratulate Viet Nam for this timely initiative that enables ASEM countries to share and exchange ideas, experiences, best practices, and some of the ways forward to address and promote women’s economic empowerment.

This year, we are all living in an abnormal time, marked by disruptions at all levels. At the level of the government, none of us would have thought that the many years of summit preparations would be affected by COVID-19, concretely Viet Nam for this year’s ASEAN Chairmanship, Cambodia for its ASEM13 Summit hosting, and Malaysia for the APEC meeting. This COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, the way we socialise, and the way we work. Fortunately, humankind is resilient, and we adapt and at the end, we shall overcome. That is why I am glad that this high-level dialogue can take place even through a videoconference. After all, we are keen to hear the messages, through whatever medium they could come from.

When my Prime Minister, Samdech Techo Hun Sen, decided to host the Asia Europe Summit (ASEM13), supposedly this year, it was meant as a concrete gesture to reflect Cambodia’s commitment to advancing multilateralism. He was keen to strengthen the relevance of ASEM as a building block for effective multilateralism to tackle global and regional issues and other transnational and non-traditional threats, known and unknown. But then, out of the blue, early this year came COVID-19, and the whole world has been shaken. It is unlike anything we have ever seen in our present generations. No single ethnicity, religion, gender, geography, or nationality is spared from this scourge.

As expected, once again the ASEM spirit has prevailed, and it has rallied us together to respond to this new threat. Last September, the ASEM Foreign Ministers issued a strong Ministerial Statement on COVID-19, reiterating the close cooperation among ASEM Partners to respond appropriately to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, including disallowing the existing gender inequalities to worsen and protecting all of those in vulnerable situations.

Moreover, this Ministerial Statement specifically underscores ASEM partners’ commitment “to accelerating the post-COVID-19 sustainable socio-economic recovery, stimulating economic development and financial resilience and building a more fair, sustainable, inclusive and resilient future for all.” With such a strong determination, I firmly believe that today’s dialogue will invigorate and transform this commitment into a concerted regional and inter-regional cooperation among all ASEM Partners to promote women’s role and participation in the post-COVID-19 socio-economic recovery. It is undeniable that their dedicated contributions will lead to a more rapid recovery process and, not to mention, the achievement of our Sustainable Development Goals.

It is quite clear that even before the pandemic, women have more social risks than their male counterparts, including lower-wage, job insecurity, little social protection, exclusion, and limited access to education. This COVID-19 has compounded the economic impact and triggered regression of the hard-won gains for women’s rights and gender equality. For example, in my country, Cambodian women make up a higher share than men in sectors and jobs that are hardest hit by the pandemic, especially in manufacturing, textile and garments, retail, hospitality, tourism, and service sectors. The garment sector alone generates five times more employment for women than for men, which amounts to more than 650,000 jobs for women.

As part of the response to COVID-19, amongst other humble social safety net measures, the Cambodian government has laid out the special package to support approximately 36% of the minimum wage to all laid-off garment workers, the majority of whom are women. In my view, these effort measures are noble and caring from the government to the citizens. But by looking around at other countries, we can also see similar gestures, albeit in varying degrees of support depending on the respective country’s financial and budgetary means.

In my humble opinion, no government measures, on their own, are enough to tackle the nation- wide effects of the pandemic. The solutions would also have to come from different actors and stakeholders, from innovative government policies and pro-active private sector initiatives, and from the time-tested traditional measures to new evolutionary technological breakthroughs. To be precise, the world needs bolder responses, all the while capitalising on the enhanced digital advancement of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. As of last year, who would have thought that we could convene an international conference relying on video-conferencing facilities alone? I would say at the restrictive level of company board meetings, for sure, but not at the level of 51 countries plus the EU and the ASEAN Secretariat, as we just did a few times at the last ASEM SOM meetings a few months ago. As the old adage says, “necessity is the mother of invention”.

Looking at the list of panelists in this High-Level Dialogue, it is very reassuring that the expertise and hopefully the answers are all there, from economic empowerment to financial inclusion in the digital age, and from bridging the digital gender divide to women at the core of inclusive growth. Of utmost interest are their ideas and suggestions to further strengthen cooperation between Asia and Europe in this area of enhancing women’s economic empowerment in the COVID-19 Response.

That said, what all the issues above imply is the need for a holistic approach to deal in the post- COVID recovery, foremost involving women to participate in decision-making in economic, cultural, and social governance at the national level. There is a clear and urgent need for governments, businesses, community leaders, and decision-makers to act together to create an enabling environment in which women’s creativity is unleashed to the fullest. Indeed, the digital revolution can empower women entrepreneurs to transition to e-commerce platforms and opportunities, and it places them on a course to more equality, inclusiveness, and sustainability. After all, gender equality and women’s empowerment are now important goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. We truly need to fully leverage the role of governments and mobilise all stakeholders to meet these goals.

I am very optimistic about the outcomes of the exchanges today. So, let me wrap up my speech by wishing this ASEM High-Level Dialogue a great success. It is my expectation that some tangible outcomes and concrete recommendations will be generated and can be fed into the upcoming ASEM13 Summit deliverables next May 2021.

This article was adapted from the author’s opening speech at the ASEM High-Level Dialogue on Women’s Economic Empowerment Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic Videoconference, 12–13 October 2020, Ha Noi, Viet Nam.

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.