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Jakarta Post

Women at work need decisive action from ASEAN to recover from COVID-19

  • Golda Benjamin and Kalayaan Constantino


Dumaguete City/Quezon City, the Philippines   /   Sat, June 20, 2020   /   09:49 am
Women at work need decisive action from ASEAN to recover from COVID-19 Closing time: A chicken seller cleans her makeshift stall at Cibubur Market in East Jakarta as the market’s operating hours ended on Wednesday. The sellers, who do not have permanent stalls, serve customers outside the market from the early hours until 7 a.m. every day. (JP/P.J.Leo)

The sweeping impact of COVID-19 on people’s lives and livelihoods continues to be devastating and unparalleled. As governments and businesses grapple with responses and recovery, another harsh reality stands out: The pandemic has revealed and increased the vulnerabilities faced by women at work. It has underlined the need for meaningful and lasting solutions.

At the first-ever United Nations Virtual Forum on Responsible Business and Human Rights recently, governments and businesses alike recognized that across the region, women workers still struggle with a significant gender pay gap, earning between 70-90 percent of what men earn.

Over 70 percent of women workers in Asia and the Pacific are also informally employed and thus have no access to benefits such as sick and maternity leave or social protection. This invisibility leads to their exclusion by both governments and businesses in emergency response actions where benefits often go to heads of families (i.e., the husbands/fathers) or to those enlisted formally in companies’ payrolls.

The pandemic has also increased the challenges on women because with schools shifting to flexible learning deliveries, they are often expected to spend more time caring for their children and supervising their daily school activities. Domestic violence also continues to rise as women are likely locked down with abusers in tense situations, with mobility and other restrictions rendering them unable to seek help and other remedies.

On June 26, 2020, leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will virtually meet for its 36th ASEAN Summit where the ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC) is expected to submit its report and recommendations for a collective response to COVID-19.

Earlier at the ASEAN Special Summit on COVID-19 held April 14, ASEAN leaders collectively declared “to remain united, and to act jointly and decisively to control the spread of the disease while mitigating its adverse impact on our people’s livelihood, our societies and economies” and concluded with “leaving no one behind.”

Women at work must not be left behind. We hope that the ACC reflects this in its report to the 36th ASEAN Summit and consider the following recommendations for governments and businesses in the region:

Committing to protect all rights of women and girls. Governments and businesses must ensure all workers and communities they work with are aware of and can claim their rights.

Human rights due diligence policies must be gender sensitive. Businesses must compensate women for their work fairly and prevent any form of discrimination or violence against them.

In cases where any right is violated, remedies must be available to survivors where they can actively and meaningfully access such through a process that enables and empowers them.

Provide service infrastructure to lessen the care work responsibilities of women and girls.  Promote positive social norms where care tasks are shared between women and men.

These are critical steps in addressing the gender inequalities in the workplace. And it is vital that women should be able to lead the conversations, decisions, and processes on the issues that affect them. With a participatory and inclusive process led by women, their concerns and solutions can then be reflected in national policy instruments like the National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights.

These recommendations can also contribute to the creation of programs to implement regional policy frameworks like the ASEAN Action Agenda on Mainstreaming Women’s Economic Empowerment and the ASEAN Guidelines on Responsible Investments in Food, Agriculture and Forestry.

To build a better future for all citizens of the ASEAN, we must not only strive for better outcomes but also improve how we go about achieving them. As the world reflects on how to recover from the pandemic, governments and businesses must meaningfully include women and girls and empower them to reap full rights and benefits in their workplaces and beyond.


Golda Benjamin is senior researcher and representative for Southeast Asia of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre and Kalayaan Constantino is Oxfam in Asia’s policy and campaigns manager.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.