In my role as an ambassador of the mission of Canada to ASEAN, I recently had the opportunity to participate in the ASEAN-Canada Joint Cooperation Committee – or short JCC. The JCC is one of a series of platforms for senior officials from ASEAN and Canada to come together every year to discuss our joint priorities.
This year's JCC – like many other meetings – was conducted virtually for the first time. While many of us have gotten used to a flood of virtual meetings and calls – both in our professional and private lives – this occasion made me reflect on how not being able to meet in a physical space may help us to understand the importance of togetherness – of coming together and working together, of collaborating and cooperating.
In fact, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and its severe impact on health and economies, cooperation and collaboration among countries are needed now more than ever. As we face the greatest challenge of a generation, we need a collective and cooperative global response.
Canada and ASEAN have worked together for more than 44 years across various areas, including economic cooperation, disaster response, gender equality, security and human rights. Our four-decade spanning partnership is built on the spirit of cooperation and collaboration and can show the world what a close knit relationship like ours can accomplish. The recent JCC presented an excellent opportunity to strengthen our ties and discuss ways to come together to support a joint road to recovery and prosperity.
The past year has been a year of unprecedented challenges, and we are still in the middle of a global pandemic, grappling with its effects. However, it is inspiring to witness occasions where we rise to the challenge and find ways to turn them into opportunities.
Since our last JCC in 2020, ASEAN and Canada have come together to advance a possible ASEAN-Canada Free Trade Agreement, which will strengthen our economic ties and help us build back faster and better.
Given the external circumstances, this was no small feat, and we are thankful for the continued spirit of cooperation from our partners in ASEAN.
We are encouraged to see that Brunei, as chair of ASEAN in 2021, has included the launch of free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations with Canada as a COVID-19 economic recovery priority. As trade-dependent economies,
Canada and ASEAN have a shared interest in fostering an open, international rules-based trading system that facilitates recovery efforts and benefits everyone. We are now working together with ASEAN to make Brunei's vision a reality and to securing the launch of FTA negotiations later this year.
It is also heartening to see that Canadian companies are increasingly engaged in the ASEAN region, from infrastructure to information and communication technology, to e-commerce, aerospace and defense, oil and gas, sustainable technologies, agriculture and agrifood, education, and beyond. This increasing cooperation translates into real opportunities for our people. We are convinced that with the ASEAN-Canada FTA, we will chart a successful, collective path forward.
However, while strengthening economic cooperation will help us emerge from this crisis stronger and better prepared for the future, it is essential not to lose sight of other critical common goals that the pandemic has impacted. One of them, which is particularly important for Canada, that underpins our policies at home and our international engagements, is the advancement of gender equality.
While more data is needed to understand the full implications that COVID-19 will have on gender balance, it is becoming clear that women make up most of the jobs that have been hardest hit by the pandemic and are far more likely than men to lose work. Also, they are picking up more of the unpaid care work related to stay-at-home orders, the closure of schools and childcare facilities, and an increased need for eldercare.
Empowering women and girls and promoting and protecting their human rights means ensuring the rights of half of the world's population. According to the UN World Food Programme, when women work, they invest 90 per cent of their income back into their families and communities, compared with 30 to 40 percent for men. Ensuring that women have the same opportunities by law and in practice is not only the right thing to do; it also makes economic sense. With much of our recent global progress towards gender equality at stake, Canada is committed to emphasizing that building back better means building a more gender-balanced world.
On the occasion of International Women's Day on March 3, the Mission of Canada to ASEAN hosted a speed mentoring event bringing together prominent women leaders to share their experiences and determination with other young women. During this event, one of the mentors, Col. Sus Ratih Pusparini, a staff member of the Foreign Cooperation Office of the Indonesian National Defense Institute, said she used to feel like she had to work harder in the military than her male counterparts. However, a superior encouraged her to keep having dreams, she then strived to work harder and kept an open mind and was after her perseverance assigned to the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon.
Hearing these smart women talk about their experiences we are reminded of how far we have come and what positive impact gender balance can have on our societies and our economies.
Over the past month, I was able to be part of the first virtual ASEAN-Canada JCC and a virtual speed mentoring event. These events have shown me that our cooperation matters – be it economic cooperation, peace and security, gender equality and human rights or people-to-people connectivity. And if we are determined, we can overcome physical distance and work hand-in-hand to build a more equal and connected world. Collaboration is needed now more than ever! Let's keep working and, hopefully, next year, we will be able to share our perspectives face-to-face again at the next JCC.
The writer is ambassador of mission of Canada to ASEAN.