Research on the role of women in Southeast Asia is not as prevalent as in other countries at present. This proves that there is still a lack of attention to the welfare of women in this region. Several reasons can be given to explain this condition because first, the history of women and gender has only attracted deep attention from the West in the last three decades. On the other hand, Southeast Asian studies are still focused on researching other fields. Moreover, research progress in Southeast Asia tends to be slow due to the small number of experts with an interest in women and gender issues whose training also takes a long time. Therefore, there is only limited written material discussing the relationship between men and women, especially before the 20th century (Andaya, 2007). The factors that drive gender inequality, particularly in Southeast Asia, are economic, political, and cultural as well as patriarchal norms and practices that adversely impact women’s agency, hampering their ability to gain equal access to resources and decision making.
Such norms and practices will only place women in the lowest-paid position in a value chain. However, increasing women’s participation in value chains without addressing the underlying factors that may emerge gender inequality will not fully benefit women or lead to their empowerment. The persistently low wages of female factory workers remain an incentive to attract manufacturing companies to the region, especially those coming from China. Unfortunately, despite proving their competence, women still struggle to translate their human capital into economic empowerment. The wage gap remains significant and the majority of household and caregiving duties still fall on women. Addressing gender inequality in the workplace is one of the biggest tests in achieving long-term economic security for a country. In Southeast Asia, women still face significant challenges in accessing education and employment opportunities.
According to the Global Gap Gender Report (GGGR) 2021 from the World Economy Report (WEF), the gender inequality of countries in the world is measured by an index on a scale of 0-100, which means that the higher the index value, the higher the equality between women and men in a country. The first rank for the Southeast Asia region is occupied by the Philippines with a GGGI score of 0.784 which makes the country ranked 17th globally. Particularly for Indonesia, it is ranked 7th out of a total of 10 ASEAN countries and ends with Malaysia that is placed at the 10th (PMBG, 2022). Looking further into the conditions of gender inequality in the sub-index of participation and opportunities in the economic sector, Laos occupies the first position in Southeast Asia with a female labor force participation rate above 90 percent.
The research conducted by UNICEF and UNDP on gender barriers to entrepreneurship and leadership for girls and young women in Southeast Asia states that several factors influence their low participation. Some of these factors include, compared to men, women tend to have lower self-confidence and higher fear of failure than men. Furthermore, girls and young women feel that their family duties should take precedence over their personal needs and therefore, they are less likely to become entrepreneurs. A further factor is that their opportunities to become entrepreneurs are limited by social pressures related to women’s roles, so they seek other opportunities that can still be taken. In addition, the level of education also plays an important role as capital to get a job, while some women themselves still find it difficult to get access to it. Finally, inadequate access to finance and information networks coupled with discriminatory gender norms are the biggest barriers to young women developing their potential.
Regarding this issue, Socialist Feminism emerged as a political trend in the 1960s and 1970s, which sought to address issues of race, class, and gender in women’s liberation. This perspective of feminism views the autonomous structures of gender, race, and class that all participate in constructing inequality and exploitation. Socialist feminists argue that gender oppression is not solely the result of individual attitudes or cultural beliefs, but is deeply rooted in the economic and social structures of society. They view capitalism as a system that perpetuates and profits from gender inequality, as well as other forms of oppression. In addition, socialist feminists recognize the importance of solidarity and collective action in fighting gender and class oppression. One important aspect of socialist feminism is its recognition of the unpaid and undervalued work performed by women, especially in the areas of caregiving, housework, and reproductive labor. They emphasize the need for grassroots organizing, coalition building, and cross-sectoral activism to create meaningful social change (Gordon, 2013).
The Covid-19 pandemic has further exposed gender inequality in economic policies and the need for a human security framework to promote gender equality in the world of work. Women are seen as secondary in the labor force due to temporary or permanent withdrawal from the economy due to childbirth, and the structurally low valuation of conventional women’s work results in women earning lower wages than men performing the same tasks. This is why it is important to include women’s economic empowerment in agricultural development projects and programs to achieve gender equality outcomes. Women’s limited access to information and distribution of power contribute to their economic and social disadvantage. For example, in Cambodia, the majority of the workforce, especially women, work in the agricultural sector, and most women are categorized as unpaid family workers. This results in one of the lowest wage payment rates in the country.
On the other hand, the Philippines emerged as the country with the highest gender equality score in ASEAN based on GGGI in 2021. This is due to the adoption of gender mainstreaming in the country. Gender mainstreaming is a strategy to involve gender issue in policy or program making. The implementation can be seen from the establishment of laws and regulations related to gender equality, such as The Magna Carta of Women (MCW), The Philippine Development Plan for Women (PDPW) 1989-1992, and The Philippine Plan for Gender-Responsive Development (PPGD) 1995-2025. The implementation of gender mainstreaming covers several sectors, such as women’s participation in the economy, educational attainment, health, survival, and political empowerment (PMBG, 2022).
For that reason, some possible strategies need to be conducted to promote women’s empowerment include enhancing their ability to organize and participate in collective action, supporting the implementation of gender-responsive policies, and facilitating power negotiations. The gap in the current approach to women’s economic empowerment is the focus on increasing women’s productive work without addressing the underlying factors that fuel gender inequality. Therefore, it is necessary to emphasize challenging structures of economic, political, and cultural inequality to achieve transformative consciousness and empower women in the agrarian context. In addition, it is also important to improve access to education, economic participation, and legal rights for sustainable progress in women’s empowerment in Southeast Asia. Political phenomenon and government policies can also impact women’s empowerment over time. So, controlling several variables such as culture, religion, urban, and rural residence is important in analyzing their impact on women’s empowerment over time in a country.