Make it redundant
The recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum on women provides enough reason to rejoice. Highlighted was women’s crucial role in fostering sustainable and inclusive growth in the region, described by Trade Secretary Gregory Domingo thus: “In 2012, it was estimated that up to $89 billion could be added to the regional economy when barriers to women’s economic participation are eliminated.” Discussed as well were the five priority areas where women’s potentials remain untapped: access to capital, access to markets, capacity and skills building, women’s leadership, and access to technology and innovation.
And the forum went beyond being a wish list and put into motion the means to integrate gender considerations into economic policies, starting with the launch of the Apec Healthy Women, Healthy Economic Policy Toolkit. The toolkit details issues, actions and implementing elements for improving women’s health in Apec economies across five categories: workplace health and safety, health access and awareness, work-life balance, sexual and reproductive health, and gender-based violence.
Also worth noting is how the forum focused on women’s critical role in managing disaster risks and called for efforts to support the recovery of women-owned enterprises, to enable them to rebuild their lives and communities sooner.
A significant number of women are engaged in micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), as owners, managers and workers. Business leader and shipping magnate Doris Magsaysay-Ho, who noted that MSMEs account for more than 99 percent of the country’s registered businesses, called for solutions to challenges in this field, including the lack of financing, market access and adequate infrastructure, as well as “natural barriers” imposed by cumbersome procedures and rules. These are certainly barriers easily toppled by initiatives from private banks and government agencies, as well as NGOs focused on social marketing.
Easing traffic and making public transport cheap, efficient and accessible are also ways of defining “inclusive growth,” a means to filter economic gains to ordinary women workers who must get to work on time if they are to be at their most productive.
The Health Policy Toolkit, seen to benefit some 865 million women in the region, must also be fleshed out and implemented immediately to ensure that women’s health does not become the pricey collateral to the nation’s economic gains.
But we have to ask: How effectively are labor standards in the workplace being monitored and implemented? Are local governments vigilant in withholding permits and licenses from delinquent firms and sweatshops? What’s being done to improve work conditions, especially in the export processing zones where a baseline study identified the five top hazards as ergonomic, heat, overwork, poor ventilation and chemical exposure, and the most common illnesses as gastrointestinal, backaches, headaches and fatigue?
What about the Reproductive Health Law, which remains in limbo and hostage to delaying tactics by certain groups? Approved in 2013, the law, which gives poor women access to contraceptive advice and devices, will go a long way to ease the household load that has remained the main responsibility of women wage-earners whose health necessarily withers under this double burden.
Can the government and labor groups look as well into existing maternity benefits and check how responsive these still are to the changing times and women’s needs?
As one Apec leader noted: “Women in the Apec represent more than 50 percent of its population. Currently in the 21 Apec economies, 600 million are in the labor force. When health barriers inhibit women from entering and remaining in the workforce, it costs the economies a lot of money… Literally, healthy women mean healthy economies.”
And healthy economies mean ensuring a fair and equal share for all, but especially for women and girls, one Apec official observed. She added: “[T]he greatest opportunity for any economy is to make more people at the bottom of the pyramid part of global trade and services. That way, you create a much stronger base of many people creating wealth” and spreading it around.
Of course, the test of how effectively women have been integrated and mainstreamed into the economy is when such a trade forum on women becomes unnecessary. The tacit message in holding the forum is that women and the economy is an idea so alien to the norm that a special gathering, no matter how well-intentioned, must be organized to include them. We should work to see the day when the Apec forum on women and the economy becomes redundant.
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