Women Are Less Equal in Natural Disasters

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Pic: CNN/Getty Images

The Philippines is still assessing the destruction wreaked by Typhoon Haiyan, which is estimated to have killed at least 10,000 people and caused damage costing billions of dollars. The super typhoon may have a greater economic impact on the country than Hurricane Sandy did in the U.S., according to estimates from disaster modelling by Kinetic Analysis Corp.

What’s definitely clear though, is that the country’s women will be hit harder than the men. This is true not just in the Philippines, but pretty much in any disaster area, particularly in a developing nation.

“There is a pattern of gender differentiation at all levels of the disaster process: exposure to risk, risk perception, preparedness, response, physical impact, psychological impact, recovery and reconstruction,” the World Health Organization notes. “Due to social norms and their interaction with biological factors, women and girls may face increased risk to adverse health effects and violence. They may be unable to access assistance safely and/or to make their needs known. Additionally, women are insufficiently included in community consultation and decision-making processes, resulting in their needs not being met.”

Fortunately, the Philippines has the smallest gender gap among developing nations and its women are a feisty, resilient lot. Even so, the government, aid agencies and donors would be well-advised to keep women front and center as the country recovers from the tragedy.

Mind the Gap. Your Fortune Depends on it.

Just a few surprises in the latest Global Gender Gap Report, 2013 released by the World Economic Forum. For the fifth straight year, Iceland tops the list and is followed by its Nordic peers Finland, Norway and Sweden. The surprise is in No. 5: the Philippines. It’s the only Asian country to make the Top 10, and handily beats mightier rivals from Germany to the UK. The U.S. is a distant No. 23, in case you were wondering.

The Philippines has steadily climbed up the ranks: in 2010 it was ranked No. 9 on the index that measures the gap between women and men in terms of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. The country is the only one in Asia and the Pacific that has fully closed the gender gap in both education and health, the report said.

Much of the improvement can be attributed directly to President Benigno Aquino, who has appointed women in top posts from chief justice to chief tax collector in a bid to end corruption. He has even taken on the Catholic Church to push through legislation to allow free access to contraception as he seeks to reduce poverty.

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Today, Chief Justice Maria Sereno and the gun-toting head of the Bureau of Internal Revenue Kim Henares, are household names in a country whose most famous – ok, notorious – woman was known only by the extent of her shoe collection.

It’s not all good news, though. While the gender gap narrowed slightly across the globe in 2013, with 86 of 133 countries showing improvements, “change is definitely slow”, the report said. And as for why closing the gender gap is important: it is not only a matter of human rights and equity; it is also one of efficiency.

Little wonder then, that the Philippine economy is growing at more than 7 percent annually – second only to China in the region – and the country has been awarded its first investment-grade rankings by all three ratings agencies this year. Philippine women can take some credit for that.

12 Years a Slave. How About a Lifetime in Slavery ?

Moving as the film is, even more gut-wrenching is a global index published today that shows a staggering 29.8 million people serving as modern-day slaves in countries ranging from Nigeria to Myanmar.

Ten countries account for three-fourths of the world’s slaves, and India alone is host to almost half the total, according to Walk Free, an Australia-based rights group. While slavery is illegal in every country, the fight against it is not a big priority for most governments, and some forms of the practice – including forced marriage and trafficking of women and children for domestic work and as sex workers – may not be considered slavery in these countries.

Walk Free doesn’t break down the numbers to show how many modern-day slaves are women, but it’s likely to be a high proportion of the total. Yet there’s not much action on say, domestic workers in Asia or the Middle East, a practice that encourages the trafficking of women. Despite reports of violence against domestic workers in cities from New Delhi to Dubai, the demand – ironically fueled at least in part by greater numbers of working women – hasn’t abated.

Some Philippine recruiters recently decided to stop sending maids to Singapore till the issue of the payment of a placement fee is addressed – which often leaves maids with little cash in hand. Indonesia has demanded more safety for its workers in Singapore after a frightening number fell to their deaths cleaning windows in high-rise apartments.

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Yet, while the decision in Hong Kong to not grant residency permits to domestic workers who have lived there for years has fueled the debate for greater rights, there doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort to end slave-like conditions – or even grant a mandatory day off to domestic workers.

So for every country that steps in to try and protect the rights of its women who are trafficked to richer countries, poorer countries including Cambodia and Myanmar willingly send their womenfolk into slavery.  Public apathy is as much to blame as government inaction.

When Constitutions Collude to Keep Women Out of Politics

Aung San Suu Kyi has just concluded a five-day visit to Singapore, her first to the city state. In her many meetings and speeches – all warm, witty and carefully delivered – she asked companies to invest responsibly in Myanmar, invited Burmese nationals in Singapore to participate in the country’s transition, and reiterated her demand that the constitution be changed, so she can run in elections to be held in 2015.

Myanmar’s constitution gives the military a lot of power in the political system and prohibits anyone with children who are foreign nationals from holding the posts of President or Vice-President. That is clearly aimed at Suu Kyi, whose two sons are British nationals.

That the military has no interest in giving up its cushy position is hardly surprising. That a woman is deliberately being sidelined from the political system in Asia is also, unfortunately, not surprising.

Women’s political participation in Eastern Asia, Southeastern Asia, South Asia and the Pacific Islands is well below the global average, according to research from Monash University. In all these regions, “there is strong resistance to women’s participation in public life evidenced in the formal statements of leaders and politicians and in the mentalities of the broader societies. Cultural, customary and religious discourses are frequently used to moralize that the ‘rightful’ place of women is NOT in politics,” the researchers wrote in a paper last year. Violence against women in politics or those seeking political office is very common in these countries, the report noted.

While gender quotas and reservations have significantly improved women’s political participation in some Asian countries, others are dragging their feet over such legislation. In India, a women’s reservation bill in India, which proposes to amend the constitution to reserve 33 per cent of all seats in the lower house of Parliament and in all state legislative assemblies for women, has languished for more than three years in the lower house. Women’s political participation in India is 11 percent.

Elsewhere, women do slightly better. In China, where Mao famously said ‘women hold up half the sky’, their political participation is about a fifth of the total, whereas in South Korea it’s 16 percent. The Philippines – where President Aquino, whose mother was once President, and who has recently appointed women to key posts including Chief Justice and Tax Collector – the participation rate is nearly a fourth, while in Thailand, where Yingluck Shinawatra is Prime Minister, albeit a mere puppet of her brother, the rate is 15 percent. Myanmar – and this should come as no surprise to Daw Suu – has the lowest score of all Asian countries measured, of less than 2 percent.

Investors rushing in to cash in on the gold rush that is Myanmar would do well to remember that statistic alongside the numbers on Myanmar’s gas reserves and its potential for mobile phone users and credit-card holders.

Love Our Goddesses, Hate Our Women

A print ad campaign in India with images of battered Hindu goddesses seeks to highlight a disturbing dichotomy in the country’s culture: a reverence for goddesses and female deities on the one hand and rising numbers of rapes and abuses of women and girls on the other. You can see the images here.

How to explain this twisted double standard? Is it the patriarchal mindset, the centuries-old preference for boys, repeated reinforcements of chauvinism in the popular culture, the lack of strong legislation, or feeble political will to take a stand? All of these and more, perhaps.

There has been a 16 percent jump in the number of reported rapes in India in the five years through 2012, and a 902 percent jump since 1971, Bloomberg reported, citing police records. In the first six months of 2013 alone, reported rapes in New Delhi soared to 806 from 330 in the same period a year earlier.

An ad campaign, no matter how striking, is not going to put an end to it, even if the men charged in the horrific Delhi gang-rape were found guilty after a speedy (by Indian standards) trial. But the campaign it has at least got people talking.

There may be fewer goddesses in Bangladesh and China,  but that doesn’t mean there’s less violence against women in these countries. Almost a quarter of men surveyed in Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka, said they had committed rape at least once, according to a survey of more than 10,000 men. The survey, published in The Lancet Global Health journal,  is said to be the first multi-country one on the prevalence of rape, and is part of a UN report on violence in Asia and the Pacific.

One in 10 men said they had raped a woman who wasn’t a partner; with partners included, that number jumped to 24 percent. Just under half said they had raped more than one woman. Nearly three quarters of those who committed rape said they did so for “sexual entitlement”. The second most common reason was rape as a form of entertainment. In other words, they were bored. Makes for chilling reading.