1. Discrimination in social institutions in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia, in line with global commitments, has made notable institutional strides towards gender equality over the past four decades. Gender equality is a core pillar of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is not only a stand-alone Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 5), but it is also embedded in nearly all 17 goals: about 45% of the indicators of the SDG framework (102 out of 247) are gender-relevant (Cohen and Shinwell, 2020[1]). Well before the 2030 Agenda, Southeast Asian governments ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and, in 1995, endorsed the fundamental Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPfA) for advancing women’s rights. At the regional level, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)1 has steered the gender equality agenda, as reflected in the adoption of the Gender Mainstreaming Strategic Framework 2021-25 (ASEAN, 2021[2]; ASEAN, 2017[3]).

Despite significant progress in gender equality outcomes, Southeast Asia grapples with persistent challenges. The region has successfully narrowed gender gaps in education and achieved parity in primary and secondary education (OECD, 2021[4]). However, women and girls continue to experience various forms of violence – from child marriage to intimate-partner violence and sexual harassment –, suffer from restricted access to sexual and reproductive health education, and face economic and political empowerment disparities. In addition, women living in poor households, residing in rural areas or belonging to ethnic minorities are further marginalised and face heightened barriers in terms of access to services, education or jobs (ASEAN and UN Women, 2021[5]).

At the heart of the socio-economic differences that still exist between men and women, lie discriminatory social institutions – that is formal or informal laws, social norms and practices. Many of these institutions take their root in predominantly patriarchal, customary and religious practices and have an impact on women’s empowerment in nearly all aspects of their lives. Norms that confine women to care and reproductive roles, together with laws that limit women’s rights in the family sphere – e.g. authorising the marriage of minor girls, establishing distinct shares of inheritance between women and men, and preventing women from being the legal guardians of their children or from divorcing –, not only weaken women’s status in the family but have ripple effects on their empowerment in the public and economic spheres.

The chapter starts by providing an overview of the SIGI results in Southeast Asia. It underlines the progress achieved, notably in terms of legal reforms, and underscores the challenges remaining to eliminate discrimination in social institutions. The chapter explores women’s and girls’ status and rights across the SIGI’s four dimensions: (i) women’s status in the family sphere; (ii) women’s status in the economic sphere; (iii) women’s civil liberties; and (iv) women physical integrity and access to sexual and reproductive rights. The chapter concludes by identifying priority action areas to accelerate progress towards the SDGs and by providing tailored policy recommendations to address the root causes of gender inequality in the region.

With a SIGI score of 39, Southeast Asia has levels of discrimination against women and girls in social institutions that are estimated to be medium and close to high. Box 1.1 explains how the SIGI measures discrimination.2 On average, the region’s levels of discrimination are in line with those observed in the entire Asian continent (score of 37) but higher than at the global level (29) and in OECD countries (15). Southeast Asia’s score is similar to that of Africa (40), and the region fares better than the Middle East and North Africa (56), where levels of discrimination are very high. In contrast, the region lags behind Latin America and the Caribbean (21) and Europe (14), where levels of discrimination are low and very low (Figure 1.1).

Levels of discrimination in social institutions vary substantially across Southeast Asian countries. In Cambodia, Viet Nam and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (hereafter Lao PDR), gender-based discrimination is low (SIGI scores of 22, 24 and 25, respectively). These three countries’ good results stem from relatively strong legal frameworks that protect girls’ and women’s rights in most areas of the SIGI framework. Conversely, despite various initiatives taken by the government to advance women’s rights, notably through Malaysia’s National Human Rights Action Plan, levels of discrimination in Malaysia are assessed as very high, with a SIGI score of 61. This score primarily results from laws that discriminate against women’s rights with variations across religious and ethnic groups.

These large variations are illustrated by the fact that Southeast Asian countries are distributed across nearly all five levels of discrimination measured – with the exception of the very low category (Figure 1.2). Nevertheless, the vast majority of the region’s women – 70%, or 340 million women – continue to live in countries with high and very high levels of discrimination. Their concentration in such countries results from large differences between the population sizes of the region’s countries. In particular, the majority of these women live in populous countries such as Indonesia or the Philippines that present high levels of gender-based discrimination in social institutions.

Data from the fifth edition of the SIGI also show that the most important barriers women and girls face vary across countries of the region. For 63 out of Southeast Asia’s 11 countries, gender-based discrimination in laws and social norms is highest in the family sphere. For the remaining 5 countries, levels of discrimination are highest regarding girls’ and women’s physical integrity (Lao PDR, Singapore and Timor-Leste), their economic rights (Cambodia) and their civil liberties (Thailand). This heterogeneity is further reflected in the specific issues that underpin each of these four structural dimensions of girls’ and women’s lives. While many factors are at play and determine to what extent girls and women can exercise their rights and opportunities at all times and areas of life, certain issues stand out in the family, economic and public spheres (Table 1.1).

In this context, since 2019, Southeast Asia has boasted critical legal reforms across all dimensions and indicators of the SIGI. Data from the fifth edition of the SIGI reveal that, between 2019 and 2023, Southeast Asian countries implemented 33 legal or regulatory reforms related to gender equality, out of which 26 (79%) were assessed as contributing to greater gender equality. Conversely, 2 of these reforms were assessed as gender unequal as they further limit women’s rights and opportunities, and 6 were assessed as neutral from a gender perspective4 (see Chapter 2 and Annex B). Most of these legal reforms (13 out of 33) focused on the prevention of violence against women. Several landmark reforms were also enacted to prohibit girl child marriage – such as in Indonesia and the Philippines – or to protect and expand women’s labour rights – such as in the Philippines and Thailand.

Women in Southeast Asia face the highest levels of discrimination within the family sphere. This is in line with findings at the global level which underline that high levels of discrimination in the family sphere reflect the persistence of deep-rooted unequal power relations between women and men within the household (OECD, 2023[7]). In the context of the SIGI framework, such discrimination includes unequal rights to divorce or inherit, early marriage of girls, unequal rights to guardianship or custody of children during or after marriage, traditional roles of men and women in the household, and gender-based imbalances in the amount of time dedicated to unpaid care and domestic work. Such discrimination in the family has important repercussions on girls’ and women’s rights and opportunities throughout their life cycles and limits their empowerment in the economic and political spheres. For example, unequal inheritance laws and practices can make women more economically vulnerable by depriving them of essential rights that guarantee their financial independence.

In Southeast Asia, discriminatory personal status laws are at the heart of these high levels of discrimination in the family sphere (Chapter 2). Personal status laws are complex legal instruments sitting at the crossroads of statutory, religious and customary laws. They are applicable to particular religious, ethnic or cultural groups within a national jurisdiction. These laws and regulations govern family matters, ranging from marriage to guardianship, child custody, spousal maintenance, divorce and succession. While personal status laws remain prevalent in many parts of the world, they are particularly present in Southeast Asia. Seven countries5 out of 11 possess such laws, which have varying degrees of coexistence with and legal precedence over civil law (see Chapter 2 on laws).

These personal status laws have a profound impact on women’s legal status in the family sphere and are at the root of the severe legal restrictions that women and girls face in Southeast Asia. Discriminatory legal provisions embedded in personal status laws tend to cement inequalities by establishing unequal rights between men and women within a culture, religion or ethnic group (World Bank, 2012[8]; Panditaratne, 2007[9]). They also establish different rights within a country between women of different groups based on cultural, religious or ethnic affiliation. More precisely, personal status laws enforced in Southeast Asia tend (i) to limit women’s rights to inheritance by conferring to men a larger share of inheritance; (ii) to establish different rules and requirements for men and women to initiate and finalise divorce or to remarry following a divorce; (iii) to weaken women’s status and agency in the household by limiting their authority over their children and by distinguishing between custody and legal guardianship; and (iv) to establish a minimum legal age of marriage for girls under the age of 18 years, which may vary across ethnic and/or religious communities (see Chapter 2 on laws).

These legal loopholes have concrete consequences for women’s and girls’ empowerment. For instance, laws that fail to strictly prohibit child marriage leave girls highly vulnerable to the practice and translate into a large share of them being married before the age of 18 years. In 2023, 17% of Southeast Asian women aged 20 to 24 years were married before the age of 18 years. Across nearly all countries of the region with data available,6 this share ranges from 15% to 20%. Notable exceptions are countries like Singapore, where girl child marriage has been virtually eliminated despite legal provision allowing exceptions to the minimum age of marriage. Conversely, in LAO PDR, although there are no legal exceptions, informal laws tolerate this harmful practice, leading to one-third of women aged between 20 and 24 years being married before the age of 18 years (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[10]).

The practice of girl child marriage carries deep and long-term consequences on the social, physical and economic well-being of women throughout their lives. The latest research at the global level stresses that girl child marriage and its association with adolescent pregnancy have large impacts on population growth, with significant negative effects on the health and nutrition of children of child brides. The practice also severely hampers girls’ education, affecting human capital and having an impact on women’s future status in the labour market, and is associated with higher risks of intimate-partner violence (Wodon et al., 2017[11]). Overall, the costs associated with girl child marriage are estimated at billions of dollars every year for the global economy, with Southeast Asian countries bearing a substantial share of it (ICRW, 2018[12]).

Laws that limit women’s status in the family also reflect discriminatory social norms and traditional gender roles. Across the region, views largely support the idea that men should be the breadwinners while women should remain confined to care and reproductive roles (see Chapter 3 on social norms). These discriminatory views reflect the region’s societal structures of men’s and women’s traditional roles (Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE), 2021[13]).

Attitudes endorsing these traditional gender-based divisions of roles in the household translate into Southeast Asian women shouldering most of the unpaid care and domestic work. Information from time-use surveys that measure the amount of time men and women allocate to unpaid care and domestic tasks remains limited, with only four countries in the region having available data – Cambodia, Lao PDR, Malaysia and Thailand. Across these countries, on average, women spend 3.1 times more time than men on unpaid care and domestic tasks, dedicating 3.3 hours per day to them, compared to only 1 hour per day for men. In other words, women dedicate 14% of their day to unpaid care and domestic work, whereas men only spend 4% of their day on such tasks.

Overall, discrimination in the family sphere that is embedded in laws and social norms has deep negative consequences on the economic, social and political empowerment of women and girls. Global data from the fifth edition of the SIGI show that higher levels of discrimination in the family sphere – as measured by the scores in the dimension “Discrimination in the family” – are associated with higher levels of discrimination in the economic sphere (Figure 1.3). Legal discrimination in the family sphere weakens women’s and girls’ agency, undermining their ability to build human and financial capital and to fully participate in the economic and social spheres (OECD, 2023[7]). For instance, laws that authorise girls to marry before the age of 18 years lead to a large incidence of girl child marriage, which has long-term repercussions on girls’ and women’s health and education. Laws that limit women’s rights to leave the household or that force them to obey their spouses also constitute critical barriers that prevent women from taking paid jobs outside the household. Discriminatory views on women’s traditional roles and the resulting systemic differences in unpaid care and domestic work also have deep implications for women’s labour engagement and outcomes, such as their overrepresentation in low-wage sectors, in the informal economy or among part-time workers, as well as women’s underrepresentation in leadership and management positions (OECD, 2023[7]).

The economic dimension is central to women’s empowerment. It focuses primarily on women’s capacity to make strategic choices and exercise agency in the economic sphere and, more precisely, their ability to participate in the labour market, earn an income, and access and control key resources such as land. It also encompasses a wider set of issues, including women’s control over their own time, lives and bodies, as well as their meaningful participation and representation in economic decision-making processes at all levels – from within the household to the highest economic and political positions. Women’s economic empowerment also paves the way for changes in other dimensions of their lives, such as well-being, social empowerment, health or education.

In Southeast Asia, women’s participation in the labour market is substantially lower than men’s, and each tends to be concentrated in different economic sectors. In 2023, across Southeast Asia, women’s labour force participation stood at 57%, compared to 75% for men, translating into a gender gap of 18 percentage points (ILO, 2023[14]).7 The gender gap attained 31 percentage points in Myanmar, while it dropped to 7 and 9 percentage points in Lao PDR and Viet Nam, respectively. In line with the employment structure of the entire region, in 2023, more than 50% of employed women worked in agriculture and in the wholesale and retail trade sector. Moreover, gender segregation across economic sectors was very important. In 2023, more than 90% of the workers employed in the transportation and construction sectors were men. Conversely, women accounted for more than 60% of the workers employed in household and domestic activities, in the textiles and wearing apparel sector, in the education and health services sector, and in accommodation and food service activities (Figure 1.4).

Employment in the informal sector remains the norm in Southeast Asia, for both women and men. In 2022, 69% of employed women worked as informal workers, compared to 70% of employed men (ILO and ADB, 2023[16]). A substantial share of these informal workers operate in the agricultural sector (ILO, 2023[17]). Older individuals, especially women, are particularly affected. In five countries8 of the region, the informal employment rate of workers aged over 65 years is superior to 90%. In Myanmar, the gender gap in informal employment among individuals aged over 65 years stands at 11 percentage points, while it reaches 6 and 4 percentage points in Thailand and Indonesia, respectively. Evidence from the region suggests that older women are pushed into informality due to difficulties in finding formal employment at their age, which adds additional stress to their multiple responsibilities at work and at home (Alfers and Sevilla, 2022[18]).

Overall, the widespread informality across the region constrains women’s access to social protection benefits, which include, among others, health coverage, maternity and parental leave provisions, unemployment benefits, and benefits for their children and families (ILO, 2023[19]). This lack of protection exacerbates their vulnerabilities and reduces their likeliness to work on an equal footing with men.

Women’s participation in the labour market is characterised by vulnerable forms of employment in both the formal and informal sectors. On average, in 2022, 57% of men employed in Southeast Asia worked as employees and employers, compared to 47% of women. Conversely, only 7% of employed Southeast Asian men worked as contributing family workers, compared to 20% of women (Figure 1.5).

Southeast Asia’s laws governing women’s rights in the workplace are generally robust and guarantee equal rights between men and women, but gaps persist in certain countries of the region. Most countries have eliminated all legal provisions that prevent women from entering certain sectors or professions, or from working during night hours the same way as men.9 However, some countries’ laws governing family relationships may indirectly restrict women’s ability to freely choose their professions (see Chapter 2 on laws). Moreover, although all countries of the region have ratified the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 100 stipulating equal pay for work of equal value (ILO, 1951[22]), only six countries10 have transcribed the principle into their national legislation. Two countries11 mandate equal remuneration for equal work but not for work of equal value, while three countries12 do not have any legal provision on the matter.

Women’s rights to access financial services are also well protected. Existing legal frameworks guarantee women the same rights as men to open a bank account or obtain credit in all Southeast Asian countries. However, although equal rights may be guaranteed by the law, men’s and women’s ability to exercise these rights in their daily lives can be limited. For instance, just over half of Southeast Asia’s population has a bank account at a financial institution (52% of women and 54% of men) (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[10]). Therefore, although gender gaps in financial inclusion are small, data still underscore low levels of achievement for both women and men.

At the heart of women’s labour constraints lie discriminatory social norms. Shared attitudes across the region reflect notions of restrictive masculinities that establish men as natural leaders and that associate managerial skills with characteristics more commonly ascribed to men (see Chapter 3 on social norms) (OECD, 2021[23]). These views often translate into women being underrepresented in managerial positions. In Southeast Asia, 36% of managers are women, and 32% of firms are headed by women, although the region fares better than the rest of the world (with respective shares of 25% and 15%). Discriminatory views on women’s ability to be business leaders also hinder the development of female entrepreneurship and women-led businesses. Other factors at play are limited access to formal financing and collateral, informality and lack of formal documentation, and reduced access to networks – all leading to insufficient access to information on financing options, entrepreneurship advice and mentorship opportunities (The ASEAN, 2022[24]).

Societal expectations on gender roles remain the driving force behind existing structural gender inequalities in the labour market (Chapter 3). Traditional views on women’s and men’s roles translate into women shouldering the brunt of unpaid care and domestic work. These tasks and responsibilities severely limit the amount of time women can dedicate to other activities, including education and paid employment. Also, to reconcile their family responsibilities with the need to contribute to the household income, women are often pushed into more flexible forms of employment such as the informal sector or part-time employment (ILO, 2018[25]; Hoyman, 1987[26]).

These discriminatory views shape the laws and regulations that govern parental leave schemes, resulting in extremely large differences between maternity and paternity leave. All Southeast Asian countries mandate paid maternity leave, but only 6 countries13 out of 11 comply with the minimum maternity leave period of 14 weeks recommended by the ILO (2022[27]). Moreover, in contrast with maternity leave, four countries14 do not mandate any paid paternity or parental leave for fathers, and in countries that do, the legislation establishes leave periods available to fathers that are significantly shorter than for mothers (see Chapter 2 on laws). These stark differences between the duration of maternity and paternity leave primarily reflect the persistence of norms according to which women are the primary child carers and men the breadwinners. In turn, the differences in treatment between mothers and fathers as upheld by the law further encourage a gender-based division of roles within the household. As a result, even when paid paternity or parental leave exists, fathers can be reluctant to use it for fear of being stigmatised and not complying with the dominant model (Pham, Ngo and Pham, 2023[28]; Baird, Hill and Gulesserian, 2019[29]; Hill, 2019[30]). The uptake of maternity or parental leave is also hampered by women’s widespread work in the informal sector which excludes most workers from existing programmes (see Chapter 3 on social norms).

Citizenship laws are fundamental to avoid statelessness and to guarantee socio-economic and political rights such as access to social protection and education, the right to work and to vote, and so forth. An individual who lacks legal recognition as a national or citizen of a country is considered stateless, which has drastic consequences on his/her ability to enjoy such rights. Southeast Asia is particularly affected by this phenomenon. Estimates suggest that 40% of stateless people live in the Asia-Pacific region, the majority in Southeast Asia (Sperfeldt, 2021[31]). At the same time, Southeast Asian countries have a poor record of ratifying the main international instruments that protect the rights of stateless individuals: only the Philippines has ratified the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, and no country in the region is party to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness (Sperfeldt, 2021[31]).

In this context, most citizenship laws of Southeast Asian countries contain provisions that do not grant women and men equal rights – in particular, to acquire or retain citizenship after marriage or to confer it to their children. In 5 Southeast Asian countries15 out of 11, citizenship laws do not grant women and men the same rights to confer citizenship to their spouses (see Chapter 2 on laws). Such legal provisions can increase the risk of statelessness in cases of marriages between nationals of different countries. For example, a woman marrying a foreigner and applying for his nationality can lose her original or birth nationality. Cases have been reported where Vietnamese brides became stateless when they had to renounce their citizenship to request the nationality of their foreign spouses but subsequently failed to obtain a new nationality (Sperfeldt, 2021[31]). These types of provisions can also exacerbate women’s exposure to gender-based violence. When a woman’s nationality is tied to an abusive spouse, she faces greater difficulty in escaping the violent relationship (Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, 2020[32]). At the same time, while nearly all Southeast Asian countries grant women and men the same rights to confer their nationality to their children, some exceptions persist – notably in Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia (see Chapter 2 on laws).

These limitations can have far-reaching implications for individuals’ participation in public and political life, which largely depends on being a citizen. Women in Southeast Asia suffer from a lack of political representation; at the end of 2023, only 22% of the members of parliament were women. Their representation ranges from less than 15% in Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia to 30% in Viet Nam and 40% in Timor-Leste. The rate of progress observed across the region over the 2013-23 period is lower than at the global level. Projections suggest that, while it could take the world about 40 additional years to attain gender parity in political representation, it may take Southeast Asia nearly 55 years (Figure 1.6).

Scepticism towards women’s abilities as political decision makers is widespread: 62% of the Southeast Asian population states that men make better political leaders, ranging from 31% in Singapore to over 70% in Indonesia and Myanmar. In addition, evidence shows that political parties often act as gatekeepers, marginalising women and restricting resources for their upward political mobility (Welsh, 2020[34]). In this context, gender quotas could serve as a temporary measure to enhance women’s political representation (OECD, 2023[7]). These measures not only naturally increase the share of women elected to political offices but also provide talented women with a pathway to enter politics and opportunities to develop their competencies while in office. Over the long term, gender quotas contribute to the emergence of female role models in politics who can, in turn, inspire future generations of women to engage in politics. However, across the region, only Indonesia has implemented gender quotas at both the national and sub-national levels. Timor-Leste and Viet Nam have quotas at the national level, while Cambodia and the Philippines have them at the sub-national level only. In countries where quotas are in place at the national level, women’s representation in parliament is significantly higher compared to countries without such quotas. This trend aligns with global findings indicating that legislated gender quotas have a positive and significant impact on women’s representation in parliaments, particularly in the Americas and in Asia (OECD, 2023[7])

At the same time, laws across Southeast Asia tend to guarantee women’s rights to justice and their freedom of movement. Contrary to the pressing issues highlighted above, there is less variation across the region’s countries, indicating that nearly all women in Southeast Asia seem to fare better in these areas (Table 1.1). In this regard, women and men have the same rights in the justice system, notably concerning suing someone or providing testimony in court, except in Brunei Darussalam.16 Likewise, women’s freedom of movement – captured by the right to travel within and outside of the country and to apply for identity cards or passports – is guaranteed by statutory legal frameworks in most countries.17 Certain cultural and legal contexts may impose limitations on this right. For instance, in some countries, such as Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia, religious or customary laws may intersect with constitutional protections, leading to restrictions on women’s freedom of movement.

However, similar to financial inclusion, practices suggest that these legal guarantees have not yet fully translated into concrete achievements. Both men’s and women’s ability to exercise their judicial rights remains limited, with about one-third of women and men (29% and 33%, respectively) reporting that they do not have confidence in the judicial system and courts of their country (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[10]). When looking at people’s mobility and feeling of safety in public spaces, a greater share of women than men feel insecure when walking alone at night outside (36% and 21%, respectively), which is in line with the dynamic observed in other regions of the world. At the country level, Singapore stands out with the lowest share of women (7%) feeling insecure, compared to Myanmar, where a majority of women (56%) do not feel safe (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[10]). These figures underline that, although legal frameworks free of discrimination are a key prerequisite to achieving gender equality in all areas of life, additional policy measures are needed to translate de jure rights into de facto opportunities and rights.

Throughout their lives, girls’ and women’s physical integrity may be restricted in different ways. Discriminatory laws and social norms can increase their vulnerability to multiple forms of violence, limit their control over their bodies and undermine their reproductive autonomy. These violations of girls’ and women’s rights can have lasting consequences on their well-being, socio-economic inclusion, and ability to accumulate knowledge and contribute to the welfare of their families, communities and societies (CARE International, 2018[35]; WHO, 2021[36]). Data from the fifth edition of the SIGI show that women’s physical integrity remains restricted in Southeast Asia, particularly in the areas of violence against women and reproductive autonomy.

Despite increased awareness and policy actions, girls and women in Southeast Asia are at risk of experiencing gender-based violence. Violence against women refers to “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women” (United Nations, 1993[37]). Girls and women are disproportionately vulnerable to experiencing some form of violence throughout the course of their lives – often at the hands of their partners. Across Southeast Asia, at the time data were collected, 21% of women had experienced intimate-partner violence at least once in their lifetime, and 7% had survived intimate-partner violence over the previous 12 months (Figure 1.7). Although prevalence rates in Southeast Asia are below the global averages for both lifetime (28%) and 12-month (10%) intimate-partner violence, data likely underestimate the actual extent of the phenomenon. Because of fear of retaliation as well as limited trust in the ability of the justice system to hold perpetrators accountable and to provide effective protection measures, many victims/survivors may refrain from reporting their cases to public authorities (OECD, 2020[38]).

Policy and legal frameworks are crucial to preventing and ending violence against women. All Southeast Asian countries, except for Brunei Darussalam, have a national action plan or policy focusing on ending and preventing violence against women. Yet, no country in the region has a legal framework that comprehensively protects girls and women from all forms of violence. The extent to which the law fails to adequately protect women and girls from violence varies substantially across Southeast Asian countries (see Chapter 2 on laws). It ranges from the absence of the notion of consent in the definition of rape to the failure to criminalise specific forms of violence – such as domestic violence, marital rape and sexual harassment –, the existence of reduced penalties in cases of so-called "honour crimes", the existence of provisions that allow rapists to marry the victim/survivor under specific circumstances, and the absence of legal provisions specifically criminalising female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C). The latter includes protecting women and girls in the context of so-called “cross-border” FGM/C, i.e. when girls are taken abroad to be cut in places where the practice is not criminalised or law enforcement is limited (OECD, 2023[39]).

The role of laws in preventing and addressing violence against women and girls is further hampered by views that continue to condone and justify intimate-partner violence. In Southeast Asia, one-third of the population thinks that it is acceptable for a man to beat his spouse under certain circumstances, e.g. when she burns the food, neglects the children or refuses sex (see Chapter 3 on social norms) (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[10]). As long as such attitudes persist, girls and women are vulnerable to suffering from violence throughout their lives.

Women’s physical integrity in the region is also constrained by limited access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. These rights are essential to guarantee girls’ and women’s bodily autonomy and are a decisive factor for women’s lifelong health and development (OECD, 2023[7]) (Box 1.2). The right to health and reproductive autonomy is anchored in Articles 12 and 16(e) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which was ratified by all Southeast Asian countries (United Nations, 1979[40]). However, at the national level, discriminatory legal frameworks and social norms can severely restrict women’s and notably adolescents’ sexual and reproductive health and rights, preventing them from realising their rights and achieving the best possible health outcomes.

Access to safe and legal abortion is uneven across Southeast Asia. Data from the fifth edition of the SIGI reveal that over 70% of women of reproductive age in the region do not have access to safe and legal abortion under essential circumstances, as recommended by the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. This represents a violation of their rights and also bears important health risks. Unsafe abortions are a leading, but evitable, cause of maternal mortality, and each year, millions of girls and women worldwide are hospitalised or die because of complications following unsafe abortion procedures (UNFPA, 2022[42]).

While amending discriminatory laws is fundamental for making sexual and reproductive health and rights a reality for all, national policies and programmes can enhance adolescents’ and women’s access to services, including family planning and contraception. In Southeast Asia, six countries18 have a policy or action plan in place that establishes universal access to family planning services, and four countries19 provide for subsidised or free contraceptives. Nevertheless, not all women’s family planning needs are met. Across the region, 11% of women of reproductive age report unmet needs for family planning,20 similar to the worldwide share (12%). While most of the region’s countries declare unmet needs ranging between 10% and 15%, there are a few exceptions. In Viet Nam and Thailand, the shares of women who do not have their family planning needs satisfied with modern contraceptives are 5% and 6%, respectively, whereas the share reaches 23% in Timor-Leste (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[10]).

Unequal power dynamics and social norms that establish men as the ultimate decision-makers can limit women’s ability to choose, voice and act on contraception and family planning preferences (Moreau et al., 2020[43]). Globally, only 57% of women aged 15-49 years report making their own informed decisions regarding sexual relations, contraceptive use and reproductive health care. In Southeast Asia, data are available for four countries, namely Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Timor-Leste. Among these countries, women’s reproductive autonomy is highest in the Philippines (81%) and lowest in Timor-Leste (40%) (United Nations, 2023[44]). This shows that even in the best-performing country, not all women have full decision-making power over their sexuality and reproduction.

When social norms confirming men in the role of family head and/or decision-making partner are pervasive, adolescents and women can face difficulties in obtaining information on sexuality, in making decisions based on their own needs and preferences, and in accessing relevant services. In this regard, comprehensive sexuality education could support sexual and reproductive health and rights within wider gender equality efforts in Southeast Asia. Yet, only four countries in the region mandate comprehensive sexuality education as part of the national curriculum (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[45]).21

Results from the fifth edition of the SIGI shed light on the fundamental role of discriminatory social institutions in shaping gender inequalities across Southeast Asia. Addressing these obstacles requires a co-ordinated effort from all stakeholders, from policy makers to bilateral and multilateral development partners, private and philanthropic actors, academic and research institutes, as well as feminist and civil society organisations. To accelerate progress towards achieving gender equality and SDG 5, Southeast Asian policy makers and all relevant stakeholders must:

  • integrate a gender lens across policies and programmes, with an intersectional approach

  • reform laws and ensure their enforcement

  • transform discriminatory social norms

  • engage men and boys

  • collect quality gender-disaggregated, gender-relevant and intersectional data and indicators.

Governments must systematically integrate a gender lens into any policy or programme to promote gender equality in all areas of life, ranging from parents’ responsibilities in childcare to climate change adaptation mechanisms. Achieving this objective entails providing training on gender mainstreaming to responsible staff across all ministries and allocating the necessary budget and tracking mechanisms to monitor governments’ commitments. It also requires empowering women to ensure that their experiences and expertise inform the design and implementation of all policies and programmes.

Viet Nam’s National Strategy on Gender Equality (2021-30) sets forth ambitious targets to increase women’s political leadership, reduce women’s time spent on unpaid care and domestic work and lower the number of victims/survivors of gender-based violence. The strategy notably includes a programme to promote equal participation of women in leadership and management positions in different policy-making levels for the 2021-30 period (Government of Viet Nam, 2021[46]; VietnamPlus, 2021[47]).

Initiatives must recognise the overlapping individual characteristics that can heighten women’s vulnerabilities, especially given the coexistence of multiple ethnicities in Southeast Asia. In this context, policies and programmes must incorporate an intersectional approach that acknowledges how fundamental characteristics of individuals that can exacerbate vulnerabilities – such as age, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, class, religion, disability, place of residence, and so forth – both deepen the impact of discrimination and crises and shape the experiences and needs of each person.

Data from the fifth edition of the SIGI highlight the need for governments to reform gender-discriminatory legal frameworks, including personal status laws. While laws alone are not sufficient to eradicate all discrimination or transform the status quo, they send a strong signal on what is acceptable or not, laying the foundation for transforming underlying discriminatory social norms.

Beyond implementing the required legal changes, governments must also intensify their efforts to ensure that laws are strictly enforced. This requires informing citizens of any changes in legal frameworks, providing gender-responsive training for officials in the justice sector who execute the law and supporting those in need with free legal aid.

  • Detailed policy recommendations on how to reform laws and guarantee their enforcement across Southeast Asia are outlined in Chapter 2.

Discriminatory social norms remain pervasive in Southeast Asia, obstructing effective progress towards gender equality. To protect and enhance girls’ and women’s rights, opportunities and well-being, governments, in collaboration with development partners and key stakeholders, must develop and implement targeted interventions that promote gender-equitable attitudes and practices. Tackling the root causes of gender inequality requires long-term commitments and close collaboration of all relevant actors – ranging from policy makers to bilateral and multilateral development partners, private entities, philanthropists, academic institutions, research organisations, and feminist and civil society groups. It also requires taking into account men’s needs, to avoid any backlash.

  • Detailed policy recommendations on how to transform discriminatory social norms across Southeast Asia are outlined in Chapter 3.

Southeast Asian societies tend to firmly reproduce a family model based on women as caregivers and men as financial providers. Governments, together with educational providers and civil society organisations as well as other key actors, must seek to shift traditional and discriminatory views by engaging with men and boys. Promoting gender-equitable norms of masculinities would help rebalance gender roles in the household and also encourage women’s educational and career aspirations. Engaging with men and boys is also an effective strategy to prevent gender-based violence and guarantee women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.

  • Detailed policy recommendations on how to engage men and boys across Southeast Asia are outlined in Chapter 3.

As data make the invisible visible, governments must commit to systematically collecting gender-disaggregated and gender-relevant data and indicators, taking into account other intersectional factors such as age, ethnicity and geographical location. National statistical offices should be at the heart of these efforts, supported – where necessary – by bilateral and multilateral development partners with sufficient resources and technical expertise.

To close gender data gaps, governments and national statistical offices should adopt strategies that help minimise data collection costs. For instance, gender equality indicators or add-on gender modules could be integrated into surveys carried out regularly. This could help increase the availability of time-use data in Southeast Asia – which are crucial to develop evidence-based strategies to alleviate women’s unpaid care and domestic burden.

Governments should also specifically invest in collecting data on social institutions, which includes not only measuring populations’ attitudes towards gender roles in society but also the prevalence of harmful practices such as FGM/C and child marriage. Through regular data collection, policy makers could monitor how social norms and practices evolve, take corrective action if needed and evaluate the effectiveness of implemented policies.

In 2019, Indonesia issued Presidential Regulation No. 39 of 2019 which sets forth the need for accurate, updated, harmonised and easily accessible data from all ministries as well as governmental and regional agencies. The National Action Plan (2020-22) includes concrete action steps for setting up the One Data Initiative (Satu Data Indonesia) until 2024 (Republic of Indonesia, 2019[48]; Republic of Indonesia, 2019[49]). Although the overall data initiative does not mandate collecting gender and/or sex-disaggregated data, Ministerial Regulation No.4 of 2023 issued by the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection (MoWECP) provides for implementing the One Gender and Children Data policy (Satu Data Gender Dan Anak). The MoWECP is responsible for carrying out this policy, including collecting and disseminating gender data (Republic of Indonesia, 2023[50]).


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← 1. ASEAN countries include Brunei Darussalam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam.

← 2. Scores range from 0 to 100, with 0 indicating no discrimination and 100 indicating absolute discrimination.

← 3. Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Viet Nam.

← 4. One reform was assessed as both positive and negative as it contained provisions contributing to greater gender equality and others that further limited women's rights and opportunities (see Annex B).

← 5. Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

← 6. Data are not available for Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia.

← 7. All data are from 2023 except for Myanmar, for which the latest data available are from 2020.

← 8. Lao PDR (97%), Viet Nam (97%), Cambodia (96%), Timor-Leste (92%) and Indonesia (91%).

← 9. Exceptions include (i) Myanmar, where the Factories Act mandates that certain operations can only be carried out by a specially trained adult male worker and prohibits the employment of women in certain types of factories (Republic of the Union of Myanmar, 1951[55]); and (ii) Thailand, where the Labour Protection Act does not allow women to work in mining or underground construction, among others (Kingdom of Thailand, 1998[56]). In Malaysia, in 2022, the Employment (Amendment) Act repealed the provisions that previously prohibited the employment of women in any underground work, as well as in industrial and agricultural activities if carried out during the night (Malaysia, 2022[53]; Malaysia, 1955[54]).

← 10. Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Viet Nam.

← 11. Lao PDR and Myanmar.

← 12. Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Singapore.

← 13. Lao PDR (105 days), Malaysia (98 days), Myanmar (14 weeks), the Philippines (105 days), Singapore (16 weeks) and Viet Nam (6 months).

← 14. Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Lao PDR and Thailand.

← 15. Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

← 16. In Brunei Darussalam, Sections 105, 106, 107 and 117 of the Syariah Courts Evidence Order introduce differences regarding the value of women's and men's testimonies in Sharia courts (Brunei Darussalam, 2001[51]).

← 17. In Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia, Muslim personal status laws based on principles of Islamic law establish that a married woman can be deemed disobedient when she leaves the house without her spouse's permission (Brunei Darussalam, 2000[57]; Malaysia, 1984[58]). In Myanmar, Burmese women married to foreigners are required to pay an extra fee when renewing their passports. This is not the case for Burmese men who are married to foreign spouses (OECD Development Centre/OECD, 2023[45]).

← 18. Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Viet Nam.

← 19. Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Timor-Leste.

← 20. Women with unmet needs for family planning are defined as “the proportion of women of reproductive age (aged 15-49 years) who have their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods of contraception” and are measured by SDG Indicator 3.7.1 (United Nations, 2022[52]).

← 21. Cambodia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

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