Executive summary

Southeast Asian countries have recently made strong commitments to gender equality, notably through the regional policy framework provided by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). However, these commitments have not yet translated into enough progress to put the region on track to reach Sustainable Development Goal 5, “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”, by 2030.

In Southeast Asia, gender inequality is underpinned by plural legal systems and worsening social norms

At the heart of this failure to accelerate progress lies the crucial role that discrimination in social institutions continues to play across the region. Beyond limiting women’s rights and opportunities, these restrictions also generate substantial economic costs, hampering inclusive growth. With a Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) score of 39, Southeast Asia has levels of discrimination against women and girls in social institutions estimated to be medium and close to high, which is markedly higher than the averages for the world (29) and for OECD countries (15). Despite wide variations between countries, the vast majority of the region's women – 70%, or 340 million women – continue to live in countries where discrimination is assessed as high or very high. Discrimination in social institutions is ubiquitous and is present in all aspects of women's and girls' lives, starting in the family and extending to the economic and political spheres, to women's physical integrity, and to their access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

In the family sphere, Southeast Asia is characterised by the existence of multiple and complex personal status laws in 7 countries out of 11. These laws – statutory or customary, and applicable to specific religious, ethnic or cultural groups within a national jurisdiction – are complex legal instruments that govern family matters, ranging from marriage to guardianship, child custody, spousal maintenance, divorce and succession. At the country level, gender-based discriminatory provisions embedded in personal status laws cement inequalities by establishing unequal rights between men and women in the family sphere but also between women of different groups based on cultural, religious or ethnic affiliation.

More broadly, women and girls in the region continue to face many legal restrictions. This is despite the fact that, between 2019 and 2023, Southeast Asian lawmakers enacted numerous legal reforms and amendments aimed at strengthening and enforcing greater gender equality. The legal restrictions that apply to women and girls range from small gaps in the legislation to more important outright discrimination embedded in the law, such as provisions that establish distinct citizenship rights for women and men. Other restrictions comprise legal frameworks that do not comprehensively protect women and girls from all forms of violence, as well as laws that prevent access to safe abortion under the minimum conditions established by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Together with laws, social norms play a key role in undermining women's empowerment. Views across the region endorse a traditional gender-based division of roles, whereby men should be the breadwinners while women should remain confined to care and reproductive roles. Societal expectations also reflect notions of restrictive masculinities that favour men's leadership, thus limiting women’s representation in managerial positions. Overall, social norms on women's and men's roles in the family and public spheres translate into women undertaking a disproportionate share of unpaid care and domestic work and being less represented in the labour market. In addition, the latter is characterised by informality and vulnerable forms of employment, hampering women’s access to social protection benefits.

Dishearteningly, attitudes reinforcing this traditional division of gender roles and undermining women’s rights gained ground between 2014 and 2022. This is notably the case for attitudes rejecting women’s educational and economic rights and also for attitudes accepting violence against women. Furthermore, most of the population continues to oppose women's right to abortion.

Care is a key policy area, but most countries of the region remain unprepared for upcoming challenges

The provision of care in Southeast Asia is deeply affected by views on women's and men’s traditional roles. Preferences for care provision by female family members, together with social norms that uphold women’s role as caregivers, lead to care systems that primarily rely on women’s unpaid care work. As for the paid care sector, it is highly feminised but remains small and largely informal, increasing the vulnerabilities of female workers in the sector, such as domestic or migrant workers.

Yet, current demographic, educational and economic trends suggest that Southeast Asia is at a critical juncture. The ageing of the population means that in the short and long terms, the demand for care will rapidly grow. At the same time, rising educational levels and economic development characterised by a sectoral transition towards services will likely increase women’s participation in the labour market and decrease the time they allocate to unpaid care activities. The consequences will be a lower supply of family-based care services and a growing demand for paid formal care services. In this context, most Southeast Asian countries appear unprepared and should take urgent action to finance and steer the creation or expansion of reliable formal care sectors.

Formal care sectors could bring substantial benefits, from increased economic empowerment for women to better preparedness and resilience to external shocks, if the region overcomes certain challenges. For instance, investment in the care economy would help female care workers transition to formal employment and gain access to social protection schemes and labour rights while allowing current unpaid care providers, mostly women, to remain in the labour market, allocate more time to it or join it altogether. However, to successfully formalise care sectors, Southeast Asian countries must overcome three main challenges: widespread informality in the region’s labour markets; weak social protection systems unable to promote formal care services; and the weight of social norms that consider care a private matter.

Southeast Asia is caught in a vicious circle where the current characteristics of care provision also constitute the main structural barriers to formalising care sectors. For instance, preferences to be cared for by female family members contribute to the low uptake rate of external care services which, in turn, diminishes incentives to develop formal care services and to increase public spending. Breaking the cycle is crucial, as intertwined causes and consequences perpetuate the status quo. To do so, Southeast Asian countries must trigger a positive dynamic, whereby the development of a formal care economy becomes a catalyst for women's empowerment and inclusive development.

Southeast Asia needs a new legal and social framework conducive to gender equality

Tackling those issues and challenges effectively demands co-ordinated approaches and continued data collection to inform policies. It requires systematically applying a gender lens across policies and programmes, as well as taking an intersectional approach that recognises Southeast Asia's context: a mosaic of people, ethnicities and cultural identities. Gaps in the legislation, including in sensitive frameworks such as personal status laws, necessitate careful and tailored approaches to reform laws and ensure their enforcement. Worrying trends in social norms call for whole-of-society approaches to transform discriminatory social norms while engaging with men and boys to address the often-overlooked issue of norms of restrictive masculinities. Finally, to make the invisible visible, countries must continue strengthening their capacities to collect gender-relevant and gender-disaggregated data.


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