With only six years remaining until the deadline of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the world is at risk of missing the objective of “leaving no one behind”. Despite the progress achieved on gender equality, the prospect of achieving Sustainable Development Goal 5 appears elusive. Southeast Asia is no exception. Over the last 20 years, countries in the region have made strides towards gender equality, enacting numerous legal reforms to strengthen women’s rights and achieving gender parity in primary and secondary education. Yet, despite national and regional political commitments, structural barriers persist in the form of discriminatory laws, social norms, and practices, fundamentally limiting the socio-economic contributions of women and girls at the expense of Southeast Asian societies.

Legal discrimination, exacerbated by traditional gender roles, affects Southeast Asian women and girls across diverse areas of their lives. In many countries, plural and sometimes overlapping legal systems establish distinct rights for women and girls depending on their ethnicity, religion or geographical location. Moreover, across the region, views uphold a traditional, gender-based division of roles in the household, confining women to care and reproductive roles, and encouraging men to be the main family providers and exercise leadership in the family, economic and political spheres. These entrenched gender roles intensify discriminatory views, particularly those related to women's economic power.

Discriminatory social norms not only negatively affect the lives of individuals, but they also pose a significant challenge to a crucial policy area in all countries in the region: the care economy. Southeast Asia’s profound demographic changes – a rapidly ageing population, declining fertility rates and increasing life expectancy – will soon lead to a surge in the demand for care services to the young and, especially, the elderly. Today, across the region, those services are considered a private matter, and provided by female family members. In other words, care systems are largely informal, and their workers unpaid. As this report argues, they cannot meet the imminent explosion in the demand for care services. Conversely, building, structuring and formalising Southeast Asia’s care economy would provide a unique opportunity to boost women’s economic empowerment while strengthening the region's resilience to external shocks – including those induced by climate change.

To rise to the challenge – and seize the opportunity  – Southeast Asian countries must intensify their efforts and allocate more resources towards reaching the goal of gender equality; prioritise the elimination of gender-based discrimination in social institutions; dismantle structural barriers, including by amending legislations and taking a holistic approach that recognises women as a diverse group; and transform discriminatory social norms into gender-equitable ones, engaging men and boys to build more inclusive, resilient and healthy societies. The OECD Development Centre stands ready to support and accompany Southeast Asia on this ambitious journey.

Ragnheiður Elín Árnadóttir

Director, OECD Development Centre

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