Development Centre

Southeast Asia: discriminatory social institutions continue to hinder women’s empowerment, says new report


Discrimination in informal and formal laws, social norms and practices against women and girls remain high in Southeast Asia compared with the rest of the world. As COVID-19 disproportionally affects women and girls, the pandemic may slow down the region’s progress towards gender equality and women’s empowerment, according to the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) 2021 Regional Report for Southeast Asia.

The report uncovers the impacts of discriminatory social institutions on four critical areas of women’s empowerment and human development: health, education, economic empowerment and political empowerment.

Important legal limitations and social norms constrain women’s reproductive autonomy and affect their sexual and reproductive health negatively. The report highlights that no country in Southeast Asia legally guarantees universal access to contraception. In 2018, 13% of women of reproductive age (15-49 years) reported having an unmet need for family planning. Likewise, adolescent pregnancy rates are closely correlated with the prevalence rate of girl child marriage, revealing the fundamental role of social norms in women’s suboptimal health outcomes.

About 25% of women in Southeast Asia have suffered physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner at least once in their lifetime. The prevalence of gender-based violence is deeply rooted in discriminatory social norms and attitudes that consider violence a private matter. On average, 30% of Southeast Asian women and girls believe that a husband can be justified in hitting or beating his wife under certain circumstances, such as if she burns food, argues with him, goes out without telling him, neglects the children, or refuses sex with him.

Southeast Asia has achieved gender parity in education: as many girls as boys are enrolled in primary, secondary and tertiary education. Nevertheless, deeply entrenched social norms trigger gender segregation in tertiary education, notably in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, which has a direct impact on women’s and men’s choice of labour sector and status. The lack of representation of women in STEM fields leads to their underrepresentation in positions such as engineers, scientists or architects, which are often high-status and high-paying careers.

The report sheds light on the role played by discriminatory social norms in undermining women’s economic participation and confining them to reproductive and care roles. While women’s labour force participation rate is 23 percentage points lower than for men across the region, more than one in five people in Southeast Asia have negative views on women’s paid employment outside of the home. The burden of unpaid care and domestic work also hinders women’s full and active access to labour markets. COVID-19 has also exacerbated the workload of childcare, household chores and elderly care, which has been primarily carried by women and girls in Southeast Asia.

Women’s political representation and inclusion in decision-making bodies is limited despite the progress made since the early 2000s. In 2020, women accounted for just 20% of parliamentarians in the region. Discriminatory social norms are one of the persistent causes of women’s underrepresentation and deny them opportunities to exercise their voices and make decisions on equal footing with men. Indeed, more than half of the population in Southeast Asia believes that men make better political leaders than women.

The report recommends policy actions to tackle discriminatory laws, social norms and practices in Southeast Asia:

  • Update and harmonise legislation in line with international standards,
  • develop justice enforcement mechanisms, notably through adequate infrastructure and service provision,
  • adopt a holistic approach that accounts for women’s diversity such as ethnicity, age and religion while engaging men and boys,
  • strengthen the scope and quality of gender-disaggregated data collection at all geographical levels,
  • improve communication and awareness on gender-based discrimination, and
  • include a gender perspective into COVID-19 recovery policies to mitigate the negative consequences of the crisis on women and girls and to put the root causes of gender inequality at the heart of holistic policy making.


Since its first edition in 2009, the OECD Development Centre’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) has been measuring the gaps that discriminatory laws, social norms and practices create between women and men in terms of rights and opportunities. The 180 country notes are available at

Wikigender, an online collaborative platform, shares research, data and solutions to advance gender equality, in Spanish, English and French:

The report benefitted from the support of the Korean Delegation to the OECD.

For more information, journalists are invited to contact the OECD Development Centre’s Press office: Bochra Kriout (; Tel.: +33 145 24 82 96).


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