Invest in the care economy to empower women and build resilient societies in Southeast Asia, says new SIGI report


18/03/2024 - Southeast Asia's care systems heavily depend on women, whether as paid or unpaid providers. With decreasing fertility rates and an ageing population, the demand for care will rapidly grow in the short- and long-term. Countries must take urgent action to set up reliable formal care sectors, according to the Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) 2024 Regional Report for Southeast Asia.

“Demographic, educational and economic trends are converging to put Southeast Asia at a critical juncture. Formalising its care economy is both an imperative for the region to protect the well-being and resilience of its population, and a formidable opportunity to accelerate women's economic empowerment”, said OECD Development Centre’s Director, Ragnheiður Elín Árnadóttir.

Despite legal reforms enacted between 2019 and 2023 aimed at fostering gender equality in Southeast Asia, legal discrimination and worsening social norms persist. Various legal restrictions continue to affect the autonomy of women and girls: small gaps in the legislation preventing equal pay for work of equal value; laws restricting women's rights to inheritance; legal frameworks that do not comprehensively protect girls and women from all forms of violence; laws preventing access to safe abortion. For instance, 5 countries out of 11 do not grant women and men the same rights to confer citizenship to their spouses.

Beyond formal laws, attitudes undermining women’s rights have gained ground between 2014 and 2022. During this period, the share of the population thinking that men should have the priority to jobs when employment is scarce increased by 12 percentage points, and the share of the population justifying domestic violence also went up by 12 percentage points. As a result, in 2023, 70% of Southeast Asian women live in countries where discrimination in social institution is assessed as high or very high.

Social norms in Southeast Asia continue to frame care as a private matter provided by female family members notably to children and the elderly, but also to sick and disabled relatives. National care systems thus primarily rely on women’s unpaid care work. Meanwhile, the paid care sector is highly feminised but remains small and largely informal, increasing the vulnerabilities of female workers of the sector, such as domestic workers or migrant workers.

Southeast Asia is therefore caught in a vicious circle, where the current characteristics of care provision impede the formalisation of care sectors: 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 increase public spending.

To break that circle, Southeast Asian countries must trigger a positive dynamic, whereby the development of a formal care economy fosters women's empowerment and inclusive development. Anticipating rising educational levels and a shift of the region's economies towards services, the report foresees an increased participation of women in the labour market, and less time allocated to unpaid care activities. This would reduce the supply of family-based care services and increase the demand for paid formal care services.

According to the report, public and private investment in the care economy would generate massive formal job opportunities, many of which would be taken on by women, given the gendered nature of care. Female care workers transitioning from informal to formal employment would gain better access to social protection schemes, and improved labour rights. At the same time, the provision of affordable formal care services would allow currently unpaid care providers, who are mostly women, to enter the labour market, remain in it, and/or allocate more time to work. Strong, formal care sectors would not only improve the quality of care, but also make Southeast Asian societies more resilient to shocks, such as health pandemics and climate change.

To achieve this feat, the SIGI 2024 Regional Report for Southeast Asia recommends the following:

  • Encourage the formalisation of jobs by targeting micro- and small enterprises and develop innovative solutions to enhance the rights and working conditions of workers who remain informal.
  • Expand the coverage of social protection systems to boost the development of formal care services.
  • Transform social norms that shape the private-oriented design of care systems in the region, including by engaging with men and boys.
  • Reform personal status laws, strengthen the legislation protecting women’s rights in the private and public spheres, and ensure their enforcement. 

Media queries should be directed to the OECD Development Centre’s Press Office: [email protected]; tel.: +33 145 24 82 96.


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