Panel discussion focuses on methods for empowering women in developing Asian countries

Zachary Shaykin
March 14, 2016

webDSC_0096Just a day after International Women’s Day, Sasakawa USA co-hosted “U.S.-Japan Dialogue on International Development,” a public forum with The Asia Foundation on March 9, 2016, featuring prominent figures in both Japanese and U.S. civil society to discuss women’s rights and empowerment in Asia. The challenges that women face when seeking equal opportunities in the region were a major focus of the forum, which also looked at opportunities for civil society actors from the U.S. and Japan to promote women’s empowerment. More than 80 participants representing local non-profit organizations and private sector individuals specializing in Asia and women’s rights attended the panel discussion.

The event was broken into two panels, each with four experts who offered case studies and unique strategies for engaging both men and women to empower women politically, economically, and in terms of health, in developing countries in South and Southeast Asia. Each panel included prominent U.S. and Japanese NGO specialists, including four NGO leaders from Japan who were participating in Sasakawa USA’s week-long U.S.-Japan Civil Society Exchange Program. For biographies of the Japanese participants, click here.

The first panel was led by Eileen Pennington, the Asia Foundation’s Acting Director of Women’s Empowerment Program, and focused on the economic and political status of women in Asia. Highlights from this panel included presentations from the Civil Society Exchange Program’s Naoto Sakaguchi, Director of InterBand and a specialist on peace building and democratization; and Mizuho Kakinuma, an agricultural development expert and Director of Advocacy for the Organization for Industrial, Spiritual and Cultural Advancement (OISCA).

Barbara Rodriguez, Assistant Director for the Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program, stressed that NGOs should be “gender-smart” by integrating gender as an essential factor in all developmental work across different programmatic sectors.  

Sakaguchi proposed a digitalization of voter registration in countries such as Myanmar and Cambodia, which he argued would allow easier access for women to vote in elections and therefore provide a “package for sustainable economic development.” Kakinuma said that agricultural skills and technology are not widely taught among women in Asia, causing many women to be less active in the agricultural labor force. She described the implementation of agricultural technology and management programs in rural Indonesian communities, through which she helped promote leadership among female agricultural workers, and thus increase female authority in Indonesia. Barbara Rodriguez, Assistant Director for the Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program, stressed that NGOs should be “gender-smart” by integrating gender as an essential factor in all developmental work across different programmatic sectors.

The second panel, headed by Abigail Friedman, Senior Advisor of the Asia Foundation, shifted the focus away from women’s political involvement in Asian countries and concentrated on female health and wellness issues. Natori Ikuko, a participant in Sasakawa USA’s Civil Society Exchange Program and Director of Overseas and Domestic Programs at the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan (AAR), stated that a prominent challenge in implementing programs in developing countries is the limited social welfare established by the public sector. Tomoko Fukuda, another Civil Society Exchange Program participant and Chief of Advocacy for the Japanese Organization for International Cooperation and Family Planning (JOICFP), called upon her expertise in promoting sexual and reproductive rights for women in Indonesia to contest that barriers to women’s empowerment are a multifaceted issue that has cultural roots in addition to political and economic implications, such as the harmful extant traditions of female mutilation and the forced marriage of young women.

In the end, there was a general consensus that women’s empowerment was not just a “woman’s issue,” and that cooperation between the U.S. and Japan in educational and outreach programs targeting male as well as female participation is a necessary step towards gender equality among developing Asian communities.

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