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A changing Asia, especially for women


Jean Lebel

President, IDRC

Women are the driving force of change in India, Bangladesh and Cambodia.

I’ve just come back from travel in India, Bangladesh and Cambodia. Although they’re very different countries, I ended up finding similarities throughout my meetings, mainly focused on the status of women, in the towns and rural areas.

I had the opportunity to meet thinkers, industrialists, politicians, media reps, NGOs and researchers.

Without a doubt, the common denominator is an economic boom that has resulted in annual growth between five and 10 per cent in each country. I was particularly struck by what was happening in Cambodia, whose capital, Phnom Penh, I could no longer recognize (I had last visited in 2008) because of tourism and a sudden increase in the construction of bridges, roads and buildings.

However, reality catches up quickly with the visitor who explores the countryside, where most of the populations of these countries reside. There, agriculture is still the dominant activity, but it’s affected by the vagaries of climate change and still revolves around monoculture over small areas.

But changes are happening. In one of the villages I visited, they grow grain, vegetables and even fish (in ponds), and the farmers told me that they had more than tripled their revenues in three years thanks to agricultural innovations. They went from $300 to $1,000 in three years! And they’re much better equipped to deal with droughts and heavy rains. More than 4,500 households are taking part in this transformation, where women are at the forefront.

But not all these economic changes have had happy endings in the city. The eightstory collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013, where hundreds of female sweatshop workers had been toiling in cramped conditions, is a tragic example.

With more than 1,000 deaths, more than half of which were female workers, it was a shock to everyone.

In a country where the manufacturing sector accounts for more than 17 per cent of GDP and between 80 and 90 per cent of exports, new initiatives from unions, manufacturers, the government and researchers seek solutions to avoid repeating such a tragedy and especially improve working conditions. I met teams of researchers who are looking at the policies in use in these countries to increase skills of the workforce, especially of women, to reduce overdependence on garments.

The growth of the clothing industry has improved incomes for women, but we must recognize that no country should have to recover from another tragedy of that kind, and there is a danger of falling into greater precariousness. Canada, which purchases about four per cent of garment exports from Bangladesh, is making a serious effort to correct the situation by actively working to improve policies and regulations.

The status of women was the main focus of my meetings. Sexual and domestic abuse and impunity are topics that have only just begun to be discussed in Asia. In many ways, the situation is critical, and these societies are waking up to a brutal reality that no one can condone. But how can we break the silence and fight backward systems and rhetoric?

The first step is to speak up. I had the opportunity to attend the launch of a book by Bangladeshi scholars, the first in the series of South Asian researchers’ efforts to challenge silence and impunity. The next step is to study and take action so that women are not alone and subjected to this scourge.

All of India now has a standardized protocol for forensic investigations into rapes, and it can help build evidence against the guilty parties. Moreover, the city of Mumbai is leading the way with its special police stations for rape cases. Women there can now safely report crimes. Let’s hope other cities will follow suit.

Lastly, even though my meetings focused on economic growth, agriculture and the role of women, what these three countries have most in common, as determined from all my meetings, is quality education for all. I was told that school was the place most conducive to building better citizens who would participate in the growth of these three countries, which are no longer or are so close to no longer being “developing countries.”

In Cambodia, I was reminded that, 40 years ago, this country had lost everything in a terrible genocide that included the obliteration of science leadership. Thanks to international reconstruction aid and the exceptional resilience of its citizens, it now has a generation of young thirty-somethings who are looking for solutions to their country’s problems.

And surprisingly, and maybe because they had to start over, the country’s scientific leadership is now made up of as many women as men. I began to feel that I was celebrating March 8 during my visit to Asia, with women as the driving force of change.

This op-ed was first published in Embassy News on March 23, 2016.

Jean Lebel is the President of IDRC.