Dewi’s story: discriminatory social institutions hold women back in Southeast Asia

By Pierre de Boisséson, Economist, and Alejandra Meneses, Policy Analyst, OECD Development Centre

Human development relies on three fundamental building blocks — health, education and income. A recent report from the OECD Development Centre shows that in Southeast Asia, women’s human development remains severely constrained by discriminatory social institutions, in other words, formal and informal laws, practices and social norms. These socially and culturally embedded norms, attitudes and behaviour limit women’s ability to control and make decisions on their own health, education and access to labour opportunities. Dewi’s story is especially telling.

Dewi’s teen pregnancy: putting her health at risk and her life on hold

Dewi is 16. She lives with her family and spends most of her time helping her mother with household chores, visiting her friends and doing her homework. Dewi does not know it yet but her life is about to change. She finds out she is pregnant. She never had proper access to sexual and reproductive health education and services, and now her parents and community want to marry her to the father of the child.

“In 2017, the adolescent birth rate was high in Southeast Asia, with an average of 43 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19 years.” #DevMatters

Dewi’s story is all too familiar. In 2017, the adolescent birth rate was high in Southeast Asia, with an average of 43 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19 years. Adolescent pregnancy rates are closely correlated with the prevalence of girl child marriage, revealing the extent to which social norms can significantly impact women’s health. Globally, almost 9 out of 10 adolescent births occur within the context of child marriage. These early pregnancies increase the likelihood of maternal mortality. In 2017, half of Southeast Asian countries had maternal mortality rates higher than 100 deaths per 100,000 live births. The negative consequences of adolescent pregnancy not only affect young mothers’ wellbeing but also put the new-born babies’ health at risk as they may suffer from inadequate physical development.

Beyond health, adolescent pregnancies can hold girls back from accessing education and employment opportunities. Girls and women who are fully informed about their health and reproductive choices are more likely to stay in school longer, pursue a profession and seize economic and productive opportunities – all of which enhance their agency.

Dewi’s career path: a forced choice

Dewi is 19. With the support of her family, she was able to overcome the health complications related to her pregnancy and graduated from high school. Despite all the challenges, Dewi wants to pursue a career in the technological sector but her parents and husband tell her that women are not good at math; she should study history or literature instead. Dewi’s aunt thinks that all of this is just a waste of time and money and that a woman’s place is at home, raising her children. But Dewi is strikingly perseverant and thanks to a scholarship targeted at “young moms”, she enrols in an administrative assistant programme.

Dewi is not alone in having to take a forced career path. While Southeast Asia has reached gender parity in enrolment in primary and secondary education, girls and women are lagging behind in terms of enrolment rates in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. For instance, in six1 out of the nine Southeast Asian countries for which data are available, the gender gap in STEM enrolment is larger than ten percentage points.

“45% of the population declare that children will suffer when a mother works for pay outside the home, while 22% of the population believes that it is not acceptable for a woman to have a paid job outside the home.” #DevMatters

As we have seen in the case of Dewi, discriminatory social norms and attitudes play an important role in shaping educational choices. On one hand, social norms, stereotypes and unconscious biases lead people to perceive STEM fields as masculine and play a critical role in dictating the types of programmes that women enrol in compared to men. On the other hand, from as early as primary or secondary education, learning materials perpetuate gender stereotypes by assigning certain functions and skills to girls and boys. The lack of female teachers in STEM as the level of education increases, combined with the low labour force participation of women in STEM fields, results in fewer female role models in STEM. This plays a role in shaping young girls’ expectations and further reduces girls’ engagement in these fields.

Can Dewi make an income of her own?

Dewi is 30. She has three beautiful children who are growing up healthy and strong. From morning to evening, Dewi runs around the household, cleaning the bathroom, washing the laundry, picking up children at school, preparing meals for when her husband comes home after a long day of hard work. Dewi sometimes thinks she would have liked to work in an office and have an income of her own. She even got job offers after graduating from the administrative assistant programme. A few years ago, she had a great idea of creating a meal delivery service for local restaurants; but she did not have time to pursue it – who would have taken care of the household and children?

Southeast Asia is home to large imbalances in the labour market. In 2020, women’s average labour force participation rate was 23 percentage points lower than for men. At the same time, women in Southeast Asia continue to assume the bulk of unpaid care and domestic work. In 2018, women in the region spent, on average, 3.8 times more than men did on unpaid care and domestic work.[2] Not only does the impact on women’s income limit their ability to invest, thrive as entrepreneurs or access credit, it also constrains some of their critical life choices. It affects women’s ability to make meaningful and strategic decisions of their own, which further affects other dimensions of their empowerment and human development, such as investing in their health or education.

The OECD has long documented the negative effect of discriminatory social institutions on the gender gap in labour force participation. In Southeast Asia, a significant part of the population opposes women and mothers’ paid work: 45% of the population declare that children will suffer when a mother works for pay outside the home, while 22% of the population believes that it is not acceptable for a woman to have a paid job outside the home even if she wants one. Meanwhile, restrictive masculinities entail binary gender roles, including expectations that men should provide financially for their families and that women should take care of the home and family members through unpaid care and domestic work. Social norms that create the expectation that men have to be the main breadwinner undermine women’s access to work, promotions and equal remuneration for work of equal value. These forces, in turn, lead to very few women having the necessary resources to purchase assets or earn an income of their own, which further reinforces men’s economic dominance.

How can Dewi take back control?

In the wake of the COVID‑19 pandemic, women in Southeast Asia are facing additional challenges: violence against women is on the rise, their share of unpaid care and domestic work is increasing, access to maternal and reproductive health has been disrupted and sectors in which women are primarily employed face the worst of the economic crisis. The consequences for women’s human development are dramatic. As governments and policymakers from Southeast Asia ready themselves for the recovery phase and pledge to build back better, now is the time to seriously challenge the discriminatory social norms and practices that continue to hold women back. They owe it not only to Dewi – and together with her, half of their population—, but also to their societies as a whole, as the windfalls will benefit all.

1. Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam.

2. Average is calculated on for the seven countries for which data are available: Cambodia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Viet Nam.