Stories of Inequality

“Growing up in a big city like Jakarta, I did not come face to face with gender discrimination. I was quite sheltered, and was actively taking up leadership opportunities at school. It was only after I graduated that I was exposed to a different world. It was subtle, but there have been limitations to how we women should conduct ourselves in the business world. There was this unspoken rule, for example, where women who carry out their meetings with prospective business partners over dinner are seen as inappropriate, to the point of being scandalous.”

“Born into a complicated family situation in Singapore, my sister and I grew up being sexually abused by our brother. Back then, we did not know about each other’s plight, and were separately too afraid to speak out against the abuse. Even after my sister found out how he was treating me, she left home without taking me with her. By the time I was old enough, I got married and left my family. My psychiatrist told me that I should pursue the relationship with my boyfriend, because no other man would accept me with the mental and physical baggage I was carrying. The next 20 years became a series of humiliating and over-controlling situations, incited by my boyfriend-turned-husband. I eventually plucked up the courage to leave the marriage and get a divorce.”

These anecdotes span a wide and complex spectrum of deep-rooted inequalities that women face. Before the pandemic, the World Economic Forum estimated it would take close to a century to close the global gender gap. Post-pandemic, it estimates it will now take 135 years for the world to achieve gender parity. In Asia, while we are seeing progress toward gender parity in some countries like Laos and South Korea, many are either seeing stagnant or widening gender gaps (see Table 1).

Statistics taken from the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index 2021

A society’s way of thinking and living is integrated with and influenced by the way leaders engage with the political, social, and economic spheres. So it’s no wonder that a lack of women representation in politics is coupled with socioeconomic inequalities for women. During the pandemic, it is also unsurprising that there is slow progress in closing the economic gender gap, when the economic fallout of the pandemic results in women facing greater workplace vulnerability and job losses across hard-hit, women-dominated industries. In fact, while there are more skilled women professionals, this has not translated into higher participation in the labor force and greater opportunity for women in leadership positions.

At the same time, we are witnessing a sharply contrasting trend on the other end of the economic spectrum. Women’s wealth is increasing, with Asia experiencing the fastest growth. In fact, Asian women will add more than US$ 1 trillion per year to their total wealth in the next few years. Encouragingly, there is increasing awareness that wealth is not an end in itself. For many notable women, wealth is a catalyst for them to uplift others in their communities. We are seeing leading women such as MacKenzie Scott and Melinda French Gates activating philanthropy to empower fellow women, holding a mirror up for the immense potential for change from women and girls.

Women Leading the Charge to Shape Philanthropic Practices

Asia has had a rich history of community giving, but it has largely been dominated by male philanthropists. The Forbes’s 2020 list of Asian philanthropists and Tatler Asia’s curation of the top 50 philanthropists in Asia show very few women who are leading the charge.

Increasingly, however, women are emerging from this long-established patriarchal history of family foundations to shape and innovate how philanthropy is practiced. When Radha Goenka moved back to India from the U.S. in 2008, corporate social responsibility (CSR) was still a new concept in the country. At that time, she was managing Pehlay Akshar, a volunteer program under the family-founded conglomerate RPG Group. Pehlay Akshar provided English education to one school in Mumbai. Within 12 years, Goenka expanded the program — now established as the Pehlay Akshar Foundation. It supports over 70 schools across five Indian states, and has been able to successfully pivot its services during the school-going constraints from the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the same time, she also realized that RPG Enterprises were delivering their CSR initiatives separately through each company. To reduce inefficiencies and create a more structured CSR strategy, she centralized the multiple philanthropic bodies under RPG Foundation. This way, the foundation was able to holistically support women across four pillars — education, employability, community development, and heritage.

“Three things have driven the evolution of our foundations,” says Goenka. “The needs on the ground, close monitoring of our impact, and the encouraging support from our companies.” The foundations have been able to provide women with training in diverse, alternative livelihoods, which stayed relevant even during the pandemic.

We are seeing leading women such as MacKenzie Scott and Melinda French Gates activating philanthropy to empower fellow women, holding a mirror up for the immense potential for change from women and girls.

Innovation is Key

Between 2013 and 2015, US$ 3.7 billion worth of philanthropic dollars — or 16% of all philanthropic flows — were diverted to tackle gender inequality, but only a small proportion of these funds supported women’s economic empowerment as a pathway for more equitable outcomes for women and girls. Not only was the conventional philanthropic-giving approach for gender equality based on short-term projects, much of the funds were concentrated in a few countries that were drawing development sector headlines, and focused on issues such as health and education.

Philanthropy that is more long term, innovative in its approach, and grounded in addressing the full complexity of needs facing women and girls in Asia can lend its power to create sustainable and scalable impact. Innovative models to converge philanthropy and investing are gaining ground in Asia, bringing new opportunities for women philanthropists to transform how they give.

To Veronica Colondam, founder and CEO of YCAB Foundation, for example, she sees her role as philanthropist and impact venture capitalist as one and the same, as they both work toward breaking the generational cycle of poverty in Indonesia. Specifically, she leverages microfinance (through YCAB Ventures) to provide women with access to capital, with the prerequisite that these women entrepreneurs ensure that their children remain in school to receive a basic education. By providing women with the capital to start their own ventures, Colondam does not see women just as recipients of philanthropy but also as businesswomen and mothers who can be empowered to meet their own needs, hopes, and ambitions.

Direct financial investment in women entrepreneurs is only one way to strengthen women’s livelihoods; there are many other barriers that prevent women from participating productively in the economy. To break down these barriers, she partnered with Moonshot Ventures to lay the groundwork of a new US$ 10m impact fund — the Indonesia Women Empowerment Fund. The fund will invest in women-led startups that are dismantling these barriers with disruptive tech solutions.

Women Collaborating to Remove Systemic Barriers

There will, however, never be enough money to address gender inequalities if philanthropy continues to be in silos, and avoids addressing the complex and systemic nature of issues that disadvantage women.

One of the most prevailing multigenerational issues that women face is gender-based violence. The statistics are sobering: Based on a UN Women 2015 report, 40% and 37% of women in Southeast Asia and South Asia respectively have experienced violence at the hands of their intimate partners. The Singapore Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) has also seen a spike in domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, receiving a 75% increase in calls on its helpline during the period, as compared with the year before.

Technology adds another layer of complexity to gender-based violence, with digital sex crimes — ranging from unwanted sexual calls to “upskirting” —  surging in the past few years. In South Korea, for instance, such digital crimes increased 11-fold between 2008 and 2017, and yet, women and girls still face major barriers to justice for these crimes. Prosecutors dropped almost half of these cases in 2019, with judges imposing low sentences, and the female victims were often unable to receive civil remedies — reflecting what appears to be entrenched gender inequity in the justice system.

Investing in Change

Facing a mammoth issue such as gender-based violence is incredibly daunting for any champion. Under a culture of hostile sexism and sexual objectification, reducing gender-based violence is further complicated by other forms of discrimination, based on many factors such as ethnicity, caste, poverty, religion, and more.

This stark reality inspired AWARE board member Elisa Kang in her advocacy work for gender justice. She had witnessed firsthand in her early years how the loss of financial freedom impacted the women around her, and felt a need to do something about it. “I initially thought that financial aid and economic empowerment were sufficient to improve gender equality, but I soon realized that the needs on the ground are far too complex,” she says. “What is needed are multipronged solutions that hold the judicial, economic, social, and criminal justice systems to account.”

Kang began volunteering with AWARE in 2016, as a trained counselor to women in crisis. It was there that she learned that aside from support services work, AWARE also worked closely with the police, the ministries, the Singapore Law Society and other corporate leaders to support disadvantaged women. Inspired by its multipronged approach, she activated her networks to bring further funding to AWARE in the past few years. She has helped to expand the work of AWARE’s Sexual Assault Care Centre as it faced a three-fold increase in calls over the past three years. “There’s so much more that needs to be done both top down and bottom up. We can improve company policies against harassment and address toxic corporate culture by empowering people to become trauma-informed first responders of sexual assault,” Kang says. “We must collaborate with all sectors in order to challenge patriarchal gender norms and roles.”

Imbued with an awareness that asset owners like herself can open doors to advance gender equality (particularly in her home country of Singapore), Kang, along with Colondam and Goenka, decided to join the Asia Gender Network, a platform that not only convenes philanthropic women who are supporting vulnerable women in communities in Asia, but also enables collaborative solutions and knowledge-sharing across countries and sectors.

“Twenty of us came together as founding members of the Asia Gender Network, and within a few months, I have had great conversations with fellow asset owners including Grace Forrest (Australia), who is working to end modern slavery, and Priya Paul (India), whose South Asia Women’s Fund trains legal advocates for marginalized Asian women,” says Kang. “The work that these women has done have great synergy with AWARE’s efforts to support foreign domestic workers and spouses in Singapore.”‍

When Empowering Women Means Empowering the Future

Asia has long seen the impact potential that comes from empowering women. Post-pandemic, this has become ever more critical. Women leadership in philanthropy can inform how funds are directed to women’s programs, just as women leaders can converge business, investment, and philanthropy innovatively to amplify impact.

This potential for impact hits close to home — from my own personal journey as a female leader in business and nonprofit sectors, now a mother of two daughters, I have never felt more encouraged about the potential for Asian women to lead change. Having worked with women at the base of the pyramid and women leading in capital and impact opportunities, what the members of AVPN and participants of the Asia Gender Network are demonstrating is a powerful testament that women in Asia can amplify impact at all levels. As more women take the lead in directing resources toward achieving gender equality, they reflect a critical opportunity for how philanthropy can create impact in Asia. With the Asia Gender Network, the power of networks is unleashed to mobilize more capital from women to blaze their own trails for gender equality. For the Asian women of the future like my daughters, this is a promising precedence of how women can lead change in our communities, and eventually, we will see more opportunities for women to catalyze impact across the world.