Evaluating Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality in Australia’s ASEAN Programs

25 May 2018
By Tara Duane
Evaluating Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality in Australia’s ASEAN Programs
The Sydney Declaration of March 2018 marks a significant step in the shared commitment by ASEAN and Australia to ‘advancing gender equality and the empowerment of women in our region’. While past joint initiatives and programs have already attempted to address these issues, it is not entirely clear how effective they have been. Assessing the approaches taken in such initiatives can provide important insights for Australian-ASEAN projects moving forward.

Gender issues in the Australia-ASEAN strategic partnership

Australia and ASEAN's official joint commitment to women’s empowerment and gender equality is relatively recent. In 2015 the Plan of Action to implement the ASEAN-Australia Strategic Partnership (2015-2019) first included promoting women’s rights in its mandate. The Sydney Declaration, a joint statement between the government of Australia and the heads of states of ASEAN, committed to improving gender equality and the inclusion of women.

Australia’s cooperation programs with ASEAN come under ‘Australia’s ASEAN and Mekong Program’, the official development assistance program for the region.  This program facilitates institutional cooperation between Australia and the ASEAN secretariat and/or its member states. Many components of the program aim to improve gender equality and women’s empowerment, and some successes have been achieved. However, to better ensure the effectiveness of such efforts, evaluations should take a more focused, and systematic approach.

A policy-by-policy analysis of gender and women’s issues Australia’s ASEAN programs reveals the extent to which commitments made in the Sydney Declaration are being realised. This analysis show that a stronger, more focused and more systematic approach in the evaluation of such programs would build on past successes to further improve gender equality in the region.
Australia-ASEAN programs that promote women’s empowerment
The ASEAN-Australia Development Cooperation Program Phase ii (AADCPII), initiated in 2008, develops, supports and funds program initiatives that work towards developing an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) that is ‘highly integrated and cohesive; competitive, innovative and dynamic’. Programs supported and funded by the AADCPII must promote economic empowerment for women, gender equality and women’s rights. A 2014 progress report for AADCPII found that while the initiative does require projects to address gender, it lacks gender indicators that measure and track gender focused data.

The Australia-Asia Program to combat Trafficking in Persons (AAPTIP), established in 2013, works to provide training to relevant people in order to improve trials for trafficking offenses. Part of the goal for the organisation is to also promote gender equality and women’s empowerment as a method to prevent human trafficking. The program sets goals, collects data and measures the programs effects on gender equality and women’s empowerment. However, the most recent review found the program to be ineffective in improving entrenched negative gender stereotypes.

Australia-ASEAN programs that consider gender in monitoring and evaluation

The ASEAN, Australia, New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (AANZFTA) Economic Cooperation Support Program (AECSP) was established in 2010 and contributes to and supports the operationalisation of AANZFTA. The AECSP design document emphasises the need for gender to be considered in the monitoring and evaluation of AECSP. A 2013 evaluation by the Australian government found there to be limited attention to gender issues in the implementation and functioning of the AECSP. A recent 2018 review found that almost half of participants in AECSP capacity development and policy dialogue were women, however it did not indicate whether the program actually made a difference to gender equality and women’s empowerment in the region.

Australia-ASEAN programs that increase women’s opportunities and capacity

The Mekong Business Initiative, launched in 2015,assists in sustainable business growth by providing policy advice, pushing for better access to banking services for people with lower incomes and supporting innovation. The initiative places particular emphasis on building women’s capacity for dialogue with government and economic opportunities. A mid-term evaluation in 2017 found there to be a lack of data to be able to determine the effectiveness of the program in improving gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Australia’s new Mekong Water Resources Program (2014-2018) assists Mekong societies within ASEAN to improve water governance and management. It does so by working with regional institutions, the private sector, civil society and local researchers. This also includes building the capacity of women to influence policy and to take up leadership positions. A 2013/14 evaluation assessed the previous program and found there to be insufficient goals and benchmarks to determine the extent of women’s empowerment and gender equality achieved. Two newsletters were published in 2015 sharing stories from the new program; however no further evaluations have been undergone.

Triangle in ASEAN was established in 2015 as a partnership between the Australian government, Canadian government and the International Labour Organisation. It promotes fair and safe migrationby providing  support and assistance to governments, social partners, civil societies and regional bodies. Itemphasises the additional challenges faced by women in migration. The most recent evaluation found that the program effectively addressed gender with almost half of the beneficiaries being women and the implementation of policies in Thailand that provide better protection for domestic workers.

The Shaping Inclusive Finance Transformations Program (SHIFT) was established by United Nations Capital Development Fund in 2014 and informs, influences, incentivises and supports behaviour change to promote financial inclusion. They have a specific emphasis on women as one of the primary groups that face financial exclusion in this region. They do so by informing policy, conducting research, supporting business development and provide funding for projects. An evaluation for this program is due to be published later this year.

Australia-ASEAN programs that do not explicitly target gender outcomes

The Greater Mekong subregion Transport and Trade Facilitation Action Program aims to provide advice and capacity building for improved cross-border transport and trade. While gender is not mentioned in the program itself, it was addressed in 2014 mid-term review. The review suggested that more gender focus was needed as the program has the potential to exacerbate gender inequalities.

The Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA) Capacity building program was initiated by the ASEAN Secretariat to support the ASEAN Economic Community by conducting research and policy analysis. It receives funding from Australia. This program also does not have a particular focus on women and none of their annual reports pay particular attention to gender or women.

Stronger evaluation of the effects on gender equality and women’s empowerment

Most of Australia’s cooperation programs with ASEAN aim to improve gender equality and women’s empowerment and have undergone some kind of evaluation or review  on such aims. In light of the new commitments made at the Sydney Declaration, improving the evaluation of Australia’s ASEAN programs to consider improve broader gender equality indicators could be beneficial. Triangle in ASEAN, the AECSP and the AAPTIP for example, found there to be enough data to comment on gender equality, but the evaluations did not go further to examine the effect of their initiatives on things such as women’s health, women’s economic participation or women’s education and representation in government.

The United Nations, as an example, uses the Gender Inequality Index (GII) to measure gender equality and women’s empowerment. The GII looks at women’s health, including maternal mortality and adolescent birth rates; women in the labour force, including female participation rates; and women’s empowerment, including the number of female seats in parliament and the number of females with secondary education. Indicators such as the GII could serve as a benchmark to examine whether Australia’s cooperation programs improve gender equality or women’s empowerment in the region.  Such an approach could provide more systematic, stronger and enlightening evaluations.

This analysis suggests that investments in evaluation capacity can build upon and improve the results of existing gender initiatives in Australia’s ASEAN programs. A first step will be ensuring programs aim to improve gender equality, rather than simply promoting it. Second, requiring the collection of gender-related data for each program and ensuring evaluations have a specific focus on gender will guarantee that effects of the programs can be properly examined. Finally, evaluating program initiatives against broader gender equality indicators such as the United Nation’s GII will provide for more systematic reviews that can provide important insights into improving gender equality in the region.

Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Tara Duane
Tara Duane
Tara is an intern at the Perth USAsia Centre. She is currently studying a Masters degree in International Relations at the University of Western Australia.
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