TASHKENT, UZBEKISTAN - Asia and the Pacific must do more to improve the welfare and economic empowerment of women in order to unlock their full potential and to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a panel discussion heard at the Asian Development Bank's (ADB) Annual Meeting here today.

The civil society panel discussion, Economic Empowerment of Women: Some Experiences from the Asia Pacific Region, examined the key role that girls and young women play in supporting economic growth in the region and discussed the actions needed to narrow gender gaps. Panelists also shared experiences on improving access to employment for women, and on gender-related labor standards in Asia and the Pacific.

Panelists included Uzbekistan Deputy Prime Minister and Chairperson of the Women's Committee of Uzbekistan, Farida Akbarova; Erna Witoelar, former MDG Ambassador for Asia and Pacific; Annie Geron, Vice President, Public Services International; Maha Cubarubia, Director, Plan International Thailand and Ursula Schaefer-Preuss, Vice President, Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development, ADB. WooChong Um, Deputy Director General of ADB's Regional and Sustainable Development Department, moderated the event.

Asia and the Pacific has made good headway on achieving gender parity in primary and secondary education enrolments, but progress on the health and welfare status of girls and women has lagged badly, threatening the achievement of related MDGs by 2015. The failure to improve women's welfare is, in turn, hurting the broader regional economy, with one United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific study estimating that the region loses up to $47 billion annually due to restrictions on women's access to employment. The global recession has also had a severe effect on women's employment, with females making up the bulk of workers in many export industries which were hard hit by a slump in demand from US and Europe.

To address gender parity issues, panelists stressed that civil society groups should work more closely with governments, the private sector and multilateral agencies, such as ADB, to boost access to capital and infrastructure for women.

"There is no excuse for policy makers and practitioners not to invest in women's empowerment and I see a greater role and responsibility for an organization like ADB, together with other partners, to improve effectiveness in our policy dialogue with governments to accelerate improvements in gender-related MDGs," said Ms. Schaefer-Preuss.

She noted that under its recently approved education sector operations plan, ADB will support capacity development reforms and improved resource allocation to boost gender equity and it is also planning to scale up incentives for young women undertaking technical and vocational education, to increase the number of female graduates.

In Uzbekistan, ADB has supported skills training and financial literacy programs for thousands of women entrepreneurs which have significantly raised their incomes and these initiatives have now been expanded into neighboring Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan.

The panelists also discussed the need to ensure gender-related labor standards to achieve greater male/female parity in the workplace, and stressed the role that civil society and labor groups can play in strengthening and monitoring labor standards.

In this area, Ms. Schaefer-Preuss noted that ADB has supported rural infrastructure projects where jobs are specifically set aside for women, with equal wages for equal work, which is closely monitored.