Hong Kong is still failing its women

The South China Morning Post, 8 March — Op-Ed on International Women’ Day, with CEO of The Women’s Foundation, Su-Mei Thompson.

Later this year, Hong Kong will come under the microscope of a UN committee reviewing the city’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw). While Hong Kong is ahead of many other societies in protecting the human rights of women, big gaps remain, and The Women’s Foundation has submitted a “shadow report” to inform the committee’s analysis.

The gaps we have identified are wide- ranging and affect women and girls across age bands and social strata. Chief among them is the feminisation of poverty, reflected in the lack of specific consideration given to elderly women in the government’s budget for health care and the fact that, because many were not part of the formal workforce, they do not receive any benefits from the Mandatory Provident Fund scheme. This is all despite the fact women are outliving men by an average of six years.

In addition, middle-aged women hold the greatest number of casual, part-time and poorly paid jobs, representing the bulk of the workforce in catering, caring, cleaning and on cashier’s desks.

Indeed, while Hong Kong has a number of public and NGO-run schemes that provide fully or partially subsidised services for children, the elderly and the disabled, there are too few of them due to traditional gender roles and stereotypes. This places a burden on female family members in Hong Kong.A review of the minimal protections and benefits afforded part-time and casual workers is urgently required, along with retraining programmes that offer technical, financial and management training paired with employment opportunities that take into account the caring obligations for the elderly and children borne by many of these women.

In terms of the private-sector care market, this is restricted largely to the 10 per cent of families who can meet the financial and other requirements for hiring a foreign domestic helper. Easing the full-time and live-in requirements for foreign domestic helpers would open up the part-time care market for families who cannot afford or don’t have space to employ a helper, thereby restricting the ability of women to work.

This would also, critically, allow greater protection for foreign domestic workers, who can find themselves trapped in abusive conditions, and align with the UN committee’s 2006 recommendations to “implement a more flexible policy regarding foreign domestic workers” and protect them from abuses. In a recent survey by the Women’s Commission, many women cited caring for family members as the main reason they dropped out of the workforce. This is in a context where flexible working hours or options to work part-time or from home are rare in most sectors and professions.

Hong Kong’s paid maternity leave entitlement is among the lowest in Asia and the government’s plans to introduce paternity leave seem to have stalled. In the long term, Hong Kong should embrace the concept of gender-neutral parental leave, allowing parents to choose which of them assumes the greater share of child-care responsibilities.

But introducing paternity or parental leave is not enough – girls and boys need to be conditioned from an early age to accept that both sexes have a role to play as earners and carers.

Too little is being done by the government to combat harmful gender stereotypes – particularly in the media and advertising. That media are easily accessed through multiple devices and by younger generations makes it even more critical that the government, parents and educators adopt measures to ensure consumers, particularly young consumers, are aware of the potentially harmful effects of news reports and images that objectify women and promote unrealistic body ideals.

Linked to this, many teenagers are growing up without essential life skills and the critical thinking required to challenge gender-based assumptions and to see new possibilities for themselves.

Gender biases explain why women continue to be under-represented in science, technology, engineering or maths and in technology jobs. Addressing this will be critical for the prospects of future generations of Hong Kong girls and, ultimately, the economy.

This is a pivotal time for Hong Kong as it stands at the twin crossroads of greater democracy and ever-growing ties with China. It is critical that women have a seat at the table when it comes to deciding the policies that will govern and shape Hong Kong. Although there are some notable women in government and political parties who undeniably punch above their weight, women are under-represented in all levels of politics – from office bearers to voters.

The government needs to introduce initiatives to encourage the full and equal political participation of women, including helping to strengthen our political parties to make them an attractive and viable career path for women. In addition, education programmes for women on their right to vote would help balance the gender ratio among voters.

Finally, we hope the government will overhaul the Women’s Commission and give it the authority and resources to ensure that all relevant data is collected and analysed by gender and fed into the design of policies, programmes and budgets that promote women’s equality in Hong Kong.

Decisive action is needed on women’s rights, or we risk condemning future generations of women to indebtedness, indecision and frustration.

Su-Mei Thompson is CEO of The Women’s Foundation. Jo Baker is a research consultant on human rights. Lisa Moore also contributed to this article.