11 July 2024

Images of an Afghan woman protesting against the Taliban regime, women farmers in Myanmar looking at a dragonfly, to women working tirelessly in the labour force, these are among the photos that were taken through the lens of veteran Finnish photojournalist Rauli Virtanen.

This photo exhibition, which highlights the lives of women across the Asia-Pacific region, was jointly hosted by UN Women and the Embassy of Finland in Bangkok to celebrate International Women’s Day.

With experience covering significant conflicts around the world over his five-decade career, such as the war in Vietnam, Afghanistan and recently in Ukraine, along the way he has documented the lives of people who have suffered duringcrises, especially underprivileged women. Out of the thousands of photographs he took, he has chosen images that truly reflect women’s struggles in their respective communities, but also their resilience.

“I’ve been covering working women everywhere in developing countries,” said Rauli. “For this one, I was very happy to provide the photos relating to working women and the hardships they are facing in today’s world.”

In fact, these photos not only reveal the struggles of women in developing countries across the Asia and Pacific regions, but also reflect the socio-economic challenges and gender inequality they face.

“So, I’ve been very fortunate and happy to have travelled to all these countries and to meet all these people who have shown resilience and dignity.”

Gender gap around the world

According to the Global Gender Gap report 2023, by the World Economic Forum, it will take another 131 years for the world to close the gender gap, with East Asia and the Pacific taking even longer, 189 years.

New Zealand has the narrowest gender gap in East Asia and the Pacific region, ranking 4th, followed by the Philippines (16th), Australia (26th), Singapore (49th), Laos (54th), Vietnam (72nd), Thailand (74th), Mongolia (80th), Indonesia (87th), Cambodia (92nd), Timor-Leste (95th), Brunei Darussalam (96th), Malaysia (102nd), South Korea (105th), China (107th), Fiji (121st), Myanmar (123rd) and Japan (125th).

Sarah Knibbs, the Deputy Regional Director of the UN Women Regional Office for Asia-Pacific sees a mixed picture on progress towards gender equality in the Asia Pacific region. Although women and girls in Southeast Asia now have better access to quality education and better health services, women still remain underrepresented in leadership and decision-making roles.

“One area where the Asia Pacific is falling behind some regions is the number of women engaging in political decision-making roles,” she said.

“In Thailand, we do see a very strong representation of women in business leadership positions, but we still see a relatively low percentage of women in Parliament. When we have more diversity in decision-making roles, we tend to see policymaking that benefits women, men, girls, boys and people of all genders in a more uniform way, rather than just catering to one section of the population.”

At the same time, what remains a huge concern are crises affecting women’s lives, such as conflicts and climate change, where women are suffering from the impacts more than men. This coincides with UN Women’s recent report, stating that climate change is accelerating persistent poverty gaps. It also reveals that over 614 million women and girls live in conflict-affected areas, the numbers of which have doubled since 2017, and that these women are 7.7 times more likely to live in extreme poverty.

“Whether it’s a conflict or a natural disaster, we always see that women suffer more impacts than men do,” Sarah explains. “We see this in the cases, for example, of climate-related and natural hazards in the Pacific, or cyclones in South and Southeast Asia. We find that there are more women who are casualties and women really face a lot of difficulties in that kind of situation. Similarly, where there is conflict, we see a lot of impacts on women and girls.”

As Finland is among the countries with the narrowest gender gap, Jyri Järviaho, the Ambassador of Finland to Thailand says that improving equal access to education would be the key to reducing the gender gap, especially in Thailand.

“First of all, I think, everything starts with education. Equal education is the key to providing everyone with the opportunity to explore the sort of skills and develop themselves and then have an equal opportunity in the labour market as well.”

Strength and resilience of women

As closing the gender gap remains a challenge in several regions around the world, this exhibition not only highlights women’s strengths, despite their socio-economic hardships, but it also aims to raise awareness about their roles and how important they are to society.

“I think these pictures speak so much about the roles of women in local communities. So, it gives us a lot of strength to think about the future of equality in these communities, both in Thailand and elsewhere,” said Jyri.

“This is a very rich and heartfelt photo exhibition that really takes us on a journey, showing the diversity of women and their experiences in the Asia Pacific region over the last couple of decades,” Sarah reflects.

“[This exhibition] is really about helping people to gain more understanding of the issues that are going on, helping them feel more compassionate about that, and to have a more human connection with these issues, rather than just hearing words, says Sarah.

Meanwhile, the veteran photojournalist thinks that the existing gender gap serves as a wake-up call for people to recognisesocial inequality and the importance of women’s rights. Therefore, Rauli believes that photo exhibitions are still needed, so people can take some time to look deeply into the photos and realise the underlying social problems.

“It is depressing to find out that the gender gap is not improving as much as we hoped. So, I hope that [this exhibition] makes people think [about gender equality], not only men, but all the decision makers, not only on women’s day on March 8th, but every day,” Rauli concluded.

By Nad Bunnag, Thai PBS World