Asia is a restless continent. Its economies have grown and transformed at a giddying pace, reshaping the social and physical landscape in ways that could barely have been imagined only three decades ago. The ASEAN countries in particular are experiencing a period of dramatic change, collectively becoming the world’s seventh-largest economy by 2011. Now, as their economies integrate further, bringing the certainty of further growth and social change, it seems timely to ask what sort of region will emerge from the next phase of transformation.

In many ways this will remain a conversation about economics, but for me the social and economic position of girls lies at the heart of how the region secures a prosperous and stable future for itself. The language of girls’ rights might seem out of place here, but enabling girls to learn, lead, decide and thrive will be critical to ASEAN’s continuing success.

Big opportunities, greater challenges

Economic growth and its concomitant social dynamism has created enormous opportunities, not least for women and girls. Across Asia, greater female participation has gone hand in hand with economic transformation. We know that when more women work, economies grow. In Asia, this potential is not yet fully realized: it is estimated that the region as a whole loses $40 billion each year as a result of gender gaps in education and employment, with women 70% less likely than men to be in employment.

The ASEAN countries, like the rest of the world, are facing massive challenges: migration is surging and climate change threatens to disrupt economies and communities. And the region needs to find ways to lock in its economic progress, not least by spreading its benefits more widely and laying the foundations of prosperity in the long term.

The challenges cannot be addressed in the same old ways. We’re at a crossroads: we need to work differently, forging new partnerships, new conversations and new collaborations.

A new way of doing things

Improving the position of women and girls will be pivotal to overcoming the skills gaps within the ASEAN workforce, translating simple inclusion into meaningful participation that lasts. Women’s employment is still centred on agricultural and lower-skilled jobs, with higher-value work taken by men.

Girls are often able to access primary education at rates comparable with boys, but at secondary school level their participation drops off rapidly. There is a clear convergence of interest here between businesses, government and civil society, and that creates the conditions for new ways of working. Plan International increasingly recognizes businesses as much more than a funding partner, working with them strategically around their core business, leveraging their expertise, innovation and technological know-how.

We’ve been at the forefront of developing new models of collaboration through programmes like the REACH Programme in Vietnam. In partnership with Accenture and others, REACH offers training to marginalized young people, as well as direct placement into jobs. The programme allows companies to invest in communities, while also developing the talent they need.

There is a growing appetite on the part of business and civil society to collaborate beyond immediate concerns around employment, education and skills. Forward-looking businesses, smart governments and innovative civil society organizations all want to see women and girls enjoying the same rights and opportunities as their male counterparts. But to achieve that, we need to involve businesses in change beyond the workplace and the classroom.

Creating the spaces within which girls can thrive

The threat of violence and harassment represents a real barrier to social, civic and economic participation. Our research shows that girls often feel unsafe on the street and on public transport, but also that institutions let them down. In Hanoi, up to 36% of girls did not feel that they can rely on the emergency services such as the police, while in Delhi 96% told us that they did not feel safe in public spaces. Seventeen-year-old Meera was one of them, having to endure constant harassment on her way to school.

Inspired by an event on girl friendly public spaces, Meera got involved in our Safer Cities initiative. Now she is making the case directly to local decision makers and street lights and CCTV cameras have been installed, security guards watch over the areas around local schools, and local leaders are taking steps to improve safety for girls in Meera’s neighbourhood. She encouraged her father, a rickshaw driver, to get involved and he now advises other drivers on the safety of female passengers. Shopkeepers have joined in, displaying an official sign to indicate that their shop is a safe space for a girl to slip into while walking home during a darkening evening: businesses collaborating freely to make the city more accessible to girls.

Who do we want to be?

Asia is changing, reshaping itself economically, socially and physically. Many cities are growing outwards and upwards, their fabric being renewed at a startling rate and new residents pouring in from their hinterlands and further afield. The restructuring of the region’s economy, from agriculture and primary industries to manufacturing and services, from assembly to design, is creating new social structures. Economic growth is creating opportunities, but also challenges.

Growing economies need the talents of all their members. Improving rates of participation for girls in education and employment will be essential to the development of prosperous and stable societies: growth that does not foster an inclusive society is short-term growth. But improving the position of girls is also the right thing to do. At a time of rapid change, we have to ask ourselves: who do we want to be?

Ducking that question does not make it go away. Change will happen, and it will be shaped by the choices we make. The alternative is not stasis, but to watch the progress of recent years slip away. Making the right choices for the future development of ASEAN countries will require an active partnership between civil society, business and government. At Plan International, we’ve already started the process, working with some of the biggest players in the region and beyond. The challenge now is to scale up our efforts and to draw everyone into the conversation.

This article is part of our ASEAN series. You can read more here.

The World Economic Forum on ASEAN is taking place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from 1-3 June.