On a recent field trip to northern Bangladesh, the smiles of Habibur, a young man working in a rice field under the scotching sun caught my attention. Habibur, 28, looked content amidst the wide green vista of fields.
I learned that his life had not been easy. His father died when Habibur was around four years old, and the family had no land. His young widowed mother started working as a day laborer to raise her only child. Habibur began working too in his mid-teens. Mother and son struggled, but they managed to save some money. They first bought a cow, and later Habibur leased land for rice cultivation. This is a common practice in rural Bangladesh, where the yield is divided between the farmer and the owner of the land.
For millions of people throughout the world, a diagnosis of Chronic Kidney Disease ushers in a lifetime of dialysis treatments. A dialysis session lasts four hours, and is required two to three times a week – so these treatments are often just as logistically challenging as they are physically difficult. But the trials of treatment pale in comparison to no treatment at all, which was often the case for citizens of Bangladesh prior to 2015. That was the year the government offered its citizens dialysis services through a pioneering public-private partnership (PPP) that increased the number of dialysis machines and broadened dialysis services by adding new capacity into existing public hospitals.
I’ve worked in the area of health PPPs for many years, and have seen first-hand how patients benefit from well-structured partnerships. At IFC, our goal is to work with governments with pressing health sector needs and help them develop the right kind of partnership to deliver improved health facilities and services. Like infrastructure PPPs, health PPPs are complicated, long-term deals—but unlike infrastructure PPPs, we have the opportunity to measure results in lives. This makes our work in the field of health PPPs especially important – and rewarding.
As we today mark UN Women’s Day, it is worth considering what the inequality between men and women costs South Asian countries and what can be done about it.
One big cost of inequality is that South Asian economies do not reach their full potential. In Bangladesh, for example, women account for most unpaid work, and are overrepresented in the low productivity informal sector and among the poor. Raising the female employment rate could contribute significantly to Bangladesh achieving its goal in 2021 of becoming a middle-income country. Yet even middle-income countries in South Asia could prosper from more women in the workforce. Women represent only 34 percent of the employed population in Sri Lanka, a figure that has remained static for decades.
Improvements in the education and health of women have been linked to better outcomes for their children in countries as varied as Nepal and Pakistan. In India, giving power to women at the local government level led to increases in public services, such as water and sanitation.
Just as the costs of inequality are huge, so is the challenge in overcoming it. The gaps in opportunity between men and women are the product of pervasive and stubborn social norms that privilege men’s and boys’ access to opportunities and resources over women’s and girls’.
Gender relations are one aspect of our lives where the role and impact of social norms are particularly obvious. Even today, gender roles and stereotypes continue to exert significant influence over the way men and women behave, and how they interact with each other.
That is why it is critical for us to acknowledge, understand, and, if necessary, challenge existing social norms when designing and implementing projects that are meant to improve the lives of women. From reducing fertility rates in Bangladesh to combating gender-based violence in Haiti, Senior Social Development Specialist Maria Beatriz Orlando gives us examples of World Bank projects that effectively empowered women by addressing the reality of gender norms on the ground.
About four years ago, I started coordinating a knowledge and learning network, which we ultimately named Business, Enterprise and Employment Support (BEES) for women in South Asia. This network was a first for the Bank in South Asia because it comprised leading civil society organizations in eight South Asian countries* —not our typical clients—and it focused on sharing knowledge across borders about what works for women’s economic empowerment. I remember being told at the time to focus only on economic empowerment of women—don’t give in to “mission creep.” That was impossible.