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’.
In Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, you cannot miss the slum neighborhoods. More than 5,000 slum communities, accounting for 40 percent of the population, are spread across the city, often located right next to luxury penthouses, hotels, and high-rise office buildings. Most slum dwellers are limited to low-quality housing in precarious areas, often prone to flooding. The limited access to adequate shelter is an important factor that – according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2015 livability rankings – makes Dhaka one of the least livable cities in the world. These communities are among the most neglected in the city in terms of urban policy, planning, and development, although the people who live in the slums make up the lion’s share of the work force, which drives the city’s economy, contributing significantly to the garment and leather industries, construction, waste management, and many other informal sectors.
Living in slums puts enormous social, economic, and financial burdens on households, and it can lead to intergenerational poverty. Many argue that slum dwellers are caught in a poverty trap—that living in slums makes it harder for households to escape poverty. Several slum-related factors contribute to the perpetuation of poverty, including poor health outcomes; an inability to access finance or leverage property assets; and lack of access to basic services. The existence of slums is a symptom of a shortage of affordable housing, the provision of which can be viewed as a valuable goal in its own right and as a critical ingredient in addressing the broader challenges of poverty.
The mountain kingdom of Bhutan may not seem an obvious place to look for lessons on addressing climate change. But on a recent visit I was impressed with how much this small country has achieved and also with its ambition. Bhutan has much to teach South Asia and the wider world. These lessons are especially relevant as the world negotiates in Paris a new pact on climate change at the International Climate Change Summit, known as COP21, which we all hope will eventually move the global economy to a low carbon and more resilient path.
The talks aimed at agreeing a way to keep global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial era levels. There is widespread agreement that going above this threshold would have serious consequences. South Asia is among the regions of the world that is likely to be most affected by climate change. We are already experiencing this. There is increasing variability of the monsoon rainfall, more heavy rainfalls such as those that caused the recent flooding in India, and an increase in the number of droughts.
A World Bank report in 2013 predicted that even if the warming climate was kept at 2 degrees then this could threaten the lives of millions of people in South Asia. The region's dense urban populations face extreme heat, flooding and diseases and millions of people could be trapped in poverty. Droughts could especially affect north-western India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
These are big problems. They may look much bigger than anything Bhutan - a very small country in a populous region - can teach South Asia and the world. But I see three lessons. Firstly, a commitment to ambitious goals will be critical to save the world from climate disaster. To stop the world from warming too much, climate experts estimate that global greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by up to 70 percent by 2050. Carbon neutrality (zero emissions) must be achieved within this century.