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Female Empowerment

How to boost female employment in South Asia

Martin Rama's picture
What's driving female employment in South Asia to decrease


South Asia is booming. In 2018, GDP growth for the region as a whole is expected to accelerate to 6.9 percent, making it the fastest growing region in the world. However, fast GDP growth has not translated into fast employment growth. In fact, employment rates have declined across the region, with women accounting for most of this decline.

Between 2005 and 2015, female employment rates declined by 5 percent per year in India, 3 percent per year in Bhutan, and 1 percent per year in Sri Lanka. While it is not surprising for female employment rates to decline with economic growth and then increase, in what is commonly known as the U-shaped female labor force function (a term coined by Claudia Goldin in 1995), the trends observed in South Asia stand out. Not only has female employment declined much more than could have been anticipated, it is likely to decline further as countries such as India continue to grow and urbanize.

The unusual trend for female employment rates in South Asia is clear from Figure 1. While male employment rates in South Asia are in line with those of other countries at the same income level, female employment rates are well below.
From the South Asia Economic Focus
Source: South Asia Economic Focus (Spring 2018).

If women are choosing to exit the labor force as family incomes rise, should policymakers worry? There are at least three reasons why the drop in female employment rates may have important social costs. First, household choices may not necessarily match women’s preferences. Those preferences reflect the influence of ideas and norms about what is women’s work and men’s work as well as other gendered notions such as the idea that women should take care of the children and housework. Second, when women control a greater share of household incomes, children are healthier and do better in school. Third, when women work for pay, they have a greater voice in their households, in their communities, and in society. The economic gains from women participating equally in the labor market are sizable: A recent study estimated that the overall gain in GDP to South Asia from closing gender gaps in employment and entrepreneurship would be close to 25 percent.

For Bangladeshi women, road maintenance brings better opportunities

Ashis Bhadra's picture
Bangladeshi women holding basket above their heads while working on road project. The Second Bangladesh Rural Transport Improvement Project interventions have created approximately 50,000 person-years of employment in project areas, out of which 30% were for poor women.
Bangladeshi women holding baskets above their heads while working on a road project. The Second Bangladesh Rural Transport Improvement Project has generated nearly 50,000 person-years of employment in project areas, out of which 30% were for poor women. Credit: World Bank

Not long after her husband suddenly died in 2012, Kunti Rabi Das struggled to put three square meals on the table for her family of three. Kunti, a member of the minority ethnic dalit community and living in the remote Rajnagar upazila under the Moulvibazar district of Bangladesh, simply didn’t have the means to produce enough to live on. Moreover, her prospects for any work that could support her family were dim.
 
That was her predicament until a Union Parishad (or village administrative council) representative introduce her to the Performance Based Maintenance Contract, or PBMC, program. Under PBMC, Kunti cleans drains, fills pits, clears minor blockades and plants trees on roadways near her home. Working six days a week, she earns up to 4,500 Taka per month.
 
The program provides a cost-effective and time-saving approach to keeping Bangladesh’s rural roads in optimal riding condition during every season. At the same time, it improves the lives and livelihoods of the country’s poorest women, who are given priority among other contractors vying for the work, according to the World Bank’s women’s empowerment principles.