When I first visited the college town of Madison, Wisconsin (USA) in 2000, what first stood out wasn’t its beautiful university campus or its famous brat and beer combo. What caught my attention was a public bus which had the equipment to lift a wheelchair. “Beep, beep, beep,” a sound would signal as the bus would lower and extend a ramp to aid people in wheelchairs to board the bus.
At that time, I had never seen anything like this bus and thought, “Wow! Why can’t we have such services back in my country?” No such buses existed in Korea where I grew up. But more than just the bus, I remembered thinking that I rarely noticed people with special needs in Korea. In hindsight, the lack of support and consideration for people with disabilities and ignorant attitudes were also reasons why people with disabilities were rarely seen in public.
Addressing needs through action
In 2014, I became the task leader for Bangladesh’s Disability and Children at Risk (DCAR) project. The difficult situation faced by persons with disabilities in the country was a reminder of the contrast I had experienced in that college town. Accessible transportation was not the only service lacking for people with disabilities. There was a lack of access to health facilities for checkups and treatment along with a short supply of therapy equipment and wheelchairs. A lack of respect towards persons with disabilities by the wider public was also a challenge. Moreover, the project was not delivering the results that it expected to achieve.
Imagine a school that teaches knowledge and provides hands-on training. A place where students express confidence in their skills, and are excited to make a difference in their future jobs. A bastion of confidence and optimism, where 100% of graduating students have jobs lined up before graduation.
Sounds too good to be true? I found this haven at the University of Moratuwa’s Department of Textile and Clothing Technology, supported by the Higher Education for the 21st Century Project (HETC), which is designed to modernize education by its increasing its quality and relevance. 24-year-old Malaka Perera, who is graduating next month, told me how the program has helped him build a foundation for his career. “The program taught me how to deal with people, along with communications and problem solving skills that I used during my internship. As a result, finding a job was quite easy.”
Sri Lankans have enjoyed the benefits of broad education access for decades, which has allowed the country to build human capital to rise and become a middle income country. However, as a country with rising aspirations in an increasingly globalized world and competitive region, the quality and relevance of its education system is key for the country to maintain its edge and reach new heights.
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’.