Syndicate content

March 2019

Undernutrition in South Asia: Persistent and emerging challenges

Ashi Kathuria's picture
Indian Bengali tribal mother is feeding her baby on her lap in a rural background. Indian rural lifestyle
Indian Bengali tribal mother is feeding her baby on her lap in a rural background. Credit: Abir Bhattacharya/ Shutterstock

Childhood stunting—or being too short for one’s age—is one of the most significant barriers to human development and affects about 162 million children under five across the world.

The good news is that several countries in the region, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka, are progressing towards meeting the 2025 World Health Assembly target of reducing the number of stunted children.

But overall, South Asia remains home to about 62 million stunted children.

In this context, it’s critical to confront failures that impede progress toward better health and nutrition in the region. Even more so since some undernutrition challenges persist, and new ones are emerging.

One persistent challenge is the inadequate diets young children receive, especially in their first two years.

This starts early in a child’s life as breastfeeding rates remain low. Though early initiation of breastfeeding has more than doubled to 40 percent between 2000 and 2016, more than 20 million infants are still not being breastfed within the first hour of birth.

Progress is also uneven across the region: breastfeeding initiation ranges from 18 percent in Pakistan to about 90 percent in Sri Lanka.

Also worrisome is that exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of life has improved by a mere five percentage points to 52 percent across South Asia.

Further to that, the diets of infants over six months continue to be one of South Asia’s biggest and most persistent challenges.  

Only 12 percent of South Asian children receive the minimally acceptable diet they need to grow healthy.

Nepal’s promise and opportunities

Hartwig Schafer's picture
Nepal is in many ways emerging from that disaster as a new country
Photo: World Bank

Nepal is on the brink of a new era. Four years ago this April, the powerful Gorkha earthquake devasted parts of Nepal and shook Kathmandu to the core.

Today, Nepal is in many ways emerging from that disaster as a new country: It is young, with more than 40 percent of Nepalis in the 16-40 age group.  It is ambitious, with plans for new highways, new mass transit infrastructure, new airports, more trade, more energy, and growth.

And it is resilient. Last November, I watched people literally building back their lives from the ruins in Ramechhap, one of the earthquake’s hardest-hit districts. Much has been said about the strength of the Nepali people. I’m humbled to have witnessed it firsthand.

With each visit to Kathmandu, I’m increasingly impressed by the dynamism of the city and the aspirations of Nepal’s young people. They are eager for education, for opportunity. They shouldn’t have to leave Nepal to get it.

As investors gather for the Nepal Investment Summit, this is the perfect time for Nepal to send a message to the world -- that Nepal is back on its feet and looking ahead to a more prosperous future.

With a stable government and an ambitious economic plan, Nepal is, for the first time in decades, in a position to dream big and to carry out a long-term vision that includes more and better services and opportunities for people.

Things are moving in the right direction. Extreme poverty is expected to decline from 15 percent in 2010 to a 10 percent in 2019, based on a poverty line of $1.90 a day. Economic growth in the last three years has been robust

The goal of becoming a middle-income country by 2030 -- in just 11 years – is possible.

What will steer South Asia’s economic promise? Its people

Sanjay Kathuria's picture
 The Promise of Regional Trade in South Asia
Pedestrians cross the road in front of motorcycles, cars, and buses at the crossroads in Kolkata, India. Photo: Radiokafka / Shutterstock

This blog is part of a series that discusses a way forward for South Asian regional integration.

That South Asia is brimming with possibilities for economic growth is well-known. It’s what drove us to write A Glass Half Full: The Promise of Regional Trade in South Asia. Our research shows that if South Asian countries lifted man-made barriers, intraregional trade could triple and unleash greater prosperity for all

What we weren’t prepared for, however, was the overwhelmingly positive response the report received across the region. Government officials, members of the private sector, civil society, and particularly young people we met with were eager to learn more about how their countries could improve trade relations with their neighbors.

South Asia’s economic prospects are promising, but even more inspiring are its people who remain hopeful for change despite political circumstances that make it seem impossible.

In Pakistan, which suffers the biggest welfare loss because of non-cooperation, A Glass Half Full hit home in a variety of ways.

The country can increase its intraregional trade almost 8-fold, from $5.1 billion to $39.7 billion. This resounded with audiences at launch events in Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi, evoking a sense of loss for the missed opportunity. They asked how Pakistan and other countries could amend their discriminatory policies and enjoy the benefits of free trade.

Politics often trumps economic cooperation in South Asia, but many in Pakistan suggested politics wins because the cost is so low. If intraregional trade were to increase, lobbies would arise to protect those interests.

A week before our report’s launch, Pakistan and India had initiated the Kartarpur border corridor to facilitate visa-free visits for Indian pilgrims to Pakistan’s Sikh holy sites. This had locals brainstorming more initiatives for regional integration. Students lined up after talks to chat, insisting that I come to speak at their universities- their enthusiasm was infectious. 

WEPOWER: Why South Asia needs more women in its energy sector

Tehreem Saifey's picture
The World Bank Team, WePOWER Strategic and Institutional Partners (SIPs) and Nepal High School Female Students, Closing Session, Feb 21, 2019.
The World Bank team, WePOWER strategic and institutional partners, and high school female students from Nepal gathered at the closing session of the Women in Power Sector Network in South Asia (WePOWER), Feb 21, 2019. Photo: World Bank

“There is power in not being alone,”  
Demetrios Papathanasiou - Practice Manager, South Asia Energy Unit at The World Bank

The number of women working in the energy and power sector in South Asia is dismally low.

Across the region, women employees represent only 3 percent to 15 percent of energy sector staff.

As for women engineers and technicians, the proportion is even lower: less than 1 to 6 percent.

To promote opportunities for women in the power and energy sectors, especially in technical roles, the World Bank and its partners recently organized the first regional conference for Women in Power Sector Network in South Asia (WePOWER).

Held in Kathmandu Nepal, the event convened more than 250 engineers and energy-sector professionals from all over South Asia and provided networking and learning opportunities to women and girls.

It’s well established that role models and networks can help overcome stereotypes and biases that contribute to the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields.

A recent study found that investing in peer networks and building up proteges as two of the six things successful women in STEM have in common.
 
From a personal point of view, I have learned something powerful during the event: When strong and smart women work together and are supported by men who value women’s engagement as equals, let alone in the engineering or energy sectors, something magical happens.

South Asia can get more women to work

Hiska Reyes's picture
 World Bank
South Asian countries are making progress in clearing the way for women to get jobs and creating a safer work environment for them. Yet, too many women across South Asia are left out of the workforce—and that despite booming economic growth. Credit: World Bank

This blog is part of a series examining women’s economic empowerment in South Asia. Starting today on International Women's Day and over the next few weeks, we will be exploring successful interventions, research, and experience to improve gender equality across the region. 

Meet Fazeela Dharmaratne from Sri Lanka.
 
Her story, like that of millions of other women in South Asia, is one of struggle between family and work and a story worth telling as we mark International Women’s Day.
 
Unlike too many of her female peers, Fazeela was able to reinvent herself professionally.
 
As a young woman, straight out of school, she joined a bank in Colombo as a banking assistant. In 17 years, she climbed up the corporate ladder to become regional manager—a position she later quit to care for her children.
 
Unfazed, Fazeela started her own small home-based daycare business in 2012, initially serving only 4-5 children. Today, Fazeela is the director of the CeeBees pre-school and childcare centers serving several corporate clients in Colombo.
 
Fazeela’s success belies the fact that across South Asia too many women are left out of the workforce—and that despite booming economic growth.
 
And while employment rates have gone down across the region, women account for most of this decline.
 
Between 2005 and 2015, women’s employment declined by 5 percent a year in India, 3 percent a year in Bhutan, and 1 percent a year in Sri Lanka.
 
These numbers are worrying because a drop in female employment has important social costs.
 
First, when women control a greater share of household incomes, children are healthier and do better in school.
 
Second, when women work for pay, they have a greater voice in their households, in their communities, and society.
 
Conversely, the economic gains from women participating equally in the labor market are sizable.
 
A recent study by the International Monetary Fund estimated that closing gender gaps in employment and entrepreneurship in South Asia would help grow the economy by about 25 percent. 
 
The good news is that South Asian countries are making progress in clearing the way for women to get jobs and creating a safer work environment for them.  

Sri Lanka’s women want to work—and thrive in the workplace

Idah Z. Pswarayi-Riddihough's picture
A woman hand painting fabric in a local Batik fabric factory
A Sri Lankan woman is hand painting fabric in a local Batik fabric factory. Matale, Sri Lanka. Credit: Shutterstock. January 3, 2017.

It’s International Women’s Day today, and there is a lot to celebrate in Sri Lanka and beyond.

Being a woman, mother, sister, aunt – name it, it’s something women wake up to daily and they love it.  None of them question about being enumerated for these roles.  We marvel and revel in the roles. 

But make no mistake. Women are also very capable breadwinners, contributors to the economies, innovators and entrepreneurs amongst many other roles.

Women want to work, and they want to stay in the workplace. 

What they seek is balance: a gender-balanced workplace, a gender-balanced management, and more gender-balance in sharing wealth and prosperity. 

In that sense, it’s heartening to see some of the proposals put forth in the government of Sri Lanka’s budget: more daycare centers, flexible work hours, and incentives to promote maternity leave. 

These are very welcome changes to think equal, build smart, innovate for change—the 2019 International Women's Day campaign theme—and we encourage those with jobs to implement these policy changes. 

This year, let me share with you a quick analysis of five laws that Sri Lankan women and their advocates have identified as constraining for joining the workforce and staying there! 

Skilling up Bangladeshi women

Tashmina Rahman's picture
Learning new skills for better jobs in Bangladesh: Meet Kamrul Nahar Omi


The Bangladesh garments industry is poised to grow into a $50 billion industry by 2021 and for this, two million semi-skilled workers are needed.

Non-garment industries such as leather, furniture, hospitality and Information & Technology (IT) are also poised to grow.

But how can we think equal, build smart, innovate for change, the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day? 

Female participation in the workforce has been increasing but remains less than half of male participation rates across primary working ages.

Of those females joining work, over 80 percent are engaged in low-skilled, low-productivity jobs in the informal sector with little opportunity for career progression.

Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) is one important medium to equip women with employable skills and improve their job market participation.  

Overcoming the perception of TVET as ‘male-dominated’ training, women’s participation in technical programs has been steadily rising over the past decade.

Yet, Bangladesh still has a long way to go with female share in enrollments around 25 percent in TVET programs.

In fact, a World Bank study identifies some keys areas of intervention for improving female participation in technical diploma programs:

  1. creating a gender-friendly environment in polytechnics and workplaces;
  2. developing more service-orientated diploma programs;
  3. developing a TVET awareness campaign for females;
  4. (supporting a career counseling and guidance system for females;
  5. improving access to higher education;
  6. providing demand-stimulating incentives; (vii) generating research and knowledge;
  7. leveraging partnerships to promote opportunities for females and
  8. generating more and better data to track progress and inform policy and operations for female-friendly TVET. 

How to succeed as Sri Lanka’s top woman entrepreneur: Honesty, hard work, and perseverance

Idah Z. Pswarayi-Riddihough's picture
This International Women’s Day I chose to have a conversation with a lady who is recognized as the leading Sri Lankan woman entrepreneur, Mrs. Aban Pestonjee.  

Her story is an inspiration to youth (male and female) and women who are afraid of failure and taking risks.

Starting from a modest home-based business, 50 years ago, today Aban is a household brand name that is island wide in Sri Lanka.

Applauding the women leaders in South Asia

Hartwig Schafer's picture

I just ended my first round of country visits as the World Bank’s Vice President for the South Asia Region.  Over and above all, I have been immensely impressed by the resilience, determination, commitment and innovation of the women leaders that I had the privilege to meet during my visits.

These women are succeeding in a region where it is hard for women to realize their career dreams. In South Asia, only 28 percent of women ages 15+ are employed, compared to 48 percent worldwide.

What better opportunity than International Women’s Day to give a huge shout-out and applaud those women who are role models, entrepreneurs, and leaders in the eight countries of South Asia.

Neha Sharma, the district magistrate in Baghai village and Hart Schafer in India
Baghai village in Firozabad district, Uttar Pradesh, India. Photo: World Bank