I was in India a few weeks ago and had the chance to visit some rural schools in Uttar Pradesh. When I was there, I met a group of adolescent girls who could potentially help close the country’s gender gap.
These girls board at school, where they get nutritious meals and are able to focus on their studies. The program purposefully targets 11 to 13-year-old girls from poor households who cannot afford to send their daughters to school. Some girls are also at risk of being married off early.
By keeping the girls in school at this critical juncture, they have a chance at a better life.
Parents told me that many of the girls at this boarding school were underweight and malnourished when they arrived. As they studied and ate and slept well, they slowly gained weight and got taller. As their knowledge grew, so did they.
But how many of these girls will go on to fulfil their true potential and add to their family’s income by joining the job market?
Female participation in the labor force remains low
Surprisingly women’s employment in India is among the lowest in the world – 33 percent. This is well below the global average of 50 percent and even lower than in most countries at the same income level.
In most countries, overall prosperity, the freeing of women from the burden of childbearing and greater education have gone hand in hand with larger numbers of women joining the workforce. But not in India.
More disturbing, the participation of women in India’s labor force has been on a declining trend, in contrast to most other countries, particularly since 2004/05.
Some promising initiatives to boost gender equality
Even so, the potential for women’s participation in India’s economy is enormous. Small and relatively inexpensive interventions - such as making it safer for women to travel to and from work - often make a big difference.
Look at Mumbai. This bustling metropolis’s commuter trains carry eight million passengers every day, which is almost the number of people who live in Switzerland. Each rush hour the trains are packed full, which means the women trying to get to their jobs risk sexual harassment and violence.
When the authorities in Mumbai took action to improve the suburban rail system, we were happy to finance new train cars, including women-only cars on each of the trains, as well as women-only trains during rush hour.
The results so far have been promising. Women report feeling more comfortable and safer riding the trains to and from work. And we are convinced that initiatives like this one to make transport safe will increase women’s ability to seek and hold down jobs and further their education.
The challenge is to apply this lens to all public investments – and to allocate resources in a way that supports both men and women, boys and girls. That is what we are trying to do as we work to consider the impact on women and girls and men and boys in the projects we finance. Gender equality is central to our goals -- ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity in a sustainable manner.