Last week, I took a journey on Mumbai’s suburban train system, which carries a staggering 8 million women and men, equivalent to the entire population of Switzerland, every day to where they live, work, and spend time with family and friends. Although stretched, the system has reduced mobility constraints and increased independence for millions of women who rely on safe transport to access education and job opportunities; contributing to the city’s dynamism and growth. There are similarly inspiring examples from all countries in South Asia.
As we mark International Women’s Day, we celebrate the progress made in improving women’s inclusion and empowerment, while seeking to better address continuing challenges, which are estimated to cost South Asian economies $888 billion, through devising and implementing solutions that will bridge remaining gaps.
Much to be proud of—a lot more remains to be done
South Asian countries have seen encouraging increases in greater access and gender parity in education. At the same time, the region has achieved substantial decreases in maternal and child mortality. Countries have made great strides in healthcare access through training more female healthcare workers while providing affordable care for mothers and children. The region also boasts many inspiring female leaders and role models, as well as the countless individuals positively contributing to their communities and societies against difficult odds.
However, much more needs to be done in order to nurture all women and men to realize their potential. As South Asian countries become more prosperous, their growth trajectory will be less assured if hundreds of millions of women remain excluded from education and employment opportunities. South Asian countries will need to substantially expand their workforce in order to meet their economic growth goals and, at the same time, adequately support their increasingly large populations. Studies show that only around 1 out of 4 women in South Asia participate in the labor force, about half of what is typical in middle-income countries in other regions. Too many women face restrictions in decision-making, mobility, public safety; and far too many experience gender-based violence—the most egregious cases making headlines around the world. What can help bridge these gaps?
Countries have an opportunity to invest more in health and education, as underinvestment puts a disproportionate burden on women and girls, whose lifelong learning and productive abilities can be stymied by receiving inadequate, reduced opportunities to complete their studies, and under-utilization of their education. Programs could include helping girls successfully transition from primary to secondary school, coupled with providing greater adolescent sexual and reproductive health knowledge. Building on these foundations, education programs should enhance linkages between what students learn and the skills that employers seek.
Fostering greater economic empowerment opportunities for women
More women in the workplace would help realize the potential to accelerate South Asia’s growth and development. To achieve this goal, countries should foster more conducive conditions for women to seek and grow in their employment. Measures could include improving skills training and reducing occupational segregation to open up more jobs to girls and women; investing in the care economy to help women with their disproportionate share of household responsibilities, and overcoming barriers to women’s land and asset ownership. Other policies should seek to enhance greater access to finance by more female account holders and also ensure that rural laborers receive compensation.
Providing women greater voice and agency in their lives
Increasing the share of women in local leadership positions can ensure that women’s and girls’ perspectives are better taken into account in community investments and decision-making. Authorities have the responsibility to enact and implement laws that allow greater decision-making for women, such as through enforcing laws to prevent child marriage, increasing attention to the prevention and response of gender-based violence, and ensuring safe access to public transportation and spaces by, for example, providing women-only spaces on buses and trains , requiring gender-sensitivity training of all transport personnel, recruiting more women police officers, and actively addressing male gender and masculinity issues.
To turn these ideas into reality, our South Asia Regional Gender Action Plan is guiding our work with the people and governments of each country in South Asia to help integrate sound gender practices into their economic, social, health, and education policies and programs, based on current and proven evidence-based data and recommendations.
For South Asian countries to reach their development potential, it will require everyone—both women and men—to contribute to their full capabilities. This is the only way that South Asia will realize its promise as a part of the Asian Century.