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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.  

 World Bank
Out of a maximum score of 100, South Asia rose to 58.36 from 50 in the last decade, overtaking East Asia and the Pacific and Sub-Saharan Africa in reforming the fastest toward gender equality. Credit: World Bank


In that respect, the recent Women, Business and the Law report indicates that all countries in South Asia now have enacted laws prohibiting sexual harassment.
 
South Asia is also the world’s top improver toward gender equality in the average regional score.
 
Out of a maximum score of 100, the region rose to 58.36 from 50 in the last decade, overtaking East Asia and the Pacific and Sub-Saharan Africa in reforming the fastest toward gender equality.  
 
Six economies in South Asia reformed in the category of starting a job by introducing laws on workplace sexual harassment, including India, Bangladesh, and Nepal.
 
But creating safer work environments is only part of the solution.
 
To further women’s economic empowerment, we need to create the conditions to help entrepreneurial women start their own business and become self-reliant. Women owning their businesses can have a huge and positive effect on society.
 
For instance, in India’s Maharashtra state, Lakshmi Amol Shinde is now able to earn a living after starting her own business. Lakshmi got her business off the ground to provide for her family after her husband lost his job. This unexpected turn of events motivated her to join a women’s self-help group and take out a loan to start a small snack business. Initially, she sold her food delicacies in her village. Later, she expanded her small company and catered to shops in Nagpur, Maharashtra’s winter capital. Her hard work paid off and eleven women have now joined Lakshmi’s flourishing business.
 
Both Fazeela in Sri Lanka and Lakshmi in India exemplify how relevant training and access to credit and markets can help women entrepreneurs seize business opportunities, create jobs, and boost their countries’ economies.
 
And across South Asia, there are myriad other stories of successful women who carved out a space for themselves in the labor force.
 
Bangladesh, for instance, has managed to raise its female labor force participation by 10 percentage points mainly due to the growth of its garment industry.
 
But while the region has made tremendous progress on the gender equality front, there’s much more to be done to change policies and social norms that hold women back.
 
To be sure, with an average annual growth rate of 6 percent over the past 20 years, South Asia has achieved tremendous economic progress.
 
But in the end, to sustain this growth will require tapping into South Asian women’s vast potential and empowering them to make economic decisions that are best for them and their families.  

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