Bhutan is a small country nestled in the eastern Himalayas between China and India, has managed to maintain its rich and unique cultural heritage in this modern-day age, partly due to its relative isolation during much of the last century. Bhutan is one of the smallest but fastest-growing economies in the world and a success story in poverty reduction.
There has also been an increasing representation of girls at the higher secondary level although the lag continues at the university level.
Gender gaps in labor markets and job quality was identified as one of the main areas of gender gaps in the 2013 World Bank Gender Note Policy. Although tremendous progress has been made, - 58% of Bhutanese women working for pay or looking for jobs - the female labor force participation saw a slight decline compared to men in 2016. It remains one of the highest in the region.
South Asia has enjoyed a growth rate of 6 percent a year over the past 20 years. This has translated into declining poverty and improvements in health and education. While worthy of celebration as we mark International Women's Day, the success could have been more dramatic if more women worked for pay.
With the largest working-age population and growing middle class, South Asia’s development potential is vast. But the lack of women in employment and economic participation reflects lost potential. In India and Sri Lanka, tens of millions of women have dropped out of the work force over the last twenty years.
Many factors are holding them back. Almost half of South Asia’s adult women are illiterate and its girls suffer from the highest malnutrition rates in the world. Rates of violence against women and maternal mortality remain among the highest in the world. All these factors translate into a labor market characterized by low participation, high unemployment and persistent wage gaps for women.
What can be done to better prepare and encourage women to participate in the work force? It starts with valuing our daughters as much as our sons – providing them with the same access to nutritious foods and investing in their education for them to reach their potential. We must also raise our sons to respect girls and women, and make it clear that there is zero-tolerance for gender-based violence.
On my visit to Kathmandu in January, I visited the Khabar Garaun 1145 (Inform Us) helpline set up to support survivors of Gender Based Violence (GBV).
In a small room, two operators respond tirelessly to callers as part of a 24 hour, seven days a week service. They assess callers’ needs, and refer them to receive legal aid, psycho-social support, child support and shelter. Each entry, whether it comes in by phone, email or text message, is carefully recorded through an online system, that eases the task of tracking and referring cases. The referrals connect them to response service providers including the Nepal Police, One-Stop Crisis Management Centers run by the Ministry of Health, and Non-Governmental Organizations.
Since its launch by the National Women Commission (NWC) in December 2017, the helpline has received 1,938 calls from women seeking assistance to deal with GBV, with 180 cases being registered. Cases are registered only after a preliminary assessment is conducted, and immediate necessary support provided. It is heartening that so many survivors are coming forward to report cases. But the numbers are clearly alarming.
There are various social restrictions that prevent women from speaking out and reporting incidents of gross injustice.In fact, this is pioneering work by a government agency that can be a model for other countries, an innovation to note as we mark International Women’s Day. But it also illustrates the disturbing extent of GBV in Nepal, which is a leading cause of death for adult women.
Recently, an incident of a gang rape of a 21-year old woman was reported to the helpline. As follow up, the NWC counselor personally visited the survivor and traumatized family members and provided psychosocial and legal counseling, before referring the case. The survivor's husband was grateful for the support NWC provided – from counseling to collecting evidence and strengthening the case that resulted in a verdict to arrest perpetrators.This is the kind of concrete support that is needed for women across the world.
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?
Women and men agree on Afghanistan’s development priorities according to the findings of the country’s most recent Living Conditions Survey of 2013/14 where more than 20,000 Afghan women and men were separately asked what they thought their government’s main development priority should be.
Both women and men picked service delivery, infrastructure development and increased security as top development priorities. Three-quarters of men and women said that the main priorities were improved access to drinking water, construction and rehabilitation of roads, and improved health facilities. About 15 to 18 percent of the respondents picked more jobs, access to agriculture and veterinary services, and improved local education facilities. Not surprisingly, in districts rated as insecure, priorities for both women and men shifted toward increased security. This emphasis on security meant that men and women in these districts gave a relatively lower priority for infrastructure services especially for road construction and electricity provision.