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How to boost female employment in South Asia

Martin Rama's picture
What's driving female employment in South Asia to decrease


South Asia is booming. In 2018, GDP growth for the region as a whole is expected to accelerate to 6.9 percent, making it the fastest growing region in the world. However, fast GDP growth has not translated into fast employment growth. In fact, employment rates have declined across the region, with women accounting for most of this decline.

Between 2005 and 2015, female employment rates declined by 5 percent per year in India, 3 percent per year in Bhutan, and 1 percent per year in Sri Lanka. While it is not surprising for female employment rates to decline with economic growth and then increase, in what is commonly known as the U-shaped female labor force function (a term coined by Claudia Goldin in 1995), the trends observed in South Asia stand out. Not only has female employment declined much more than could have been anticipated, it is likely to decline further as countries such as India continue to grow and urbanize.

The unusual trend for female employment rates in South Asia is clear from Figure 1. While male employment rates in South Asia are in line with those of other countries at the same income level, female employment rates are well below.
From the South Asia Economic Focus
Source: South Asia Economic Focus (Spring 2018).

If women are choosing to exit the labor force as family incomes rise, should policymakers worry? There are at least three reasons why the drop in female employment rates may have important social costs. First, household choices may not necessarily match women’s preferences. Those preferences reflect the influence of ideas and norms about what is women’s work and men’s work as well as other gendered notions such as the idea that women should take care of the children and housework. Second, when women control a greater share of household incomes, children are healthier and do better in school. Third, when women work for pay, they have a greater voice in their households, in their communities, and in society. The economic gains from women participating equally in the labor market are sizable: A recent study estimated that the overall gain in GDP to South Asia from closing gender gaps in employment and entrepreneurship would be close to 25 percent.

Technology works for getting poor people’s problems fixed – we just have to get it right

Kristalina Georgieva's picture
© Sarah Farhat/World Bank

One of the encouraging signs that I pick up whenever I travel is the difference that technology is making to the lives of millions of marginalized people. In most cases it’s happening on a small, non-flashy scale in hundreds of different ways, quietly improving the opportunities that that have been denied to remote communities, women and young people for getting a foot on the ladder.

And because it is discreet and under the radar I dare as an optimist to suggest that we are at the beginning of something big – a slow tsunami of success. Let me give you some reasons why I believe this.

It’s time to end malnutrition in South Asia

Idah Z. Pswarayi-Riddihough's picture
Chronic malnutrition remains prevalent across the region as many poor South Asians cannot afford nutritious foods or don’t have the relevant information or education to make smart dietary choices.
Chronic malnutrition remains prevalent across South Asia as many poor South Asians cannot afford nutritious foods or don’t have the relevant information or education to make smart dietary choices.

In Sri Lanka, as in the rest of South Asia, improving agricultural production has long been a priority to achieve food security. 

But growing more crops has hardly lessened the plight of malnutrition. 

Chronic malnutrition remains prevalent across the region as many poor South Asians cannot afford nutritious foods or don’t have the relevant information or education to make smart dietary choices. 
And children and the poorest are particularly at risk.

South Asia is home to about 62 million of the world’s 155 million children considered as stunted-- or too short for their age. 

And more than half of the world’s 52 million children identified as wasted—or too thin for their height—live in South Asia. 

Moderate-to-severe stunting rates ranged from 17 percent in Sri Lanka in 2016 to a high 45 percent in Pakistan in 2012–13, with rates above 30 percent for most countries in the region.

Moderate-to-severe wasting rates ranged from 2 percent in Bhutan in 2015 to 21 percent in India in 2015–16, with rates above 10 percent for most countries in the region. 

The social and economic cost of malnutrition is substantial, linked to impaired cognitive development, chronic disease, and lower future earnings.

And sadly, much remains to be done to ensure children across South Asia can access the nutritious foods they need to live healthy lives. 

Urban expansion and resettlement can be a win-win for cities and communities: Case studies from five countries

Maninder Gill's picture
World Bank interview on urban expansion and resettlement

Our planet is undergoing a process of rapid urbanization, and the next few decades will see unprecedented growth in urban areas, including in urban infrastructure. Most of the growth will take place in low-and middle-income countries. The expansion and development of urban areas require the acquisition of land, which often requires physical relocation of people who own or occupy that land.

How can urban resettlement become a development opportunity for those affected by the process of urban development?

A World Bank report titled Urban Land Acquisition and Involuntary Resettlement: Linking Innovation and Local Benefits offers useful examples:

Why should we care about changing attitudes on gender roles in Pakistan?

Saman Amir's picture



Our recent research suggests that attitudes related to women’s roles at home and in the public space are in flux and moving towards greater gender equality, at least in aspirations.

In recent focus group discussions with women conducted by the Pakistan Gender Platform in Pakistan’s four provincial capitals, most women voiced a preference to work outside the home in mixed gender settings, regardless of age, occupation or income levels, and despite the many barriers involved: from lack of safe public transport to sexual harassment at work. Yet, their choices are still limited by patriarchal norms: as one young FGD participant who expressed her desire to work noted, “We may become economically independent but will always be socially dependent.”

This tension between the changing aspirations of young Pakistanis and the barriers they face in realizing them came alive in a recent online poll that we launched as part of the Country Office’s flagship [email protected] initiative. Despite some limitations stemming from its sample and mode of delivery, the poll provides an eye-opening glimpse into the urban youth’s shifting aspirations and attitudes on gender norms.

Doing things differently to help refugees and their host communities

Franck Bousquet's picture
Refugee children in Ethiopia © Milena Stefanova/World Bank
Refugee children in Ethiopia. © Milena Stefanova/World Bank


On World Refugee Day, we pause to reflect on the struggles of refugees around the world. Refugees are vulnerable, having lost their assets and livelihoods, and without the ability to plan their lives. They need help regaining their voice, becoming self-reliant and rebuilding their lives.

At the World Bank Group, we recognize that the refugee crisis is not only a humanitarian concern, but a formidable development challenge as well. Numbers help to tell this story: Over 90 percent of refugees now live in the developing world; more than half are displaced for more than four years; fifty one percent of refugees are children and are five times more likely to be out of school than non-refugee children; and many refugees are hosted by communities that are also struggling with their own development challenges – weakened infrastructure, food insecurity and limited access to quality health care, among others. Consequently, these communities also need our support.  

This is why the Bank Group, a development institution, is broadening its support for refugees and their host communities in a way that complements – not replaces – the work of others, especially humanitarian partners. We are approaching the problem from a development perspective, addressing social and economic challenges in the medium-term. The goal is to enable refugees to go beyond simply meeting their basic needs to getting an education, accessing health care, working, traveling and opening businesses – so that they can live as ‘normal’ a life as possible, and contribute to their local economy.  Including refugees in development planning and national systems is a key part of this approach.

Getting value for money: Creating an automated market place for farmers in Pakistan

Khalid Bin Anjum's picture
NANKANA SAHIB: PAKISTAN. Photo: Visual News Associates / World Bank

The challenge with procuring a high volume of low-value goods is keeping the transaction costs down while still delivering the value-for-money trifecta: low cost, at the required quality, and on time. Alibaba, Amazon, eBay and many other online platforms do this for sellers by setting up a “honey pot” market place that attracts buyers and then largely automates the rest of the procurement, delivery and feedback processes. An e-marketplace can help make the agricultural sector more efficient in Pakistan.

In World Bank art exhibition, artists unpack displacement stories

Juliana J Biondo's picture
Installation shot of Unpacked, a mixed media sculpture by Mohammad Hafez and Ahmed Badr. © Bassam Sebti/World Bank
Installation shot of Unpacked, a mixed media sculpture by Mohammad Hafez and Ahmed Badr. © Bassam Sebti/World Bank

As the World Bank Group strengthens support for refugees, internationally displaced people, and their host communities, the World Bank Art Program curated a multi-dimensional art exhibition entitled, Uprooted: The Resilience of Refugees, Displaced People and Host Communities to contribute a unique perspective. This exhibition showcased the creative voices of those artists touched by the refugee crisis, or those artists who were refugees themselves.

Artist Marina Jaber from Iraq. © Bassam Sebti/World Bank
Artist Marina Jaber from Iraq. 

The Uprooted exhibition included a visual art exhibition and musical performances featuring over 30 artists from places such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Colombia, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Central African Republic, Burundi, and Guinea. The artists produced works that questioned the impact of transience in individual lives and entire communities of people.

One capstone of the exhibition was the construction of a shed intended to evoke the shelters found in places such as the Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan. For the exhibition, the shed was enhanced with murals on its sides. Each mural was done by the hand of a different artist – Suhaib Attar, an artist from Jordan and son of Palestinian refugee parents, Marina Jaber from Iraq, a country with millions internally displaced people, Diala Brisly, a refugee from Syria, and Didier Kassai from the Central African Republic, a country in which violence and war have forced hundreds of thousands into displacement. 

A Pakistani daughter and her destiny

Sameera Al Tuwaijri's picture



Koshi is 4 days old. She was born in a small village near Hyderabad (Sindh, Pakistan) and is one of four siblings – all girls, all under the age of 10. Her parents were hoping that this time it would be a boy, but perhaps better luck next time? Her mother is worried that if she doesn’t give birth to a boy, she will be stigmatized. Family planning is out of the question – not that she and her husband have even discussed this. She worries about her girls’ well-being too. They are underweight and get sick a lot. She wants them to grow up healthy and get an education. Koshi’s father is worried about them too. He is a tenant farmer with a meager income. He already struggles to provide the basic necessities – food, clothing, shelter. Even if they marry young, how will he arrange their dowries? Of course this is only if Koshi and her sisters live long enough.

Koshi’s chances of survival are slim. In Pakistan, 1 in 20 newborns die within the first month of their birth.[i] By age 5, 79 of every 1000 children born die. There is an 11 percent chance that they will not survive beyond age 14 years.[ii] The situation in Sindh is worse than the national average, and the risk of deaths is higher in its rural areas where access to healthcare and other social services is more limited. Investing in the health and well-being of the population, especially the youth is pivotal for Sindh’s economic growth and development.

Having a primary health center near the village and local lady health workers for example will improve the girls’ chances of access to healthcare and childhood immunization – necessary for protection against diseases such as measles, polio, and diphtheria that still take a heavy toll on children’s lives. It also improves the mother’s access to skilled birth attendance. Skilled attendance at birth reduces newborn deaths by 43 percent[iii] and maternal deaths by 66.67 percent.[iv]

Promoting digital jobs in Pakistan

Sonia Madhvani's picture

Over the next several decades, Pakistan is poised to become the fourth most populous country in the world. With nearly 53 million active youth (under 25) and a high youth unemployment rate, the challenges of inclusion and empowerment of these young people will continue to grow. Gender disparities also persist with Pakistan having one of the lowest female labor force participation rates in the South Asia region. 


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