Published on World Bank Voices

In South Asia’s poorest countries, empowering women is essential to reducing poverty

???????? ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????IDA????????????????????: ???? 在整个南亚地区, 成百上千万励志、独立的女性很好地示范了弥合性别差距为何对减贫和促进共享繁荣至关重要。正因为如此,世界银行集团旗下面向最贫困国家的基金国际开发协会(IDA)高度聚焦于向女性开放更多经济机会。图片: 世界银行

In the busy streets of Male, the capital of Maldives, Aminath Waheed picks up passengers, blazing a trail as the city’s only female taxi driver. In the hills of Nepal, 30-year-old Madhukala Adhikari works as a mobile mason, helping families rebuild houses that were destroyed in the 2015 earthquake. And in Chittagong, Bangladesh, Morsheda Begum is a garment worker turned successful entrepreneur, running her own tailoring shop and supporting her school-aged boys.

Aminath, Madhukala and Morsheda are examples of how when women gain access to economic opportunities, the benefits are exponential.  Women who make money are able to invest in the well-being of their children and families, contribute to their communities, and help grow economies.

There are millions of such inspiring, independent women across South Asia—especially in the poorest countries, which are served by the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA). They exemplify why closing gender gaps is essential to reducing poverty and boosting shared prosperity.

Over the last few decades, IDA has been supporting countries in South Asia to open up more economic opportunities for women.  Countries like Bangladesh and Nepal have increased female labor force participation. Bangladesh has also achieved gender parity in both primary and secondary school enrollment. South Asia has implemented laws that have improved opportunities for women and gained ten points on the Women Business and the Law index over the last decade. For example, Nepal recently passed laws to prohibit gender discrimination in employment.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, threatens to reverse some of these gains in women’s accumulation of human capital and economic empowerment. School closures meant that millions of students –especially girls—lost out on learning opportunities for months at a time. Evidence from Bangladesh suggests that girls are more likely to be spending increased time on household chores and childcare since COVID-19 restrictions began.

"As countries in South Asia build back from the pandemic, it will be critical to ensure reforms that close these gender gaps, with impacts that will endure beyond the pandemic."

Lockdowns also disrupted economies and labor markets, resulting in significant job losses for women and unequal division of labor at home.  In Bhutan, the unemployment rate is at an all-time high of 5%. Women accounted for more than half of this figure even in 2019. In Pakistan, over a quarter of female workers have been fired or suspended from their jobs in various sectors.

The economic slowdown is also likely forcing families into difficult situations. Child marriage continues to be prevalent, undermining girls’ education and future opportunities. Gender-based violence (GBV) also rose – in Nepal, a 24-hour GBV helpline received twice the number of calls related to domestic violence during one pandemic lockdown period.

It’s important to note that many of the obstacles to women’s economic participation are long-standing and pre-date the pandemic. For the most part, formal sector employment remains inaccessible to women. Women in South Asia work mainly in subsistence agriculture, which is low-paid, unskilled and extremely vulnerable to climate change. The majority of women don’t have access to finance or even bank accounts. In Pakistan, for example, only 7% of women over the age of 15 have a bank account, compared to 35% of men. Even before the pandemic, barely 18% of South Asian businesses were owned by women – the lowest rate among global regions.

As countries in South Asia build back from the pandemic, it will be critical to ensure reforms that close these gender gaps, with impacts that will endure beyond the pandemic.  This means closing gaps in health, education, and social protection; removing constraints to women accessing more and better jobs; eliminating barriers to ownership; and enabling women’s voice and agency.

Continued IDA support has been instrumental: supporting employment opportunities for women, closing gaps in digital technology, expanding childcare, and increasing financing for prevention of and response to gender-based violence.

In Pakistan, the IDA supported Benazir Income Support Program provided cash transfers to over 5.8 million women heads of households, benefiting 30 million family members. In the Maldives, IDA provided over $27 million income support to more than 22,000 workers who lost their incomes due to the pandemic, especially vulnerable women who work in the informal sector. In Bangladesh, stipends and tuition fees were provided to 2.6 million secondary school female students to ensure their continued education during the pandemic.

Next month, as IDA shareholders convene in Tokyo for a historic early replenishment of the multibillion-dollar fund, gender and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19—and most crises—on women should be atop minds. Through IDA, the World Bank stands ready to provide targeted, comprehensive, and readily available support that empowers women —and, in turn, their communities and economies for generations to come.

The blog is part of a series on ways to ensure a resilient recovery from COVID-19 in the world’s poorest countries. For the latest, follow @WBG_IDA and #IDAworks.


Authors

Hartwig Schafer

Former Vice President, South Asia Region, World Bank

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