South Asia’s prosperity will require more women to work for pay


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Women in the Work Force

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. Only 28 percent of women in South Asia have a job or are looking for one, compared to 79 percent of men. This is the second lowest in the world, after the Middle East and North Africa region at 21 percent.  

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. Let’s spark the interest of young girls in subjects like science and mathematics, and convince them that they are just as capable as boys –that they too can build careers in engineering, scientific research, IT, and other fields that are in demand by employers.  We must also raise our sons to respect girls and women, and make it clear that there is zero-tolerance for gender-based violence.

Valuing girls and women is a key factor in making societies more prosperous. Women’s economic empowerment is highly connected with poverty reduction, as women tend to invest more of their earnings on their children and communities. 

For its part, the World Bank’s work supports greater understanding of gender issues and promotes economic participation by women. Across South Asia, our programs support girls and boys to begin and complete their educations, help provide training relevant to employer demands, unlock access to finance and support for small businesses, foster the growth of self-help groups, and conduct research on what can be done to bridge the gap.

However, these interventions alone are insufficient, as research shows that even women that have completed skills programs and been placed in jobs tend to drop out in response to family pressures. Changing social norms around marriage, work and household duties will have to be part of the agenda.

It is an opportune time to reform outdated policies that deter women from entering or staying in the labor force. Fostering the creation of better jobs, providing support for child and elder care, and ensuring safe and affordable transportation can remove barriers for women to access employment. 

In offices, improving child care services and access to part-time work and maternity leave would increase opportunities. India’s recent amendment to its Maternity Benefit Act extends paid maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks and requires firms that employ more than 50 employees to provide child care facilities. Workplaces must embrace gender equity in labor legislation and non-discriminatory policies, including zero-tolerance for sexual harassment. The private sector should take a leading role in expanding women’s share of employment and firm ownership in emerging industries.

Women entrepreneurs could also be enabled to work out of their homes if they are provided with relevant training and access to credit and market links, which would allow them to start and grow successful businesses

There are indications that countries are actively trying to turn the trend around. Bangladesh for instance has managed to raise its female labor force participation by 10 percentage points largely due to the growth of its garment industry, one of many examples of women seizing opportunities when they become available.

Some other promising signs are expanding legislation and support against gender-based violence, increasing programs for skills development, subsidized loans for women-led businesses, and improved legislation surrounding maternity leave and telework. If well-designed and enforced, these policies could remove some of the barriers women face and offer a significant boost to South Asia’s economies.

Success will hinge on collaboration among stakeholders, ranging from government ministries to education providers, to public sector and especially private sector employers, down to the actions of each of us.

In the end, South Asian women will have to play a key role in claiming a space for themselves in the work force. I will continue to advocate for them. I hope you will join me.  

Together, let’s work to increase women’s participation in the work force, and to realize a higher level of prosperity for South Asia that is increasingly inclusive and sustainable.
March 07, 2018

Education & Health Care for women are the foundational stones for promoting Women Empowerment.
Innovative schemes like Self-Help groups will go a long way in Poverty Elimination and Poverty Eradication.
The movement of Self-Help groups should be established from the village grass-roots level upwards to the to the cities.

March 08, 2018

Dear Annet,
thank you for writing about South Asian women. I also believe that we should raise our sons to respect girls and women. We also need to prove that women are also as smart as men. They can study and have the ability to become doctor, engineer or work in an office in different fields.

Mahina Arefin
April 05, 2018

Dear Annet ,
1) Thanks for above mentioned article and noted the content very carefully.
2) The factor pointed out by you seems to be biased and looks like hiding the core and ground realities.
3) Presently almost all couple takes full care of their children let if be Boy or Girl with some very small percentage of exception.
4) Present requirement is of sustainable employment and income generating activities for poor and extreme poor Women in India and Bangladesh where World Bank has failed completely.
5) Knowingly or otherwise World Bank is promoting "Elite Capture" and "corruption" instead of working for reduction of poverty .
6) For example : Project SIPP-I and SIPP-ii and NJLIP - The villages undertaken 15 years back are still suffering from basic IGAs while on one hand reports says great success of the project and on the same time on second hand World Bank explains the extreme poverty in same villages while all funds were disbursed before time and new ones are allocated and being disbursed.This is live evidence of "Elite Capture" and "Corruption" by no one other than World Bank people it self.
7) If one see the amendment and change of gender issue in World Bank project RTIP in Bangladesh it shows very clear that disbursement for promoting "Elite Capture" with "Corruption" is more important for World Bank rather than Gender equality issue .
8) While going further on the issue of Job creation and poverty reduction World Bank is not playing proper role against "Elite Capture" rather continuing to promote them by various direct and indirect means instead of helping poor and women.
9) Poor and extreme poor are deprived and "Elite " are allowed to capture funds by amendment of " FINANCING AGREEMENT " dated November 23 2017 since World Bank allowed the violation of procurement norms and reporting norms for disbursement of funds which are not serving the project P132634 PDO at all . The project is " Safety Net System for the poorest " while it is supporting the funds disbursement to "elite' instead of "Employment Generation" (EGPP) and "Income Generating Activities" to the poorest and extreme poor.
10) One more very dangerous and open move by World Bank (you) of promoting and supporting "Elite Capture" and "corruption" instead of the poor and poor women is in following steps :
i) Component 3 in project P 132634 and in "Financing agreement" of October 4 2013 says implementing agency is "BBS" for Development of Bangladesh Poverty data base "BPD" .
ii) In "amendment to financing agreement" of June 30 2016 "Bangladesh Poverty Data Base " is replaced by National Household Data Base "NHD"
iii) In " amendment to financing agreement" of November 23 2017 you allowed procurement per "Provision of Procurement plan " keeping aside the procurement guidelines and regulations.
iv) Various procurement plan 1) STEP5350 2) STEP 6689 3) STEP 7561 4) STEP 8254 5) STEP 8253 6) STEP 8360 is unusual due to undue support from you by amendment .
v) World Bank project P 157987 " National Strategy for Development of Statistics Implementation Support" for US$ 15 Million and World Bank project P 132634 component 3 after amendment in "Financing agreement" for US$ 40 Million has the a)same implementing agency b) Same PDO c) Same indicators .
Above steps very loudly and clearly says that " World Bank" is promoting "Elite Capture" and "Corruption" instead of helping poor for their "Employment Generation" and " Income Generating Activities."
11) My self along with my associates and team has been offering a income generating activity since last 4 years to World Bank directly and through various implementing agencies in Bangladesh so as to provide employment along with many other advantage for 2 million poor and extreme poor women but offers are not even acknowledged due to the obvious reason that "Elite capture" and "Corruption " factor is missing .
12) In light of the above I hope you will examine the issues with credibility and will support poor to achieve SDG too.
Await your suggestion/comment.
Mahina Arefin