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Equal opportunity to women benefits all

Annette Dixon's picture


Celebrating the women of South Asia

As we today mark UN Women’s Day, it is worth considering what the inequality between men and women costs South Asian countries and what can be done about it. 

One big cost of inequality is that South Asian economies do not reach their full potential. In Bangladesh, for example, women account for most unpaid work, and are overrepresented in the low productivity informal sector and among the poor. Raising the female employment rate could contribute significantly to Bangladesh achieving its goal in 2021 of becoming a middle-income country. Yet even middle-income countries in South Asia could prosper from more women in the workforce. Women represent only 34 percent of the employed population in Sri Lanka, a figure that has remained static for decades.

Economic opportunities for women matter not just because they can bring money home. They also matter because opportunities empower women more broadly in society and this can have a positive impact on others.  If women have a bigger say in how household money is spent this can ensure more of it is spent on children.

Improvements in the education and health of women have been linked to better outcomes for their children in countries as varied as Nepal and Pakistan. In India, giving power to women at the local government level led to increases in public services, such as water and sanitation.

Just as the costs of inequality are huge, so is the challenge in overcoming it. The gaps in opportunity between men and women are the product of pervasive and stubborn social norms that privilege men’s and boys’ access to opportunities and resources over women’s and girls’.

 

The tyranny of the kitchen spoon for Sri Lanka’s women

Dileni Gunewardena's picture
Sri Lankan woman washing lentils ahead of preparing a meal
Sri Lankan woman washing lentils ahead of preparing a meal. Credit: Simone D. McCourtie/World Bank

A common Sri Lankan proverb states that a woman’s wisdom only extends to the length of the kitchen spoon’s handle. With near universal female lower secondary school completion, and more girls than boys receiving tertiary education, the knowledge of Sri Lankan females has clearly moved beyond the length of the kitchen spoon’s handle. However, the evidence suggests that ties to the kitchen spoon may still be keeping Sri Lankan women out of the workforce.

Sri Lanka’s population has more women than men; there are 106 women for every 100 men. But when it comes to the labour force, there are only 54 women per 100 men, and 52 women employed for every 100 employed men. In the last 10 years, the female labour force participation rate has declined slightly from 39.5 percent to 34.7 percent, and the female unemployment rate has been consistently twice that of males during this period or longer[1] So why aren’t Sri Lankan women – who are on average more educated than Sri Lankan men – engaged in the labor force in similar proportions? This question has been raised and discussed in policy circles, gaining momentum in recent times.