Mind the Gap: Gender Disparities in South Asia

The International Labour Organization (ILO) recently described South Asia as an “enigma”. Why? The proportion of women working in the region has consistently decreased, against world trends, such that the gender gap in employment rates is now nearly 50%. . In sharp contrast, within the OECD, the female employment to population ratio itself is currently nearing 60% , whilst the gender gap is obviously significantly less. This is telling of a significant problem for South Asia, but also provides hope. Women provide an unused human capital resource, with great potential to spur economies forward. For instance, closing the gender gap in employment increased Japan’s GDP by 16%, and the Eurozone’s GDP by 13%.

Tapping into the resource of women is easier said than done, however, as will be discussed below. On day 3 of the 6th South Asia Economic Summit, we will explore the obstacles in the way of gender equality, and how to overcome them in Session 3B: ‘Mind the Gap: Addressing Gender Disparities in Development’.

A woman walks back from the local market with her infant child (Katmandu, Nepal. Image credit: Anushka Wijesinha 2011)

A woman in Katmandu, Nepal, walks back from the local market (Image credit: Anushka Wijesinha 2011)

The difficulties women face start at birth. Their chances of being educated or treated for common childhood diseases are much less than those of their male counterparts. Indeed, South Asia’s gender disparity in health and education outcomes is greater than in any other region of the world. What may turn the tables on our usual attempts to address such problems is the fact that the gender disparities remain constant even at higher incomes; economic growth is not a sufficient solution. Moreover, it is not just discrimination in the workplace which women need to deal with, but also prejudice from their own homes about what their roles in society should be – “breaking the kitchen window along with the glass ceiling”!. Even where women are allowed to work, they are often restricted to traditionally female professions such as teaching and health care.

So what initiatives work? Microfinance, founded in Bangladesh, is the first word on the lips of policy makers when asked about initiatives to increase the economic involvement of women. Nonetheless, it has its drawbacks. Its collective action premise often fails because women who default can find themselves under peer pressure to pay back their loan independently. Affirmative action deserves attention as a possible solution. One scheme in Bangladesh increased female representation in 35 municipalities by requiring gender action plans before infrastructure funding could be given.

Public policies must also address the general vulnerabilities women face. Working in the informal sector often leaves women without employment recognition and thus social security.

Female empowerment is fast becoming an economic imperative rather than just a political luxury, but the ways to put it into motion are far from decided. Join us at the 6th South Asia Economic Summit to find out more…