Challenges South Asian women face on economic empowerment
On 23-24 March, policymakers, private sector actors and civil society representatives from across South Asia, and local and international researchers, came together in Kathmandu to explore ways to use data and evidence-based policy to promote women’s economic empowerment. The policy dialogue was organised by Evidence for Policy Design, and funded by UK Aid’s BCURE Programme, with the support and collaboration of International Growth Centre.
The four represented nations—Nepal, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan—have had varied experiences in this context.
While Nepal has the highest female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) in South Asia (80%), it ranks below Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh (and just ahead of Pakistan) on UNDP’s Gender Development Index (2016). Due to massive male out-migration, women work out of necessity, but primarily hold low-productivity, low-wage agricultural jobs. As de-facto household heads, they face a double burden of work, outside and within home.
In Bangladesh, FLFPR is 58% and rising, mainly due to the country’s thriving export-oriented garment industry. Rubana Huq of Mohammadi Group shared that female garment workers are seen giving tiffin money to their husbands. But few women advance beyond the sewing line.
By contrast, India’s FLFPR has declined despite high economic growth. Farzana Afridi, associate professor of Economics at Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Delhi, cited her research showing that this trend is driven by rural, married women with young children.
And while Pakistan has seen rising FLFPR due to skilling programmes and availability of more jobs for women, female labour force participation remains constrained by social norms and safety concerns.
Despite the differences, the following common challenges were identified.
Women want to work but lack suitable opportunities
31% of women in India who spend most of their time on domestic duties would like some kind of job, according to the National Sample Survey. If these women joined the labour force, India’s FLFPR would increase by 21 percentage points. In Pakistan, 40% of women who are not in the labour force say they didn’t have enough to do in the previous day; a quarter of them say that they would work if they found a suitable job.
Afridi said that in India, as women’s education levels have risen, their job preferences and reservation wage have changed. However, suitable opportunities outside agriculture haven’t increased commensurately. Hence, women are choosing to stay home and invest time in the education and health of their children.
Time poverty due to primary responsibility of care economy
As primary caregivers, women across South Asia face time poverty that limits their ability to invest in their human capital and social networks. Bimala Rai Paudyal (former member, National Planning Commission of Nepal) said that men are unwilling to share the burden at home and also lack the competence to do so. There are growing calls for better data on women’s time usage to understand their constraints.
To enable more women to join, remain and progress in the work force, support in the form of childcare services and flexible working conditions is required. Experiments of Atonu Rabbani, associate professor of economics at the University of Dhaka, in Bangladesh suggest that women are willing to pay for childcare services, but don’t trust the available service providers.
Social norms restrict women’s physical and economic mobility
In Pakistan, higher levels of education among women are not translating into higher FLFPR due to dated ideas about their appropriate role in society. Women face street harassment and lack safe transportation options. According to Hadia Majid, assistant professor of economics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, few women are visible in public spaces, perpetuating a norm of public spaces as male spaces.
“Glass ceilings” exist across countries and economic sectors. While 3 million of the 4 million workers in Bangladesh’s garment industry are female, very few become supervisors. This may partly be because of historically lower human-capital levels among women, but contemporary social and cultural factors also play a role. Women sometimes decline promotions as longer hours interfere with domestic responsibilities. Families may not be supportive, and working late or travelling far from home presents security challenges. In Huq’s experience, female workers don’t “accept” the authority of female supervisors. Female representation is also low in higher tiers of management.
For similar reasons, women entrepreneurs in Nepal don’t generally transition from micro to small/medium scale. They are further constrained by lack of control over assets, as loans require collateral.
Limited access to public services
Participants from all represented countries expressed a need for more data on women’s use of public services. While expansion of national ID systems like India’s Aadhaar and Bangladesh’s National Identity Card (NIC) have brought millions of women into administrative data systems, many remain excluded or are not comfortable accessing the opportunities these IDs represent.
In Pakistan, as Samia Ali Liaquat Khan (Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund) described, some men don’t allow their female relatives to be registered for the national ID system. Across south Asia, many women lack education or awareness of their rights, and may even find institutional settings and interactions hostile.
Enabling policy environments exist, but context and implementation matter
Nepal’s new constitutional provision for political reservations for women is a promising opportunity. Chhavi Rajawat, the first female sarpanch of Soda village in Rajasthan, described how her status as sarpanch is changing parents’ aspirations for their daughters and daughters-in-law. Soledad Prillaman, a PhD scholar at Harvard University, shared her research showing that women’s participation in self-help groups makes them twice as likely to engage with local politics; and communities feel the positive impact in higher levels of public goods provision.
Justice Sapana Pradhan Malla of the Supreme Court of Nepal described how women in Nepal now have the right to inherit parental property. However, representatives from the Micro-Enterprise Development Programme and NGO Daayitwa said that, in practice, assets continue to be bequeathed to male heirs to avoid family discord.
Afridi of ISI remarked that India’s new maternity bill is a landmark but will only benefit formal sector employees—merely 5% of total working women. Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, the first female Speaker of Bangladesh Parliament, said that a similar policy exists in Bangladesh but is only implemented by the public sector. Thus, the impact of well-intentioned policies is frequently constrained by weak implementation and local realities.
Jennifer Johnson and Nalini Gulati are, respectively, assistant program manager at Evidence for Policy Design, Harvard Kennedy School, and country economist, India Central Programme, International Growth Centre (IGC).
Published with permission from Ideas for India, an economics and policy portal.