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Can South Asia address barriers to women’s paid work?


Arjan de Haan

Senior program specialist, IDRC

Around the world, gender disparities in education are decreasing and fertility rates are declining. As women find paid jobs, they are also reducing the gender gap in labour force participation. However, inequality in South Asia is more persistent than expected.

Developing and implementing effective policies that enable the participation of more women in economic life and that recognize and value unpaid care is thus a priority, and research can play a critical role.

South Asia an outlier in women’s participation in labour force

During an IDRC-supported meeting in Colombo last fall, Sri Lanka's Deputy Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs stressed that only 36% of the country's women are in the labour force. In India, women’s labour force participation has seen a steep decline: in 2012 women made up only 24% of the work force, a decrease of 10% over the previous two decades.

While there are concerns about the data behind these figures, such as under-recording and changes in definitions and measurements, no matter how you add it up South Asia remains an outlier in women’s labour force participation.

Far from catching up: South Asian women’s participation in the labour force is declining

linear chart: rate of female labour force participation in percentage

Limited demand for female labour

Despite economic growth, overall job creation in South Asia has remained limited, and this may contribute to pushing women out of the labour market. Indeed, in the World Value Survey, the majority of respondents — 52% in India and 75% in Pakistan — agreed with the statement “when jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.” Compare this number with 2% in Sweden.

There is no easy explanation for why employers prefer men over women, but women tend to be concentrated in specific sectors of the labour force — often with lower pay and fewer opportunities. They also carry out the most arduous labour. Poor women’s work outside the household can be extremely exploitative. GrOW-supported research in India documented harsh conditions, even in development programs like India’s national employment scheme. Similar findings have emerged from research in Nepal.

Heavy burdens weigh down women’s labour supply

Women may be less able or willing to enter the labour force and they more frequently drop out of the labour force for a variety of reasons. For example, the physically depleting work found in India and Nepal may contribute to women leaving their jobs because of ill health.

Where women are primarily responsible for the “care economy” (household work and the care of dependents) their time may be restricted. In India, women spend an average of 40 hours per week on unpaid care and housework, while men devote 3.5 hours to these activities. Women’s responsibilities at home can create significant barriers in terms of the type of jobs women can access and hold.

Indian women carry the brunt of care work at home

Column chart: Indian adults hours spent per week on market and non-market activities

Supporting South Asian women’s participation in the labour force

The reasons for women’s disadvantages and the lack of progress in economic empowerment vary by context — and policies need to reflect this reality.

Formal and voluntary regulation, legal reforms, and a company’s social responsibility initiatives can make a difference. Specific interventions to level the playing field are also important. Training and education reform are needed to respond to changing labour market demands, and there is an urgent need to tailor these to women’s specific needs. Similarly, regular cash transfers and tailored financial services can enable women to overcome constraints and invest in economic opportunities. An IDRC-supported project in Bangladesh found that a combination of training, internships, and stipends can help young women from rural areas access formal sector jobs.

Women’s opportunities are limited if they are spending 40 hours weekly on domestic tasks. Addressing their double burden, including child care, must form a key part of policies seeking to enhance their economic opportunities. Public investments can also play a role if they prioritize infrastructure that would reduce women’s workload and the time needed to carry out tasks such as collecting water.

Social norms are a key force behind the division of labour, which assigns most care responsibility to women. These norms and perceptions also appear to be a key factor on the demand side, including the priority given to men over women when jobs are scarce, gender segmentation, lower pay, and lack of job and social protection.

A GrOW-supported study of an economic empowerment program in India shows how much social norms matter — and that change is possible. The research in poor villages is showing the effectiveness of social mobilization and collective responses to reach a variety of gender equality objectives, including economic empowerment, participation, and enhancing women’s voices. These are long-term processes that may follow non-linear paths, and they will need sustained support Employment and Growth port.

Arjan de Haan is the Program Leader, at IDRC.