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April 27th, 2017

Women’s economic opportunities: What can South Asian countries learn from each other?

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes


April 27th, 2017

Women’s economic opportunities: What can South Asian countries learn from each other?

1 comment | 3 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

There are multiple benefits associated with female labour force participation and increasing women’s involvement in the workforce is therefore viewed as desirable across South Asia. Here Charity Troyer Moore and Vestal McIntyre discuss the variations in participation across the region, and introduce the challenges and opportunities that women face as their work choices expand.

When women make their own money – or even when they have the option to work for a fair wage – their health, power in the domestic sphere, and position in society all improve, and parents begin to invest more in the health and education of their daughters. A wide range of research from South Asia and across the world has shown this.

For example, a study in India found that the availability of jobs in call centres led girls to spend more years in school and delay marriage and child-bearing. A study in Bangladesh found similar effects from the availability of work in the garment industry. Delaying family life brings its own benefits: women face less domestic violence when they marry later, and fewer health risks when they bear children later. Households with a women earner invest more in children of either gender.

Figure 1 female labour force participation rates, selected countries
Figure 1 Female labour force participation rates, selected countries

So raising the rate of female labour force participation (FLFP) is a policy goal for South Asian governments. This rate varies greatly across the region, from 16% in Afghanistan to 80% in Nepal.

Why such a wide range? One explanation was put forward by Harvard economist Claudia Goldin in a 1986 article and has been refined and contradicted by scholars ever since: broadly speaking, FLFP follows the U-shaped curve you can see in the graph below – high in very poor economies, then dipping in the lower-middle and middle-income ones, only to rise again in rich economies.

The logic is this: at low levels of economic development, poverty leads women and men alike to work low-wage jobs, particularly in agriculture. As an economy grows, men become more educated, get better jobs, and bring more money home. Perhaps in such situations, women favour staying at home over getting non-agricultural jobs that are relatively low-paying, or perhaps women, whose education has historically lagged behind men’s, come second to men in accessing these jobs. At more advanced stages of development, average household income continues to rise – and with it the education women attain and quality of jobs they can win.

Critics of this model point out that India is not following the U-shape trend. There, FLFP remains low despite growth, and is actually continuing to descend even as women make great gains in educational attainment.

Figure 2 Log GNI per capita (2013)

Furthermore, it’s important to point out that the dip in the U-shaped path is avoidable. In Bangladesh, two simultaneous movements led to economic opportunities for women outside agriculture: the growth of the garment sector in cities and the expansion in non-agricultural home-based work for rural women, attributed in part to the microfinance revolution.

Still, the U-shaped curve gives us a rough framework to spot the opportunities and dangers that South Asian women face as their work-related choices expand. Nepal’s FLFP rate reflects high poverty: 84% of Nepalese working women are employed in agriculture, and fully half of those women are either the main breadwinner or an important source of income for their households. The limited economic opportunities outside of agriculture leads to large migration for labour: 28% of the country’s GDP in 2014 came from workers sending money home from abroad.

Image: Women labourers near Rupa Lake, Nepal. Credit: Neil Palmer/IWMI CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

But as Nepal’s policymakers work to create jobs for women, they must make sure they are the right kind of jobs. In India, where many types of employment are closed to women, the manufacturing sector has been relatively open. Yet an analysis that our Harvard-based research group Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) conducted for a government skills-training program in India showed the gender gap in wages is much wider in manufacturing than in other industries. Men make twice as much as women in factory jobs, but only 5% more in the services industry. In this case, the role of policy is to either prepare women for the equitable sector, or to try to equalize wages.

In Pakistan, we see that women are constrained by their own and their families’ ideas of what constitutes “suitable” employment. Few women who aren’t working say they are available for work or actively seeking work. But 40% of women who are not employed say they did not have enough to do in the previous day, and when instead asked, “would you work if you could find a suitable job?” around a quarter say yes. A paper on FLFP in Pakistan calculated that if these women worked, the country’s rate would double. The authors concluded, “If few socially acceptable jobs are available, women will earn lower wages or simply not take up work at all.”

In Afghanistan, ideas of the suitability of work are compounded by security concerns: a study found that FLFP is negatively correlated with the incidence of violence. Yet a recent survey found that three-quarters of Afghani women believe that women should be allowed to work outside the home.

Our point is not to undermine women who work for low wages – or for no wages. Women’s unpaid work, particularly in raising and protecting their children, has built the world as we know it. Rather, our point is that cross-country comparisons can illuminate ways to prevent exploitation, as well as opportunities for women to access the kind of power and self-determination that a job can bring.

On 23–24 March, EPoD brought together women leaders from all of the countries mentioned above to discuss these opportunities with international researchers. The event, Smart Policy for Women’s Economic Empowerment, is supported by UK Aid from the UK Government through the BCURE Programme, the IGC, and the Kennedy School Women and Public Policy Program.

For more about FLFP and women’s empowerment, read Ideas for India’s recent #WomenAndWork e-symposium, and stay tuned as outcomes from the event are published on the I4I platform.

This blog originally appeared on The IGC blog. It gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.

About the Authors

Charity Troyer Moore is India Lead at Harvard Kennedy School’s Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) and is currently Senior Research and Policy Manager for IFMR Research. She is also Country Manager for the DFID-funded Building Capacity to Use Research Evidence (BCURE) program, which aims to encourage policymakers’ use of rigorous empirical evidence in key decisions.

Charity holds an M.A. in Economics and Ph.D. in Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics from The Ohio State University.

Vestal McIntyre is Staff Writer and Communications Specialist for EPoD. In the past he has written and edited for groups at MIT, Princeton, and Paris School of Economics, and taught creative writing at University of Northampton in the UK. He has been awarded fellowships by the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Vestal holds a BA in English from Tufts University.

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