Stop-Winlock’s Work on Gender in South Asia

Despite progress made on the Sustainable Development Goals and the Human Development Index thanks to strong economic growth, South Asia remains home to more than 300 million poor people. Poverty on such a scale is especially damaging to gender equality in the region.

There exists a strong business case for gender. It is estimated that $770 billion can be added to India’s GDP and $30 billion to Bangladesh’s GDP by 2025 if we achieve gender parity.

However, in South Asia, women’s labor force participation rate is at 25.6 percent, compared to 74.7 percent for men. As per the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2023, it will now take 149 years to bridge gender gaps in the region. This index measures countries’ progress towards gender parity in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

Key gender gaps in South Asia include:

  • One of the lowest rates of female labor force participation of all regions globally at 25.6 percent. Women are three times less likely to be employed in full-time jobs than men in all countries (except Nepal). Since 1990, female labor force participation in South Asia has remained stagnant.
  • Women are missing from private sector leadership, and only 10.3 percent of firms have female senior leadership. Only 4.7 percent of CEOs in India are women.
  • Although South Asian women have made significant strides in digital access in recent years, gaps persist. Women are 41 percent less likely than men to use mobile internet, and 15 percent less likely to own a mobile phone. When it comes to smartphone ownership, the gender gap is even higher, at 42 percent.
  • Gender gaps in bank account ownership have lessened with 66 percent of women and 70 percent of men having accounts. But there are variations by country, e.g. Bangladesh has a 20 percent gap between the sexes. In South Asia, 32 percent of accounts are inactive compared to 10 percent at the global level.
  • Globally, women-led businesses face a credit gap of $1.5 trillion (2020). Similar data for South Asia does not exist. We know that over 90 percent of the 15 million women-owned MSMEs in India rely on informal sources of financing.
  • High rates of gender-based violence persist across the region and its incidence continues to be underreported. One out of three South Asian women has experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetime. This is 35 percent higher than the global average.
  • Data on women’s inclusion in the private sector and their experience as employees, entrepreneurs, business leaders, consumers, and community members is either outdated or entirely missing.

The pandemic and its economic fallout had a regressive effect on gender equality. Globally, female job-loss rates resulting from COVID-19 were about 1.8 times higher than male job-loss rates. Although women make up 39 percent of global employment, this translates into women shouldering 54 percent of overall job losses. 

IFC works with partners in the private sector to close gender gaps, advance gender equality as a smart business strategy, and improve women’s access to more and better jobs and assets. Our work on building the business case for gender equality in the workplace includes direct client advisory engagement and research to demonstrate how gender and economic inclusion can drive productivity, profitability, and performance for businesses.

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Shalaka Joshi
Regional Gender Lead