Insights and Analysis

Women at Work: Good for the Economy, the Family, and the Future

March 7, 2012

By Reid Hamel

March 8 marks the 101st celebration of International Women’s Day. A century of history has seen this global occasion imbued with varying levels of political, economic, social, and cultural significance in diverse cultures around the globe.

Beauty Parlour in Bangladesh

While women are prominent micro-entrepreneurs throughout Asia, as businesses grow into national and international markets, women are disproportionately left behind. Photo by Geoffrey Hiller.

The United Nations has declared this year’s International Women’s Day theme, “Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty.” According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 578 of the world’s 925 million chronically hungry people live in the Asia-Pacific region. In fact, two thirds of the globally undernourished live in just seven countries – Bangladesh, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Indonesia, India, and Pakistan.

Despite such daunting figures, there are grounds for optimism. The Asia-Pacific region has made the greatest progress of any region toward reducing poverty and food insecurity in the past three decades. In 1981, 77 percent of people in the region lived on less than the equivalent of $1.25 per day, but by 2008, the latest year for which data are available, that figure had fallen to just 14 percent.

There is ample evidence that, given modest opportunity and support, women are extremely efficient providers for their families, insulating against the threats of poverty and hunger. Several well-known economics studies have found that women are more likely than men to spend extra income on the health and education of their children, thereby reducing the inter-generational transmission of poverty. Duncan Thomas pioneered this research in 1990 with a study showing that mothers in Brazil invested more than fathers in children’s health. A fascinating 2003 contribution by Esther Duflo investigated the effect of pension reform in post-Apartheid South Africa which increased benefits among formerly discriminated against racial groups. She found that children living in the homes of female pensioners with suddenly increased benefits had higher anthropometric (height for age and weight for height) scores than did children living in the households of comparable male pensioners, who fared no better than children in homes with no pensioners at all.

The extensive academic research in this area is the basis for the Mexican social assistance program “Oportunidades,” through which poor mothers receive cash payments when their children attend school regularly and take advantage of preventative healthcare. Mothers, rather than fathers, are explicitly targeted to maximize the effectiveness of this program which has been greatly successful not only in spurring higher educational attainment throughout the poorest areas of Mexico, but also in reducing teen pregnancy and improving childhood health and nutrition. The triumph of this program has inspired similar national initiatives around Latin America as well as in Malawi and Zambia.

While these types of cash transfer programs involve payments to women from the government, more money in the hands of women from any source can have a dramatic impact on reducing hunger and poverty. Breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty is an important objective for countries throughout Asia but becomes particularly salient in high fertility contexts given the relative youth of those populations. In Afghanistan, for example, 44 percent of the population is under age 15. That figure stands at 36 percent for Pakistan and the Philippines, 31 percent for Bangladesh, and 30 percent for Malaysia.

While caring for children obviously competes with a woman’s time for work, fertility levels are not always a good predictor of women’s labor force participation. In Sri Lanka, the average woman has 1.9 children, fewer than the average American, but for every 100 employed men, there are just 46 working Sri Lankan women. In contrast, Cambodian women have 2.9 children on average but 93 of them work per 100 employed men. This ratio stands at 86 women in Thailand, 61 in Indonesia, 38 in India, and 23 in Pakistan.

At The Asia Foundation, we support women’s employment opportunities in the private as well as the public sector. To do this most effectively, we strive to understand the hurdles to women’s labor force entry and success, whether related to education and training opportunities, access to credit, availability of information, aspects of the regulatory environment, availability of childcare, safety concerns, or corruption. We are currently launching a project to investigate barriers to growth and access to trade among women-led small and medium businesses in a partnership with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), an inter-governmental forum for facilitating economic growth, cooperation, trade, and investment in the Asia-Pacific region. While women are prominent micro-entrepreneurs throughout Asia, as businesses grow into national and international markets, women are disproportionately left behind and this study aims to explore and illuminate why such asymmetry is so common. The study, an amalgam of qualitative and quantitative research, is being conducted in three Southeast Asian countries: Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Each of these countries has a distinctive historical and cultural environment which in turn affects the business landscape for both women and men in different ways. Ultimately, our findings will allow us to advise APEC and local governments on best approaches to improve the business environment for women as well as to more effectively implement our own programs to facilitate the successful growth of women-run businesses.

As women’s earnings can be directly traced to the reduction of hunger and poverty in their communities, improving gender equity in business is good for the economy, good for the family, and good for the future.

Reid Hamel is a program associate with The Asia Foundation’s Economic Development Program. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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