Do Cities Still Hold a Promise for Young Women in Asia?
August 17, 2022
Urban spaces have often been understood as incubators of gender equality, offering women a “relaxation of sociocultural restrictions compared to women living in rural areas.” For young women in particular, urban spaces have offered greater access to peer networks and role models and a wider variety of employment opportunities.
Sadly, however, even prior to the pandemic, young urban women in Asia were unemployed in higher proportions than their male peers. Women make up the majority of informal and self-employed workers in Asia, and often lack reliable safety nets or insurance. Those in the formal workforce tend to be disproportionately employed in low-paying industries such as the garment and hospitality sectors.
Young women in Asian cities before the pandemic also had less access to digital technologies, and they reported less confidence in using them to seek information and pursue livelihood opportunities. In Pakistan, for example, internet use among boys was quadruple that of girls, and phone ownership was almost 30 percent higher among boys than girls in Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh.
Unequal access to digital technologies and employment, coupled with other forms of gender exclusion—high rates of public harassment, unsafe public transport, unequal representation of women in local and national decision-making, and women’s disproportionate domestic labor burdens—curtailed the potential of Asian cities to transform the lives of young women, and left them more vulnerable to the economic blows of the pandemic.
During the first year of the pandemic, The Asia Foundation and its partner Kore Global conducted an eight-city, five-country, qualitative research project, The Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Inequalities in Asian Cities, that focused on the perspectives and experiences of those who receive the fewest benefits of urbanization due to intersecting factors such as gender, ethnicity, low income, and insecure employment.
This newly published research, involving in-depth conversations with more than 80 respondents, reveals how women and girls bore the brunt of caregiving and domestic responsibilities resulting from school and office closures. The time they spent feeding, cleaning, and providing medical care to children increased by 24 percent, compared to a 14 percent increase for men. Women also lost their jobs at higher rates than men, partly due to their overrepresentation in the informal sector, further curtailing their independence.
In a recent discussion of our findings, Dr. Mizra Hassan, a senior research fellow at BRAC University, noted that 15 percent of women in Bangladesh had lost their jobs in the pandemic, compared to a national average for all workers of just 1.5 percent. Many of the women in our conversations told us they were feeling increasingly exhausted and isolated, with many unable to engage with friends and community as they had previously. The pandemic had disrupted a critical resource—their social capital.
Between April and July 2020, governments in all five focus countries had initiated a range of response mechanisms including financial stimulus and support schemes. Yet, our female respondents often said that gendered inequalities in decision-making had left them unable to rely on government help, either because they couldn’t access government programs or because the specific recovery measures failed to accommodate women’s needs. In Pakistan, for example, many women bangle-makers lacked the documentation required to obtain government aid. In Mongolia, financial relief in the form of tax exemptions and incentives was beneficial to large businesses and high-income workers, but women employed in the public sector were ineligible for tax exemptions, and women who did not pay taxes in the first place, such as small-business owners or informal workers, received no benefit from the tax breaks.
Taken together, these circumstances have reinforced the old-fashioned social and labor divisions between male breadwinners and female homemakers, even in families where women had been employed outside the home. In Mongolia, Laos, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, women who had lost their jobs and become financially dependent on their husbands often told us that their loss of income had reduced their say in household decision-making.
The intergenerational impact of these setbacks is particularly worrisome. UNDP estimates that the poverty gap in South Asia between men and women 25–34 years of age could widen from 118 women to 129 women living in poverty for every 100 men by 2030 if the situation remains unaddressed.
Our conversations with respondents and fellow researchers in Asia suggest that young women in particular, despite living in cities, are more isolated now than before the pandemic. Dr. Ayona Datta of University College, London, noted for example that young women in South Asia had proven to be highly susceptible to disruptions in work and education that can damage their purchasing power for present-day essentials such as mobile data, which in turn further limits their access to information and connections to community. She also noted how young women’s increased care burden at home was coupled with increased policing of their movements and clothing, particularly if they were unmarried.
One way to think of this invisible crisis is that urban spaces contain a labyrinth of interwoven infrastructures that enable residents to access services and opportunities, a labyrinth that has been damaged by the pandemic in multiple dimensions. Repairing these infrastructures, as Datta puts it, is the essential task to address the pandemic’s toll on young women’s agency and opportunity.
She frames this task in three dimensions—social, digital, and physical—and notes that each needs repair and investment. This includes supporting public spaces that facilitate peer networks and community-building, addressing the digital divide between men and women, and ensuring that women are safe from gender-based violence and harassment so that they can travel freely in urban spaces and participate in work and community life.
As governments across the Asia-Pacific continue to roll out pandemic recovery efforts, more focus must be placed on repairing these urban infrastructures. Decision-makers and reformers across government and civil society must pursue active consultation and engagement to center young women’s experiences, challenges, and aspirations in their policymaking and reform agendas. Without this, the opportunities of the city will not prevent young urban women from being left behind.
Read The Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Inequalities in Asian Cities, including reports from Mongolia, Laos, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Vietnam. Further discussion of this research and its findings can be found in vol. 1 no. 4 of our quarterly publication GovAsia.
Miranda Lucas is a program associate in the Asia Foundation’s governance program, and Sumaya Saluja is a specialist consultant on inclusive governance. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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