Prosperity through Empowerment: Focus on Women in South Asia

Empowering women in South Asia can help address the twin issues of gender and urban poverty, say ADB's senior social development specialist Francesco Tornieri and urban development specialist Ron Slangen.

Why are gender and urban poverty issues interrelated?


Francesco Tornieri is senior social development specialist at ADB’s South Asia Regional Department. Photo: Eric Sales/ADB

Ron Slangen is urban development specialist at ADB’s South Asia Regional Department. Photo: Eric Sales/ADB

Poverty has ill effects on everybody, regardless of sex, race, or age. Yet, these can be more detrimental for some groups. The saying that poverty has a woman's face is especially true in South Asia, where women in poor urban communities can have hard lives.

For example, given the lack of safe and affordable drinking water and sanitation and healthcare facilities, women find themselves spending more time fetching water and taking care of sick family members than on earning a living. Lack of sanitation facilities also exposes women to harassment since they are forced to relieve themselves in open areas.

How can empowering women help reduce poverty in urban areas?

With economic and social support, such as microcredit, skills training, and childcare support, women can help provide healthy food, education, healthcare, and safe housing for the family. In turn, this will improve the quality of life for all.

What has been the experience of South Asia in tackling gender and poverty issues?

Report: Gender and Urban Poverty in South Asia

South Asian governments have demonstrated strong political will in addressing poverty and gender discrimination. They have very good national poverty reduction strategies, as well as remarkable legislation outlawing women's discrimination in the economic, social, and political spheres. India requires 33% of the seats in local municipal bodies be reserved for women. Bangladesh and Nepal also have similar policies that promote the active participation of women and other vulnerable groups in governance. Sri Lanka has pending legislation allotting 25% of the seats to women.

However, there seems to be some weaknesses in implementation. Governments need resources - financial, material, and human - to successfully implement their initiatives. That is where ADB and other multilateral donor organizations are most needed.

How is ADB helping its member countries in South Asia address these issues?

Under ADB's Strategy 2020, at least 40% of ADB projects must address gender gaps, a target recently raised to 45%. In South Asia, ADB has consistently met this target since 2011. In 2012, 52% of projects have successfully mainstreamed gender, i.e., they have features that promote and facilitate women's access to a project and its benefits.

Can you cite some success stories showcasing women's empowerment in South Asian cities?

Women's economic empowerment. View photo essay.

In 2003, ADB introduced a new integrated approach to urban development in Bangladesh, linking infrastructure investment with enhanced capacity and accountability in municipal management. The project increased women's representation in 35 targeted municipalities by making the implementation of gender action plans a performance criterion for additional infrastructure funding.

Another ADB project that promoted women's active involvement was in the resettlement of more than 3,000 families who were living in slum communities in Kolkata, India. An outstanding feature of this project was the awarding of flat titles to women, which addressed the lingering gender issue on women's property rights. Women were also charged with managing the apartment blocks. In addition, livelihood training and microcredit benefited many women who formed self-help groups and were able to sustain their livelihood and improve living conditions.

What still needs to be done in promote gender equality in urban areas?

“ADB's field experience demonstrates that achieving gender equality requires a concerted action involving strategies, tools, actions, and partnerships forged at different levels.”

There is no quick fix or magic bullet for establishing inclusive cities, because the challenges related to urban planning and governance are complex and what works in one country may not work in another. However, ADB's field experience demonstrates that achieving gender equality requires a concerted action involving strategies, tools, actions, and partnerships forged at different levels.

Gender mainstreaming has proven to be a key strategy in gender equality and should be pursued further. There should also be more awareness building across government agencies and adequate project funds for the necessary technical and financial resources and for the monitoring of gender equality results.

Greater support to "engender" public-private partnership modalities is an emerging area of interest, as is the development of gender equality and social inclusion (GESI) policies.