Six ways to boost gender equality in the CAREC region

Article | 25 February 2021

Despite remarkable progress in socioeconomic development in Central and West Asia, women in the region continue to suffer from significant gender disparities: They are likely to receive lower pay, work in informal sectors, and encounter poor workplace equality standards. In Central Asia, women spend up to four times as much time as men on unpaid work.

The coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has exacerbated these disparities with school closures adding to the amount of unpaid care work that disproportionately falls to women, and lockdowns impacting the informal economy. As the pandemic threatens the region’s progress, there has never been a more urgent case for empowering women.

To address this, the 11 nations in the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Program—a partnership to promote economic growth and development through regional cooperation—have endorsed a strategy to promote gender equality. It is a key complement to the CAREC Program’s overall long-term plan: CAREC 2030.

Here are six ways CAREC aims to improve gender equality in the region.

1. Promote women’s economic empowerment through employment and financial inclusion

Macroeconomic policy is often considered gender neutral, but evidence shows that women in all CAREC countries are more likely to be unemployed and are often concentrated in the lowest-paid sectors and roles. Women often have problems accessing small loans to start businesses due to a lack of assets and few appropriate financial products.

To address this, CAREC will promote policies and strategies that build women’s capacity, especially in emerging areas of employment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and information communications technology (ICT). Interventions also include creating standards for decent work and inclusive employment.

CAREC will also promote better coordinated regulations in the banking sector to improve financial inclusion of women and engage the private sector to promote more cross-border investments in agribusiness and tourism.

2. Place women at the center of trade and tourism

Cross-border trading activities for micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises and small and informal businesses account for a significant portion of CAREC’s regional trade and provide a vital source of income for many women.

To boost gender inclusiveness across all aspects of trade, policies could introduce time-bound subsidies to help women-led export businesses increase their production capacity and market their products in other countries. Government procurement could tap goods and services produced by female-led enterprises, while trade policies must also ensure that goods have been produced under safe working conditions.

In line with the CAREC Tourism Strategy 2030, CAREC will pursue measures to enhance women’s access to information about tourism-related jobs. It will support the development of regional guidelines to ensure that recruitment is based on skills and experience, and that women receive equal pay and access to training.

3. Build infrastructure that responds to women’s needs

Despite the widespread assumption that women and men benefit equally from transport and other infrastructure, there are significant gender differences. Women in CAREC countries are less likely to drive, and more likely to use public transport for tasks related to their roles as primary caregivers such as food shopping and taking children to school.

Public transport services in the CAREC region are often expensive, hard to access, or unsafe. It is vital to improve transport services to ensure they are convenient, accessible, and safe for women and children. CAREC transport planning and projects will ensure the provision of affordable services to accommodate women’s specific travel patterns, including building in space for baby carriages and separate carriages for women, and adequate lighting along routes to bus stops or local villages.

As women and girls often spend time collecting fuel or preparing stoves for domestic use, it is crucial to provide clean and efficient energy. CAREC will seek to strengthen and inform energy policies towards reducing domestic energy costs and providing low-cost, carbon-neutral energy options. The program will also support regional information exchanges including between government ministries, female energy professionals, and NGOs to help inform transport and energy planning.

4. Empower women in agriculture

Many women in CAREC countries work in agriculture including more than 80% of all economically active women in Afghanistan. Yet, this work is often poorly paid or unpaid, and female farmers face challenges accessing productive resources such as land, water, and seeds.

If women had the same access to productive resources as men, farm yields across the region could increase by 20%–30%. To maximize this potential, CAREC will promote better access to credit, agricultural extension services, and digital technology that connects farmers to market pricing information and potential buyers.

In the CAREC countries, women often have the primary responsibility for the household’s water management and are disproportionately burdened by water supply and quality issues. CAREC aims to increase their representation in water management associations and cross-country and regional dialogues. It will also assist in strengthening regional disaster risk management and reducing climate change-related risks, which will likewise improve women’s security and resilience.

The CAREC Gender Strategy 2030 seeks to increase the potential and capacity of women to benefit equally from CAREC investments and interventions.
The CAREC Gender Strategy 2030 seeks to increase the potential and capacity of women to benefit equally from CAREC investments and interventions.

5. Improve women’s human capital development

The number of women with secondary and tertiary education has been growing in many CAREC countries. But further efforts to improve human capital development are critical, including expanding access to higher education and technical training to boost women’s education status and income-earning capacities.

To encourage women and girls in STEM and other technical subjects, CAREC will examine ways to increase their access to national and regional centers of learning and the provision of scholarships and other incentives to offset the risk of early dropout. CAREC will also support partnerships with regional technical and vocational education and training providers to offer women training in nontraditional skills such as electrical work and machine operation.

While there has been a steady improvement across health indicators in CAREC countries, these are likely to be undermined by COVID-19. CAREC will seek to strengthen surveillance and monitoring capabilities for cross-border health threats to women and men, promote digital health solutions, and connect remote and underserved areas to health services.

6. Enhance women’s access to information and technology

Around the world, pandemic-induced lockdowns have accelerated the adoption of digital technology into daily life. ICT has been an invaluable tool for connecting people more efficiently to information, e-commerce, education, and health services, among others.

Women lag behind men in access to digital technology in the CAREC region, including in phone ownership and mobile internet usage.

Addressing the digital divide is now urgent. CAREC aims to ensure that women are not left behind by conducting regional trainings and workshops to build the ICT capacity of women and girls. It will also support intercountry partnerships with private sector digital providers to improve internet access in remote and rural communities.