Education India Resilience & Society South Asia Women

Issue Brief

March 27, 2023

The future of women in India: Barriers, facilitators and opportunities

By Amita N. Vyas, Misha Iqbal, Capucine Querenet, Harris Samad, Irfan Nooruddin

The barriers South Asian women face in the workforce are deep and intersecting, including but not limited to: accessing digital technology; disruptions to supply chains; the dual burden of managing eldercare and childcare; limited physical and mental health services; and the increased risk of gender-based violence (GBV). These are key obstacles to women’s labor force participation, and all were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a joint report published by the International Finance Corporation and the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), 35 percent of women entrepreneurs in India reported that they have suffered declining revenues due to COVID-19, and 72 percent of female small business owners in Sri Lanka reported experiencing difficulties accessing their usual financial services. The same report found that female job-loss rates resulting from COVID-19 are about 1.8 times higher than male job-loss rates globally.

Women’s participation and advancement in the labor force not only benefits women themselves, but also men, families, communities, and the entire nation. Despite this, women’s work is a minefield of visible and invisible barriers, rooted in inequality, patriarchy, and privilege. Global corporations, civil society, governments, and businesses across the South Asian region and the globe are committed and poised to support women’s advancement in the workplace, and are well positioned to accelerate and complement these efforts through direct investments and advocacy. But, first, two key areas must be explored, and they serve as the foci for this issue brief:

  1. Raise awareness of key economic challenges facing women across the region.
  2. Explore best practices and opportunities for addressing these pressing challenges.

To date, these efforts have been limited and/or siloed within particular domains and there is a paucity of scientific evidence pointing to how these efforts are effectively supporting women’s economic recovery.

This issue brief describes cross-cutting themes, a proposed theory of change, and recommendations that emerged from the Atlantic Council and US Department of State expert convening, “Future of Women and Work in South Asia.” The convening’s goal was to foster cross-sectoral collaboration and catalyze knowledge sharing to support women’s economic empowerment in South Asia. The project also aimed to elucidate strategies for increasing philanthropic and corporate investments to appropriately address the challenges and barriers women face.

The South Asia Center serves as the Atlantic Council’s focal point for work on the region as well as relations between these countries, neighboring regions, Europe, and the United States.

Related Experts: Amita N. Vyas, Misha Iqbal, Harris A. Samad, and Irfan Nooruddin

Image: Sarta Kalara (C), a construction worker, stands among other female workers in Ahmedabad, India, April 20, 2016. Kalara says she has no option but to tether her daughter Shivani to a stone despite her crying, while she and her husband work for 250 rupees ($3.8) each a shift digging holes for electricity cables in the city of Ahmedabad. There are about 40 million construction workers in India, at least one in five of them women, and the majority poor migrants who shift from site to site, building infrastructure for India's booming cities. Across the country it is not uncommon to see young children rolling in the sand and mud as their parents carry bricks or dig for new roads or luxury houses. REUTERS/Amit Dave SEARCH "TIED TODDLER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY