Gender-aware policies neededAny gender equality policy is an economic policy,” said a former finance secretary at an informal discussion with a group of policy analysts and advocates.
Any gender equality policy is an economic policy,” said a former finance secretary at an informal discussion with a group of policy analysts and advocates. The remark was intriguing, but at the same time, unanticipated from a retired male bureaucrat who, as proved by the policies that came into effect during his tenure, was not at all a champion of gender equality. He was neither shifting his position to a feminist stance at the cost of his hard-earned reputation as a popular finance secretary. It was pre-emptive policy advice which he elaborated in his succeeding remark, making him sound like a steadfast feminist. Economic policies that do not calculate optimising women’s labour productivity will not be able to reinvigorate the country’s floundering economy.
Timing is everything
The policy advice could not have been better timed. Domestic income relies on women’s labour productivity due to massive migration of men for foreign employment. According to the Nepal Living Standards Survey 2011, 55 percent of women compared to 24 percent of men are wage earners in the agriculture sector that accounts for a third of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). The share of agriculture as a percentage of the GDP was 38 percent in 2011.
However, economic policies are yet to be made efficient and effective to cash in on women’s labour productivity. The 14th periodic plan has described the dependency of agriculture productivity on women as feminisation of the agriculture sector. The plan, however, does not outline any concrete strategy to feminise leadership in decision making in the agriculture sector and increase women’s ownership of productive inputs such as land, capital and technology. The plan also brushes off the negative correlation between an increase in the participation of women in the agriculture sector and a decrease in agricultural productivity. The share of agriculture as a percentage of the GDP dropped to 33 percent in 2016 as the participation of economically active women in agriculture shot up.
Despite such full-scale recognition of women’s contribution, the agriculture development strategy has failed to outline any binding measures to promote women’s agency in the farm sector. Its provisions for increasing women’s leadership and ownership in the agriculture sector are patronising and cautiously designed to retain the power relations between women and men in rural areas. Therefore, it cannot be expected to play a role in accelerating women’s increasing participation in the agriculture sector as a catalyst to break the cycle of gender inequality.
In Nepal, only 19 percent of the women have land registered in their names, particularly small plots purchased to build houses. Similarly, women cannot take a loan without a male family member as an attestant, even when they have collateral registered in their names. Things are worse with regard to employment and social protection policies. Neither of these policies is capable enough to create avenues for the efficient utilisation of women’s labour productivity. Instead, their use is so variable that they are often used to impose a ban on women’s right to employment and mobility on various pretexts.
For example, women are prohibited from migrating to the Gulf countries to work as domestic helpers. As a result, women are forced to work in low-paid, low-status and insecure jobs, and they are deprived of any opportunity to contribute to the economy with their better matched labour productivity. In such a timid policy environment, Nepal has set a grandiose development goal of graduating from least developed country (LDC) status by 2022 and transforming into a middle-income country by 2030. There is a lot of talk about achieving the goals through inclusive economic growth without any sustained policy foundation.
It is true that Nepal has a record of reducing poverty from 42 percent in 1995 to half of that in 2016 and increasing the per capita gross national income from $210 to $780 during the same period. However, the slow progress in the extreme reduction of poverty and increase in the per capita income exposes how specious the development goals and strategies to achieve them are. Over the last six years, poverty has been decreasing at an annual rate of only 0.66 as compared to 1.13 percent in the previous 15 years. Similarly, the per capita gross national income has remained static at an average of $780 for the last few years.
Therefore, the right strategy to accelerate progress towards achieving the goals is to reach out to the poorest of the poor, who mostly come from female headed and socially excluded households. For example, most of the 26 percent of rural households headed by women and 13 percent of Dalits are under the national poverty line. Due to the failure to reach out to the poorest of the poor, we will not be able to graduate to middle-income country status.
Only gender aware economic policies that are adequately informed of inter-sectionality can drive development efforts for the benefit of women and socio-economically excluded groups, and scale up the efficiency of their labour productivity. Thus, only candid gender equality policies will act as a booster shot to the economy, and their full realisation will prevent our policymakers from deceptively predicting a growth rate of 7 percent with capital expenditure reaching less than 45 percent.
Nepali is a development professional