Making Infrastructure Work for Women and Girls in Asia and the Pacific

By Takehiko Nakao

Infrastructure has a critical role in narrowing gender gaps and accelerating the advancement of women and girls. If women are given a say in infrastructure design and investment, projects can become more effective enablers of their growth.

In Peshawar, Pakistan, 90% of women surveyed in 2016 on the use of public transport said that their fear of harassment prevented them from using the available services. Only 15% of women in Peshawar use public transport, limiting their access to basic services and economic opportunities.

To address this problem, the ADB and partners are helping the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Urban Mobility Authority to improve bus services. Improvements will include securing women’s safety and mobility through separate entrances and sections for women and men, well-lit bus stations, security cameras, well-trained station staff, and help-desks and helplines to report harassment.

This type of well designed, built and managed infrastructure and services can greatly contribute to narrowing gender gaps and empowering women and girls. The positive correlations between quality infrastructure and women’s empowerment are recognised across the Sustainable Development Goals. The need for infrastructure that better reflects the requirements of women and girls has recently been agreed during the UN’s 63rd Commission on the Status of Women.

The G20 principles for quality infrastructure investments, adopted by finance ministers and central bank governors in Fukuoka in June 2019, emphasise the importance of “integrating social considerations in infrastructure investments” (Principle 5). Mainstreaming inclusiveness and gender equality should be one of the core elements.

Since the adoption of its Policy on Gender and Development in 1998, ADB has pioneered efforts to maximise the positive impacts of infrastructure on women and girls in Asia and the Pacific, via projects to empower women through education, health and jobs. In 2016-18 ADB invested US$12bn annually in both public- and private-sector infrastructure. Two-thirds of these projects included components designed to enhance gender equality. Our aim is that by 2030 75% of all ADB investments will include interventions to promote gender equality.

  Improving gender equality and women’s economic potential

Infrastructure improves lives, livelihoods and economies, and can directly improve gender equality in multiple ways. First, women’s “time poverty”—the large amount of time spent on unpaid care and domestic work that is disproportionately done by women and girls—can be alleviated by direct access by individuals and households to basic infrastructure, such as clean and affordable water and sanitation, electricity and transport. In Asia-Pacific countries, women spend much more time on these kinds of tasks, ranging from 1.7 to 11 times that of men. Quality infrastructure is key to reducing the overall time spent on household work and gives women more choice over how to use their time.

Second, infrastructure can help realise women’s economic potential. Digital technology and telecommunication infrastructure are already helping women entrepreneurs through e-commerce, online banking and fintech solutions. Women farmers are benefiting from better access to vital information and networking for production and sales. Rural electrification projects across South Asia have enabled many poor women to become “microentrepreneurs”, using newfound access to electricity to make products like pottery and jewellery and to run small enterprises in services, such as tailoring.

A regional corridor project at the Uzbekistan-Tajikistan border offers a snapshot of these new opportunities. An improved border crossing point now has separate sanitation facilities, safe body-check procedures and breastfeeding rooms. This has facilitated the growth of small trade activities by women from the border communities who were previously unable to capture new economic opportunities.

Infrastructure projects are offering direct employment for women across the region, whether as road construction or maintenance laborers or as maintenance technicians for solar panels or transmission lines. It is important that such job creation for women supports the acquisition of skills. In Laos, engineering scholarships and leadership training for women employees in a water utility project are easing their entry into good jobs and nurturing more women leaders in a traditionally male-dominated sector.

A third way that infrastructure can improve women’s lives is through user and citizens’ inputs and feedback during the planning, construction and operation phases. Greater participation in these decision-making processes can empower women to voice their needs and become active change agents.

In Bangladesh, women account for more than a third of local governance committee members on urban infrastructure and governance projects, and regular open meetings are held with local women’s groups. This has boosted the capacity of women leaders to manage local budgets and ensure women have a say in how infrastructure is designed. As a result, women have influenced the design of community-based disaster early warning systems and been able to secure women’s private spaces in flood refuges.

Infrastructure has a critical role in narrowing gender gaps and accelerating the advancement of women and girls. If women are given a say in infrastructure design and investment, projects can become more effective enablers of their growth.

This article was originally published as a blog as part of an Economist Intelligence Unit research program on sustainable infrastructure, supported by the United Nations Office for Project Services.