Incentives can reduce Asia gender gap: UN

South Asia fared worst on gender equality in UNDP figures released in 2010.

Updated: Feb 12, 2011, 12:36 PM IST

Washington: A growing number of developing Asian nations are looking at using economic incentives to keep girls in school and tackle a gender inequality that stunts growth, a UN official said on Friday.

South Asia fared worst on gender equality in figures released last year by the UN Development Program, which pointed to the region`s low levels of farm ownership by women and weak access to reproductive health.

Ajay Chhibber, the UN agency`s director for the Asia-Pacific region, said that gender inequality amounted to an economic impediment as South Asia would post stronger growth if women were further empowered.

Fighting inequality requires broad cultural changes, but Chhibber said he was encouraging governments to offer financial assistance to families who keep their daughters in school.

"I think we have to marry the rights-based approach with economic incentives to get some of these actions moving," Chhibber, who is an assistant UN secretary general, told a seminar in Washington co-hosted by the Asia Society.

Chhibber said that the Philippines has been aggressive on economic incentives, while Bangladesh, Indonesia and two states of India are also looking at such plans.

Daughters` education is often the first casualty when families hit hard economic times, setting off a chain reaction as the girls rarely return to their studies and eventually become illiterate mothers, Chhibber said.

Chhibber pointed to the hopeful example of Turkey. When hit by a financial crisis a decade ago, Turkey devoted USD 500 million -- equivalent of one percent of banks` losses -- to such incentives and found that girls` school enrolment rose for the first time despite the economic climate, he said.

But Chhibber acknowledged there was a "very, very uphill struggle" to fight gender inequality in South Asia.

"I can`t say we`re seeing huge change in the region. I remain both of course optimistic but also realistic that it will take a long time and a big struggle," he said.

Bureau Report