The Invisible Infrastructure: Gender Gap in Development Projects
When we talk about development projects, we tend to focus on the physical or visible: The roads and water lines we lay, the bridges we build or the buildings we construct.
Yet there are invisible elements of infrastructure that are often overlooked — a social structure that shapes how the physical infrastructure works. It could be the mother who needs to travel far to fetch water. Or the wife who is told to stay at home and is unable to leave it. Or the girl who does not have access to clean water and toilets during her monthly cycle. In all cases, for women, what use are the roads we build or the water supply infrastructure we create if they cannot be used by the ones who need them most?
The gender gap in infrastructure projects was examined at the opening day of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank’s (AIIB) Third Annual Meeting in Mumbai. The session focused on the fact that how infrastructure is designed, constructed and managed can have the potential to increase, maintain or reduce gender gaps.
Panelist Silvia Halim, Construction Director of Jakarta MRT which has facilities and security features for women at each of their train stations, said: “Infrastructure development is not just about structures and steel. It is about adapting to the changing habits and lifestyle that are shifting women’s roles.”
While at first glance the provision and management of infrastructure may appear to be gender-neutral, it is far from neutral, according to the panelists.
Andrew Morrison, Gender and Diversity Chief at the Inter-American Development Bank, said gender equality and infrastructure should have a symbiotic relationship, and that attention to gender equality would create socially improved infrastructure projects.
“Gender is not a binary notion,” added Suneeta Dhar, Senior Advisor of the JAGORI Women’s Training & Resource Centre. “It is not just about men and women. It’s also about looking through the gender lens. We believe we should not plan infrastructure for women but rather make women part of the infrastructure planning. Infrastructure has social implications on women’s freedom if planning is not done with a gender lens.”
“To make infrastructure work, we need to get this entire system of invisible infrastructure working,” said Dr. Rohini Pande, Professor of Harvard University. “We need to revisit the social aspects to narrow the gender gap in the use of infrastructure. Women go out, work, contribute to the GDP, but it’s easier to think about how much money can be made from the transport of goods on the roads we make.”
Dr. Pande added that infrastructure largely benefits men who are able to migrate for jobs as women stay home. She added that 50 percent of rural women in India need permission to leave the house. Accessible infrastructure such as roads, water infrastructure and basic government and social services could spell the difference between women being mired in poverty or being productive. Dr. Pande mentioned AIIB’s project in Gujarat, India, where more than 16 percent of the population is below the poverty line and 46 percent of the population is female.
Yet how can one “see” then remedy an invisible infrastructure?
AIIB Principal Social Development Specialist Michaela Bergman said the organization is working on providing infrastructure that are accessible for all different parts of the population. “And that of course includes women, men and all other groups,” she said. “We are now looking at how gender considerations can mitigate adverse impacts. We are consolidating our approach to closing the gender gap and how we provide value to the infrastructure we are developing.”