VoxEU Column Development Gender

Highways can do more for women

There has been increasing interest in how infrastructure can help close gender gaps in developing countries. Based on studies of various highway investment programmes in Asia, this column reveals how highways can help women can seize better jobs if they are already employed. Compared with men, however, women have some distinct demands from road corridor programmes and could face gender-specific risks, notably during the construction of the highways. 

The interest in how infrastructure can help close gender gaps in developing countries rises (Ghani et al. 2012, Basu 2017). A recent report by ADB, DFID, JICA, and World Bank argues that only when accompanied by key complementary interventions can costly infrastructure projects investing in highways – road corridors – help women seize better economic opportunities at acceptable risks (ADB, DFID, JICA, and World Bank 2018). The key complementary interventions could include improving women’s access to finance and skills, as well as more general improvements in the functioning of local land markets and public governance. Field interviews also indicate that the academic and policy literature could be missing key local impacts of highways on the life of women – possibly helping transform their roles within the family, business life, and local community. Evidence from highway construction projects warns about sudden build-up of risks and negative impact that the influx of foreign workers can have on women in local communities.     

Highways helped women switch from farm to regular-wage employment but, on average, they didn’t help create new decent jobs for women

The Golden Quadrilateral (GQ) is a large-scale highway construction and improvement project connecting India’s four top metropolitan cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata). The overall length of the quadrilateral is 5,846km, consisting of four- to six-lane express highways. The GQ project was launched in 2001 as the first phase of National Highways Development Project (NHDP), was two-thirds complete by 2005, and was mostly finished in 2007. The entire length of the quadrilateral was operational by January 2012. 

By 2001, the employment of women varied greatly across India’s districts (Figure 1, panel a). In a recent paper (Melecky et al. 2018), my co-authors and I estimate that the upgrade of the GQ highway system in India increased the share of non-farm employment among women by 2.4 percentage points. A proportional decline in farm employment among women happened in parallel. This structural transformation – that is, the movement of labour from farm to non-farm jobs (Figure 1, panel b) – happened during a period in which the share of non-farm employment in total employment was generally increasing in India by 2.5 percentage points (the control districts in panel b). The GQ highway increased the share of non-farm employment by an additional 1.6 percentage points – a large impact in magnitude. And women engaged in this structural transformation much more than men. 

But, on average, districts nearby the upgraded GQ highways did not see the percentage of women regular wage earners rise more than in the other (control) districts! “On average” here means that women in some connected districts seized new productive jobs but in other connected districts women saw the productive jobs disappearing. In other words, while the average impact of GQ upgrade could have been insignificant, the estimations reveal important differences in the impact across districts based on their initial conditions – that is, how well the capital, labour, land, and product markets function in the district and the quality of local public governance.

To estimate the possible dependence on initial conditions in the local markets, we use interaction effects between the connectivity to the highway network and different measures of initial conditions in local markets. We find, for example, that the Golden Quadrilateral was more successful in boosting regular wage employment among women in districts with above average quality of local governance. 

For the North-South-East-West (NSEW) highways system in India, the variation in local impacts on regular wage employment of women – a measure of decent jobs – was driven mostly by the level of literacy. Districts in which a greater share of women complete 7+ years of schooling saw the regular wage employment of women rise much more. In this case, the underlying structural transformation and women’s movement from farm to non-farm jobs was stronger in districts where local SMEs enjoyed better access to finance.

Figure 1

a) In 2001, employment of women varied greatly across India’s districts     

b) By 2011, the upgrade of GQ highway had enabled many women to leave farm for non-farm jobs—much more than the men. 

Source: Melecky et al. (2018) and ABD, DFID, JICA, World Bank (2018).
Note: -- = not available.

The joint ADB, DFID, JICA, and World Bank report emphasises the importance of understanding the initial conditions in local markets to identify key complementary interventions that must accompany the highway investment programmes. Such interventions can help amplify wider economic benefits and mitigate any negative impacts (trade-offs) of highways. Identifying key complementary interventions requires work with granular spatial data and conducing focus groups interviews locally to make these (often multi-billion) investments work for local businesses and communities. The process of identifying key complementary interventions should consider that women may have distinct expectations from highway investment programmes.

Other literature also reports women-specific impacts but does not focus on them primarily

Overall, other literature suggests that better roads can help women seize better jobs by moving out of agriculture and, with better access to schools, make better education choices to build skills and human capital. 

Using data for Indonesian highways, Getler et al. (2014) find that road improvements alone can present an important stepping stone in economic empowerment of women by opening labour market opportunities for women and increasing their employment in the non-agricultural sector. Asher and Novosad (2018) estimate that building new roads in India would result in a 3.8 percentage point decrease in women’s employment share in agricultural sector for women aged 21-40 years, with women aged 41-60 years even more likely to exit the agricultural sector.  

Adukia et al. (2017) examine the impacts on educational choices of India’s flagship road construction program under which 115,000 new roads were built. The authors find that a new road leads to a 7% increase in middle-school enrolment for girls. Nevertheless, increased enrolment doesn’t necessarily translate into increased human capital because school quality might still be poor. Therefore, the study went further and found that 6% more students take and pass exams in villages after new roads have been built. Semgupta et al. (2016) estimate that the impact of proximity to NH2 and its upgrading significantly increased the share of working women aged 15–59 as well as the share of non-agricultural workers among working household members. A closer proximity to NH2 also leads to a significant increase in school enrolment among girls aged 6–14 years. 

Relatedly, Khandkar and Koolwal (2011) estimate the impacts of the Rural Roads and Markets Improvement and Maintenance Project in Bangladesh between 1997 and 2005. They find that the road improvement projects increased household per capita expenditure, employment in the non-agriculture sector, and school enrolment for girls aged 5-12 due to better access to schools. The higher enrolment, in turn, improves women’s labour quality and closes the gender skill gap in the long run. 

The research on women-specific effects of road corridors is sparse and more studies in different contexts are needed to understand the specific support women need to fully benefit from the connectivity that road corridors bring.   

Women have their own expectation from highway investment programmes, and the programmes’ design must reflect that

Bhutan, India, and Sri Lanka have recently opened several thousand kilometres of upgraded highways that have markedly changed the lives of women and their families. Bhutan upgraded the Thimphu–Phuntsholing and Thimphu–Gelephu highways that now connect better the smaller towns and villages to the capital and extend all the way to markets beyond India’s northeast border. As mentioned above, India’s Golden Quadrilateral, a four-to-six lane highway with two and three lanes in each direction, now connects the country’s four major metropolitan areas. Sri Lanka’s A9 highway, closed during the civil war, has reopened linking towns and villages along a route from the city of Kandy in the south to Jaffna in the north.

To study the impact of these highways, a World Bank team held focus group discussions from February to May 2017 with women (many of whom are microentrepreneurs) in several communities, mainly in Bhutan, India, and Sri Lanka (Xu et al. 2018).

Interestingly, women report benefits enriching their lives that are strikingly similar across the three countries. The interviewed women highlight that it is easier for them in terms of travel time, costs, and safety to conduct business, shop for food and household items, and take children to school and hospital. Therefore, they have more time to do household chores, engage in income-producing work, work more hours in their current job, educate themselves or build new skills, and to look around for new economic opportunities. However, some most attractive opportunities are closed to the women because local childcare facilities are lacking. 

In general, the women are involved in micro-businesses such as growing and selling vegetables and fruits, raising chickens to produce and sell eggs near the highways, or sew handbags and garments for local shops and, sometime, even national exporters. They care for children, elderly family members, and even disabled husbands. The increased traffic from the highway has brought more customers to their businesses. But more than that, the highways brought opportunities and the promise of economic empowerment. At least they thought so.

Often, women in the countries said they would like to be trained with more skills, both in trades and managing business. For example, many sew garments while caring for their children at home. However, few acquire technical or marketing skills, as well as the knowledge of how to connect to wholesalers to obtain cheaper inputs and to sell to exporters. Although most of the housewives want to increase their income-producing activities, they do not have the skills and finance needed to expand their businesses, nor do they know how to obtain them. The government and private institutions such as banks are providing relevant training in Sri Lanka, but it is available to only a limited number of women. 

Figure 2 Focus group in Naulla, Sri Lanka

Credit: Martin Melecky, World Bank.

The focus group responses reveal both great appreciations and some disappointment. Despite the economic improvements and gains in quality of life the highway upgrades or reopening have generated, the women in Bhutan, India, and Sri Lanka do not feel, in general, more socioeconomically empowered. No one has asked about their distinct expectations from the highway programmes – that is, what else must come with a better road. 

Relatedly, Babinard (2011) summarises gender-gap transport surveys in several developing countries. The surveys reveal that women use walking and public transport modes more than men who use more private motorised transport. How close transportation is to the house and the time spent in transportation affect women’s decision to travel and, therefore, their social and economic empowerment. Cultural and social factors strongly influence women’s mobility and use of transport. Women want to avoid verbal or physical harassment while waiting in the streets. They would rather not use public transportation with a random time schedule and give up on involvement in more productive activities.

Not only are there more benefits for women to reap, major risks from highways women face must be managed 

Civil works on road corridors (highways) require workers as well as goods and services from outside the local area because local labour is not available or lacks the necessary skills. Often, the influx of workers is magnified by those who follow to sell them goods and provide services or to find other jobs and business opportunities. The rapid immigration to the project area (labour influx) bears the risk of negatively affecting the host communities, including women (World Bank 2016).

In project preparation, appraisers, project sponsors, and other stakeholders may fail to recognise the risks and their impacts on the project success, especially when problematic social behaviour is culturally tolerated or even accepted (Asekenye Barasa and Muzira 2018). The risks are varied and can include social conflict, illicit behaviour and crime, an overwhelming influx of additional population (followers), possible negative impacts on community dynamics, increased strain on and competition for general public services, local inflation of prices, increased pressure on rental accommodations, rising traffic and related accidents, sex work, risk of communicable diseases and burden on local health services, gender-based violence, as well as child labour and school dropouts.

Figure 3 Road construction, Bhutan

Credit: Martin Melecky, World Bank.

For instance, conflicts can flare between local communities and construction workers. Because some foreign workers may have higher incomes than the local workers, resentment can arise particularly when the newcomers start having relationships with local girls and married women. 

The high influx can spark or increase sex work. The concentration of male workers can draw in young girls and women, exacerbating the risks of gender-based violence and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Incoming workers may be exposed to diseases from the local community to which they have low resistance. Workers with health concerns such as substance abuse, mental issues, or STDs may not wish to visit the project’s medical facility and instead may go to local medical providers, further straining local resources.

The newcomers may implant sense of insecurity in the local community. Among both the locals and newcomers drawn to the project area, criminal activities including theft, physical assaults, substance abuse, prostitution, and human trafficking may increase. Having to cope with the temporary rise in population, the local law enforcement agencies may feel unequipped or overwhelmed. 

Construction workers are mainly younger males away from home, separated from families, and unknown in the project areas. They may behave in ways they normally would not, without fear of repercussion. This typically leads to fraternisation – close social relations considered inappropriate with those who are unrelated to one another, typically with local females. It also leads to unacceptable and/or illicit practices, such as unwanted aggressive advances and sexual harassment of women/girls/minors and exploitative sexual relations. In addition, it may lead to an increase in human trafficking, where women and girls are forced into sex work. 

In rural settings, where law enforcement is limited, the risk of sexual harassment, especially of younger females, is apt to be high. It can become dangerous for them to walk on roads to and from schools, markets, jobs, and water collection points. They often face rude stares or derogatory comments, taunting, hounding, groping, or rape. Women are especially afraid to walk alone in poorly lit or isolated areas (Asekenye Barasa and Muzira 2018). 


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Adukia, A, A Asher and P M Novosad (2017), “Educational Investment Responses to Economic Opportunity: Evidence from Indian Road Construction”, Working Paper No. 2017-18, Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics. 

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World Bank (2016), “Managing the Risks of Adverse Impacts on Communities from Temporary Project-Induced Labor Influx”, Operations Policy and Country Services and Environmental and Social Safeguards Advisory Team Note.

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