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FEATURE STORYMarch 21, 2022

Delving into women’s social isolation

Growing up in a small town in India, I saw and experienced gender inequality firsthand.
S Anukriti
Research economist in DECHD who studies gender

S Anukriti is an Economist in the Development Research Group (Human Development Team) of the World Bank. She is an applied micro-economist, with interests in the fields of development economics, economics of gender and the family, and political economy. Her research examines the underlying causes of gender inequalities in developing societies, and explores mechanisms that can bring about gender equity.

What is the focus of your research? 

Broadly, my research focuses on understanding why gender inequality exists, why it persists, and what we can do to reduce gender gaps, especially in developing countries. 

I have done a lot of work on male-biased sex ratios and sex-selective abortions, and some research on marriage markets and dowry in India. More recently, my attention has shifted towards other gender-related issues, such as women’s labor market engagement, social networks, gender-based violence, and the influence of family members on women’s outcomes.

What sparked your interest in this research?

Growing up in a small town in India, I saw and experienced gender inequality firsthand. In fact, my home state, Haryana, has the worst sex ratio at birth in the country. I noticed that richer and more educated parents didn’t always have less conservative gender attitudes. There's a lot of gender inequity within India—the Northwest part of the country, where I grew up, is significantly more gender-biased and unequal than the East or the South. I've always been curious about why these differences exist. 

What have been some most interesting findings? 

There have been several! In countries like India and China where parents really want to have a son, due to decreases in fertility and access to ultrasound technology, people now can detect whether they are pregnant with a boy or a girl and then basically choose to have an abortion if it's a girl. I have done a lot of research on trying to understand what the causes are of this behavior and how policymakers can correct it through various programs.

A surprising finding was on this paper which evaluates a government program that tries to financially incentivize people in Haryana to have more girls. For instance, if you have one girl, you get a lot of money. If you have only a boy, you get less. If you have two girls, you get the same amount as for one boy.

I found that most people choose the one boy option and give up the money because a boy is so much more valuable to them. Even though I knew that son preference was really strong and entrenched, it was still surprising how these policies can have an unintended effect because people just don't respond the way you think they will respond to incentives. 

Another result that seems surprising at first, but makes sense, is from this paper where we find that although having access to ultrasound technology leads to selective abortion of girls, it also means that the girls who are born are more desirable, and they are treated better, and this narrows gender gaps after birth.

Another surprising finding is in my work on social networks. Women are very socially isolated in certain regions in India and have few connections outside the household they live in. When we started data collection in Uttar Pradesh, I knew that women faced a lot of restrictions on when they can go out of the house, who they can interact with, and whether they can do this alone or not. 

Still, I was so surprised to see the extent of their isolation. These are married women between 18 to 30, who mostly live with their husbands and parents-in-law. We found that an average woman interacts with less than one person - other than her husband and mother-in-law - about things that are very important to her, like reproductive health and family planning. 

Why did you join the Bank?

I joined the Bank in July 2020, right at the start of the pandemic! 

Through operational colleagues, researchers at the Bank have a huge asset that directly connects them with the policymakers. You're that much closer to policymaking, to making the real-world impact. This policy connection was one of the main reasons for me to leave an academic position and come to the Bank. 

I'm still learning how the Bank operations work through my cross-support work. One of my projects is an impact evaluation on how to improve the labor market outcomes of young female graduates from vocational training institutes in India. I'm the Principal Investigator, but this evaluation is funded by the Gender Innovation Lab and the Knowledge for Change Program, and it's housed in an ongoing operation. So that’s the perfect alignment between research and operations that is hard to get outside the Bank.  

I'm also working with the Bank’s Mashreq Gender Facility (MGF) on gender-related issues in Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan. We conducted a survey in these countries and are now analyzing that data to see whether caregiving burden is a primary reason for women not to work and if formal childcare were available whether that would improve women's work participation.

What are you reading?

A lot of my reading these days is work related – on gender, social networks, and family planning.  My colleagues Berk Özler and Katy Ann Bergstrom recently came out with a working paper that reviews the literature on what interventions have worked to improve adolescent girls’ wellbeing.

I just finished reading a book titled A Border Passage: From Cairo to America—A Woman's Journey, by Leila Ahmed, a professor at Harvard Divinity School. She writes about the transformation that has taken place in Egypt throughout the period when she was growing up there and over time. I am very interested in learning about MENA, since I'm now conducting research in this region through operational cross-support. 

I’m also reading a book by Annie Dillard, called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek


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