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FEATURE STORYMarch 6, 2024

#ClearHerPath: Meet women who are blazing a trail in South Asia’s workforce


In South Asia, only 1 in 4 women are in the workforce. This means that many millions of women aren’t getting the chance to realize their potential and pursue a career or job outside the home, earn an income for themselves and their families and contribute to their communities and economies.

South Asian women face many obstacles to entering the workforce, including discriminatory laws and policies, a lack of access to education and training, and the time-consuming burden of unpaid work and care responsibilities. But there are actions governments, educational institutions, workplaces, communities and families can take to break down some of those barriers and clear the path for women who want to work.

On International Women’s Day 2024, meet some of the inspiring women entrepreneurs, media executives, CSO leaders, health practitioners and tech visionaries from across South Asia who are blazing a trail in the workforce. Learn about what helped clear their path, and what can be done to clear the path for other South Asian women and girls.

Kanneganti Rama Devi, Founder, Association of Lady Entrepreneurs of India (ALEAP), India


I’m the founder of ALEAP, a non-profit organization that provides women entrepreneurs with training and skills development, mentorship, networking opportunities and incubation for startups. My husband, Sri Muralidhar Rao Kanneganti, an electrical engineer, played a pivotal role in enabling my career. His mentorship helped lay the groundwork for my non-profit. Additionally, my parents’ legacy of social work and education inspired my mission to empower underprivileged woman.

Comprehensive initiatives that provide holistic support, including training, mentorship and networking opportunities can make the biggest difference in clearing the path for young women to achieve their dreams. Such programs not only equip women with skills and resources to succeed, but also foster an ecosystem that supports their growth and development.  Additionally, policies that promote gender equality and provide equal opportunities in education, employment and entrepreneurship are crucial in breaking down systemic barriers and creating a level playing field for women to thrive.

Minha Faiz, Chairperson, One Media Group, Maldives


I run my own media company, which started with just two staff members and later expanded to become One Media Group.

My mother has been my greatest inspiration, a strong and independent woman whose courage I have admired since childhood. Witnessing her struggles while she pursued her dreams has always motivated me. My family, particularly my three brothers, have been incredibly supportive, never making me feel inferior or different. Our parents treated us equally, granting us the same opportunities which helped me develop independence. My former boss also paved the way for my success. He provided me with numerous opportunities to explore and grow, instilling trust in my abilities. Today, my former boss is my business partner.

Mentorship can make the biggest difference in clearing the path for young women. A mentor that provides guidance, support, and opportunities can empower young women to navigate the challenges they face in the workplace, develop their skills, and progress in their careers. Mentorship programs that connect young women with experienced professionals can offer valuable insights, networking opportunities, and career advice. A culture of mentorship and support can help create a more inclusive and empowering environment for young women to thrive.

Programs and policies can also pave the way for young women in the workforce. Initiatives that promote gender equality and diversity in the workplace can create a more inclusive and welcoming environment for women. This can include policies that address pay equity, parental leave, and workplace harassment.

Sumita Ghose, Founder, rangSutra, India


I’m the founder of rangSutra, a social enterprise that provides regular work and income to 2000 rural women artisans, who are also shareholders in our company. Our work over the past 18 years has allowed rural artisans to leave their mark on the global textile market, which is otherwise totally dominated by mills and machine embroidery.  It is with pride that rangSutra is able to say ‘Hand-made in India for the world, by the women of India.”

Working in social development and being exposed to non-profits and women’s organizations helped me create an organization where women are owners, and have a say in their lives, families and communities. My family also played a big role in my career. I developed an interest in sewing from my mother, who made my clothes for me as a child. My family and friends were my biggest supporters when I started rangSutra.

A well-rounded education is one of the best ways to clear the path for women. Higher-education should allow women to learn about different fields of work, so that they can ultimately discover and follow their calling. Apprenticeship and internship opportunities are also important in giving young women better work exposure. Transportation to workplaces should also be provided, especially for women living outside the main towns, where public transport systems may not always be good or accessible.

Sanchita Lama, Animation Supervisor, Incessant Rain Studios, Nepal


I'm Sanchita Lama, an Animation Supervisor at Incessant Rain Studios in Nepal. I oversee animation production, guide my team, and foster innovative creation. My job allows me to pursue my passion and make a positive difference in my family because I am financially independent.

I’m in a position to inspire aspiring animators, especially women, in a male-dominated industry. Despite societal expectations and biases, I have the support of mentors, colleagues, and family. I also have the support of our company’s female leadership, who promoted me a year and a half ago. It was scary but I found myself enjoying, learning, and growing. I learned that my brain was wired to feel not quite ready for leadership. My female bosses’ guidance and encouragement and a corporate focus on gender rewired my mindset so I could believe in myself.

What can clear the path for young women in the field of animation? Critical factors such as education, mentorship, equal access to opportunities, flexible work arrangements, and a supportive workplace culture that empowers women. Provisions such as childcare facilities and innovative maternity leave programs are essential. These support systems enable women to work and manage family obligations.

Neha Mankani, midwife and founder, Mama Baby Fund, Pakistan


I’m Neha Mankani, a midwife and public health specialist. I founded Mama Baby Fund, a non-profit that increases access to maternal and neonatal care in Pakistan. It has brought safe birth to the coastal islands of Karachi, where 40,000 people live.  I’ve also helped set up midwife-led models of care around Pakistan.

Throughout my career, I’ve run up against societal expectations and gender biases, such as the belief that leadership positions are better suited for men, or for women with more seniority. I had to prove my skills and demonstrate that women are just as capable as men when it comes to leadership.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a family that has encouraged me to pursue my goals. Access to quality education was the game-changer in my journey. My family invested heavily in my education, which was a privilege not afforded to many girls in Pakistan.

For women to be part of the workforce, there needs to be an enabling environment for them to work. For the female healthcare workers I work with, clearing the path includes a fair wage, career structure that enables them to progress in their careers, safety and protection at work, resources to work with—such as medicines and equipment, safe transport and a supportive family. For women to get to the point where they can advocate for themselves also requires technical skills that they feel confident in, communication and negotiation skills, and confidence to be able to ask for what they need. Many women are raised in environments where they haven’t been able to ever advocate for themselves.

Sabira Mehrin, Founder and CEO, Wander Woman, Bangladesh


I am the Founder and CEO of Wander Woman, a Dhaka-based travel platform that helps Bangladeshi women travel by providing vetted information, facilitating connections with like-minded travelers and hosting guided tours.  In Bangladesh, safety is a major concern for women and often, families do not allow women to travel. In fact, when I was chosen to represent Bangladesh in the US for a social entrepreneurship competition in 2014, I wasn’t allowed to go. I launched Wander Woman to enable Bangladeshi women to fly to any part of the world without fear.

My mother and father helped clear the path to my success, by focusing on my strengths as an individual, instead of just my gender. My relatives who supported and celebrated my early childhood successes in school and college boosted my confidence. Later on, I was blessed to have mentors -all men- when I started my professional career in startups. They recognized my potential and pushed me to perform. In the workplace, I shattered the glass ceiling by being one of the youngest Country Managers from Bangladesh working as an expat at a B2B company in the energy sector in Malaysia. The strong support system around me supported my ambitions and achievements.

To succeed, it’s critical for women to have support at home and from their families. It also helps to find a solid mentor for guidance.

Maithreyi Rajasingam, Executive Director, Viluthu, Sri Lanka

SAR FLFP MRajasingam

I lead Viluthu, a civil society organization that strengthens the capacity of women for civic engagement, and provides a platform for governments, media and academia to meaningfully engage with women. One of our most significant contributions in Sri Lanka was to mobilize women to form Amara Forum, a collective where they are able to make policy recommendations.

When I first became Executive Director, it wasn’t common in Sri Lanka for CSOs to be led by young women. I was an anomaly.

Many significant moments made this possible. My parents inspired my respect for human rights and participatory democracy from a young age. I was also able to pursue an education that supported my career path. This didn’t come easy. Thanks to a scholarship from the Government of India, I completed my undergraduate degree at Jyoti Nivas College. I also studied at the University of Law, London to become a Barrister-at-Law. The costs were enormous but it was a full family affair, with one aunt and then uncle providing me accommodation, another cousin giving me a loan, my mother giving me resources for admission and visa, and my now-husband, Pranavan, convincing me that an education was something I really had to do for myself. Women and feminists like my mother, Shanthi Sachithanandam who founded Viluthu 20 years ago, also helped clear the path for me. We benefit so much from the women leaders who came before us. It is also important to have learning and cross-sharing, for women by women. Viluthu has learned so much about entrepreneurship from the BEES network, a network of 23 million women across South Asia. Our learnings have informed our support to micro, small and medium enterprises in Sri Lanka.

Parul Sharma, Urban Designer and Founder, City Scanner, India


I’m an urban designer, planner, lecturer and founder of an urban tech startup called City Scanner. I work on sustainable transport, urban development, and climate resiliency.  After graduating as an architect, I worked on a project to pedestrianize a locality in Delhi and realized that urban planning could transform the world around me. I studied urban design at Columbia University and have worked in this space ever since.  I have worked to make Indian roads safer for all road users, planned climate resilient urban development for cities in India, created socially supportive affordable housing campuses, designed inclusive public spaces for women, persons with disabilities and others, and am developing AI driven smarter navigation experiences for non-motorized transport users.

Being a woman in a male dominated field has come with challenges. Some people haven’t taken me seriously. My authority has been questioned by team members, vendors or even construction workers.

The incredibly strong, trailblazing women in my life, like my sister, mother and grandmother, my friends, my alma mater, and my mentors are part of my supportive ecosystem. They have shown me how important it is to stand up for yourself and others, be it other women, junior team members or the voiceless. I have also worked on my self-belief, learning to speak up, while also maintaining compassion.

We need to support other women in the workplace, in classrooms, in meetings, in public spaces. Share your experiences – the good, the bad and the ugly. You never know who could benefit from your experience. Career advice, mentorship at various professional stages, and sharing job opportunities are also some ways to clear the path for women. We need to build women’s confidence and courage to be bold, fearless and compassionate, in order to create an environment conducive to pioneering leaders and changemakers.

Kasturi Wilson, CEO of Hemas Holdings PLC, Sri Lanka


I currently serve as the Group CEO of Hemas Holdings. I worked for over 15 years in finance and embraced diverse challenges, working in IT and eventually taking on leadership roles overseeing various business sectors at Hemas. I firmly believe that your start should not define your end.

My mother, a working mom, played a key role. She influenced my mindset, highlighting the importance of education and financial independence for women, rather than chasing a title or a particular career. She encouraged me to pursue my passions-- which for me was sports. Being involved in sports gave me a fearless mindset, and the belief that anything is possible.  I was not scared to take on more and was not afraid to fail. I also had very supportive bosses and they recognized my capabilities and provided opportunities beyond gender stereotypes. Some of my bosses like Mr. Jayawickrama and Mr. Husein Esufally acknowledged my role as a woman, a single mother and a caregiver and offered me flexibility. They valued my contribution to the organization, trusted my capabilities and offered me diverse responsibilities.

It’s important that we reshape the cultural perceptions and roles within the family unit. Spouses, parents, brothers, and other family members need to proactively support women in pursuing their careers, challenging traditional norms. We need to break down the stereotype that women are the sole caregivers of a family and redistribute responsibilities within households where we create an environment in which women can thrive professionally.

Roshaneh Zafar, Founder, Kashf Foundation, Pakistan


I founded the Kashf Foundation, a pioneering microfinance institution that has transformed the lives of low-income women in Pakistan. We have more than 750,000 active female clients, have disbursed more than 223 billion Pakistani Rupees in loans, and operate 380 branches across Pakistan.

My mission to empower women started when I worked at the World Bank, where I met women who yearned for a brighter future but were hindered by their limited financial resources. I eventually met Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank, who inspired me to bring microfinance to Pakistan. I studied microfinance models across South Asia and founded Kashf.

I ran into several challenges while setting up Kashf. Due to restrictive social norms, the lack of women in the workforce, and the fact that most women don’t own any assets, people were skeptical about the feasibility of microfinance for women in Pakistan. Women themselves were reluctant to engage with me and often stayed in the shadows of their male relatives.

I began to understand that in order to clear the path for women to succeed, it was important to promote their independence at every stage. Providing capital and training equips women to make informed decisions, manage businesses and take control of their economic futures. Its impact goes beyond finance. Women are gaining confidence to make all kinds of decisions. For instance, they are investing in their daughter’s education and even delaying their marriages.

Nyema Zam, CEO and Founder, Samuh, Bhutan


I’m Nyema Zam, CEO and Founder of Samuh, Bhutan’s first content streaming platform. Our platform produces original content including films, TV shows, animation and songs. By commissioning projects from Bhutan’s creative industry, we support the growth of Bhutan’s creative industry, nurture emerging talent including female directors, and offer filmmakers additional revenue post the theatrical release. We also engage young and global audiences in Bhutanese language and culture.

Being a woman was an advantage for me in terms of getting support—from fellow women in the Bhutanese film industry, and young talents who viewed me as a mentor and sister they could trust and share challenges and aspirations with. Since I was leading a new initiative, I received support from people committed to empowering female entrepreneurs.  I am grateful for the support of mentors like Panchaman Rai, Kadambi Seshasayee, and the late Ashish Mukherjee of Benchmark Broadcast Systems, as well as our technical partners at Benchmark and Mangmolo who took great pride in my work and supported me as a female founder.

Family support is very important for women pursuing their ambitions. My journey with Samuh would not have been possible without the unwavering support of my family and friends. Having people who love you, who believe in you and support you through the highs and lows of a startup journey is critical for women. Moreover, global scholarships like the Australia Awards, which I was fortunate to receive, offer invaluable leadership development opportunities, equipping women with the skills and networks to thrive in their careers.

The World Bank is calling on stakeholders to clear the path for more women to thrive in the workforce. Policy actions that support the hiring and retention of women, support services that free up women's time from unpaid work and reforms of discriminatory laws can help break barriers for women workers. Learn more about what can be done to #ClearHerPath.



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