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New research looks at how to improve family-friendly policies in South Asia

In response to the unique context of COVID-19 and the characteristics of the region, UNICEF research informs recommendations for a family-friendly future in South Asia
ROSA web article

7 September 2020 – New research out today addresses what family-friendly policies look like in the South Asian context, where female labor force participation is very low and more than 90 per cent of workers are in the informal sector or under informal employment.  Done in support and collaboration with UNICEF’s regional office in South Asia, UNICEF Innocenti’s new working paper considers how family-friendly policies can be responsive to the particular characteristics and circumstances of countries in the region – including multi-generation families, family units built around adolescent mothers (and sometimes fathers), and migration for work both within and outside countries. The research also tackles the question of how family-friendly policies might need to evolve in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. The associated advocacy brief: Reaching more families, benefiting more children and package of country reports identifies gaps and opportunities for family friendly policies in Afghanistan*, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The pandemic has highlighted the lack of resources and services parents are entitled to, especially in South Asia, and the challenge of balancing work and family will most likely increase in the upcoming months and years. The research report suggests a holistic approach to tackling these issues when designing family-friendly policies: considering all parents, including those who do not do paid work, considering all types of work, and considering institutions and stakeholders at different levels and with various responsibilities, including governments and employers, but also international companies as well as civil society.

The research found that across the eight countries of South Asia – Afghanistan*, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – there is already a wide range of family-friendly policies, supporting legislation and other initiatives. But while this indicates a positive intent, the research demonstrates that policies are not making enough impact. Coverage is often poor, and many approaches do not reflect the reality of family structures and the labour market in South Asia.

How can family-friendly policies and workplace practices be strengthened in South Asia?

Beginning with a review of previous work on family-friendly policies, the report provides a discussion of the specific features of the demographic, economic and social context in South Asia, and a clarification of concepts and definitions. It then examines three dimensions of family-friendly policies in the region – the workplace, non-contributory social protection, and childcare. The research report then makes recommendations on how to reach families in different situations and facing different degrees of vulnerabilities, including those not working or working under very difficult circumstances for the development of family-friendly policies within South Asia.


A comprehensive set of family-friendly policies needs to go beyond specific rights for workers in the formal sector to also tackle the structural and social barriers to parents entering or returning to paid employment, while acknowledging that a large majority of informal workers will not transition into formal employment in the near future. Family-friendly policies need to pay careful attention to gender norms and inequalities in order to maximize their impact. The broad approach this research has taken, by looking at workplace benefits, access to childcare, and social protection policies reaching both formal and informal workers, as well as non-working parents, provides a framework to set a number of recommendations on how governments, employers and businesses could improve the well-being of families facing different degrees of vulnerabilities. This framework could also inform future research on family-friendly policies and be adapted to other contexts.


The recommendations are structured around five questions that inform a coherent and balanced approach to the issues in the South Asia context:

1. What should be available to all parents and households?

  • Ensure that all parents and other caregivers in all households receive support, irrespective of their work status. This should include improved coverage and access to social protection for pregnant and lactating women and families with young children.
  • Gradually expand non-contributory child and maternity benefits.

2. What should be available to help people move into employment?

  • Provide training/education opportunities to gain skills relevant to the job market and to secure decent employment. Data suggest a need for greater emphasis on providing ongoing, good quality, and relevant opportunities for women in particular to enable them to enter, re-skill and/or re-enter the workforce.
  • Tackle other barriers to engaging in employment, including poor and unsafe transportation alongside cultural norms, which negatively impact the possibilities for women to work outside the home.

    3. What should be available to all working parents (irrespective of formality)?

    • Provide some form of maternity benefit or financial support immediately before and after the birth of a child, so that women should not have to continue in paid work during this period.
    • Provide some form of paternity leave for all fathers as well as ongoing flexibility for parents to choose not to have to work when their children have specific needs, such as during illness, should also be available.
    • All workers should be aware of their rights (to a minimum wage, to be part of a trade union, and to claim family-friendly benefits where applicable),and they should also be informed on how to access benefits and of future advantages of paying contributions.

    4. What should be available to promote a transition from informal to formal employment?

    • Ensure that barriers to gaining formal employment are removed so that each person can make a choice.
    • Avoid creating disincentives for formal employment and gender discrimination.
    • Transition out of employer liability systems, which puts all the burden on employers and reduces the incentives to hire women of reproductive age.

    5. What should be available to formal employees?

    • Aim to go beyond these standards, including provision of paternity leave and parental leave to care for sick children.
    • Reach at least minimum international standards for workplace policies such as maternity protection and breastfeeding support.

    *Information and data from July 2021.

    READ the advocacy brief from UNICEF ROSA: Reaching More Families, Benefiting More Children

    DOWNLOAD our working paper: Family-friendly policies in South Asia