Poverty, low female literacy and deeply rooted gender biases are major constrains to equality
South Asia comprises eight countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, The Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Most of these countries are enmeshed in various social problems including high prevalence of poverty, political instability, slow economic growth, low literacy, and widespread malnutrition. More importantly, women, who make up 50 percent of the total population, are suffering severely from gender-based violence and discrimination in education, nutrition, health, and employment, thwarting their human rights and disrupting gender equality.
According to International Labor Organization, gender equality means women and men have equal opportunities to realize their full human rights and for contributing to and benefiting from economic, social, cultural and political development. Every country has set a target to attain the Millennium Development Goals and followed the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) for promoting women’s empowerment and formal and informal equality in economic, social, and political sectors. Most of the South Asian countries (Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and The Maldives) are signatories to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). However, the quest for gender equality is still far from fulfilled.
If we observe the trend of gender inequality index (GII) in these countries, we can see that though it is gradually decreasing, gender disparity still exists in reproductive health, empowerment, and labor market participation. Recent data show the GII of South Asian countries (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan) to be higher than 0.5 (the more the GII, the greater the gender inequalities), which is very high (say, as compared to Sweden that has a GII of 0.075). In the same way, reproductive health indicators like maternal mortality ratio (MMR) and adolescent fertility rate are still below expectations, signifying poor delivery of family planning, antenatal, obstetric and postnatal care services; higher prevalence of sexually transmitted infections and nutritional deficiency among pregnant women, and inadequate attention to adolescent reproductive health issues.
Similarly, gender status in education shows that girls and women do not have an equal access to education. The number of girls attaining secondary education in Nepal is just half that of the boys. The condition of other South Asian countries is similar, with the exception of Sri Lanka where the health and education conditions have significantly improved. Gender disparity in education is considered to be the biggest hindrance to the empowerment of women.
Likewise, when it comes to economics, South Asian women have limited access to resources. Most of them are dependent on males for all financial decisions, which has reduced women’s income-generating activities outside their homes. Only 32.8 percent of Indian women are economically active. But in case of Nepal, even though women face disparity in pay levels, their proportion in labor force is the highest in South Asia.The inequality surfaces when we systematically create differences between men and women, empowering one group to the detriment of the other, which ends up creating discrimination in policies, administration, health services, employment, education, and resource distribution. Moreover, gender-related social stigma, cultural taboos, customs, beliefs, and values help to perpetuate the condition. Family planning, for instance, is still considered the responsibility of the female, but ironically, they are not allowed to choose a family planning method without their male partner’s consent, undermining their sexual and reproductive health rights. Similarly, boys get better opportunities for enrollment in schools, and more nutritious diet. To achieve economic growth, poverty reduction and social harmony, gender inequality must be eradicated.
Gender equality cannot be achieved with a single elixir. It is a continuous process that can be started with poverty reduction, policy reaffirmation, institutional strengthening, and gender sensitization. To start with, simply increasing the literacy of girls and women, promoting woman’s labor participation and economic independency, and expanding female reproductive health rights can significantly reduce long persisting inequality.
In the end, gender inequality is unsurprisingly abundant in South Asian countries. The nexus of high poverty, low literacy rate among females, deeply rooted gender biases, beliefs and practices, and patriarchal social system remain the major constrains to equality. Nevertheless, equal access to education, health and employment, and gender mainstreaming can ensure women empowerment and gender equality in the long run.
The author is studying MPhil Public Health at Dhaka University under NOMA Scholarship