South Asia offers a poignant case study on gender-related issues. The region ranks among the least developed on human development index and hence a number of challenges are posed to its people, particularly women.
Every society regards women in its own way, yet the status of women across the globe has long been a matter of discussion in every section and at varied levels. While a majority of women across the globe faces social limitations and inequality in one way or the other, women in the developed world enjoy relatively better living standards and social privileges than their counterparts in developing or underdeveloped countries.
South Asia offers a poignant case study on gender-related issues. The region ranks among the least developed on human development index and hence a number of challenges are posed to its people, particularly women. Patriarchy forms the basis of social setup in South Asia. Although there are variations in customs and value system with certain exceptions in a few countries in the region, gender discrimination remains common in South Asian societies.
It is no secret that traditionally women are considered subordinated and subservient to men and, therefore, are treated as unequal and this attitude and mindset leaves an indelible mark on the life of both rural and urban women. On the other hand, women’s role in politics and other sectors has been remarkable. Since the independence movement in which women were instrumental in carrying forward the movement and formed an indispensible part of political awakening in the region, South Asian women have been taking the lead in a number of fields including sports, literature, aeronautics, academia, filmmaking, human rights activism etc. Except for a few countries, women reached the highest political positions in many countries in South Asia. Regrettably, a greater section of the female population is still underprivileged and faces sharp inequalities.
Another important dimension of women’s participation in their respective societies is their role as combatants. In Nepal, Sri Lanka and India, in particular, women played an instrumental role in insurgencies and civil wars. There were a number of reasons that compelled women to take up arms in violent struggles against their governments. In some cases women were assaulted, in others they lost their families. Yet in other cases they were ideologically inclined towards the agenda of the armed struggle(s).
Rural women are subjected to male chauvinism; feudal mindset, unlawful customs and socio-cultural segregation are deemed a symbol of pride.
The most important dimension of this issue is the status of rural women. Rural women are subjected to male chauvinism; feudal mindset, unlawful customs and socio-cultural segregation are deemed a symbol of pride. Central to this issue is the fact that several basic rights are considered taboos for women. Precisely, there are two extremes that women in South Asia experience, particularly in Pakistan and India. In urban areas, women have access to quality education and they enjoy socio-economic empowerment in relative terms, whereas in rural areas with a few exceptions, women are faced with subjugation and socio-economic suppression. Even though they, along with men, constitute a major part of the workforce in the field and other household industries in rural areas, they are not given the dignity and true respect they deserve as equal human beings. A number of non-governmental organizations for human rights and women’s rights being run in the region seek to resolve women’s problems, especially in rural areas.
While harassment, domestic violence, women’s trafficking and crimes against women are common in many other societies, South Asia — especially Pakistan and India — present a distressing situation. Forced marriages, female infanticide, honour killings and other custom-related practices against women are common in Pakistan and India. Although the constitutions of almost all South Asian countries stipulate equal rights to citizens and reject gender-based discrimination, the societies suffer with gender discrimination to the core. The UNDP Human Development Re port 2011 ranked Pakistan 115, out of the 146 countries in Gender Inequality Index (GII), whereas India was ranked 129 and Bangladesh 112.
With regard to political empowerment of women in the region, especially Pakistan and India, the statistics are comparatively better. In India, women constitute 48.6 per cent of the rural population, whereas they constitute 48.1 per cent of the urban population. In Pakistan, women constitute 48.3 of the rural population and 47.2 of the urban population. In South Asia, women are relatively under-represented in parliaments in their respective countries. In some countries the last decade witnessed an increasing trend in the total number of seats reserved for women in parliaments. However, some countries experienced a declining trend as well.
Governments are required to promote a women-friendly mindset and lessen the influence of patriarchal setup in societies.
The Indian Constitution provides women with eight per cent participation, in Sri Lanka there is 4.4 per cent participation of women in parliament. In Bangladesh and Bhutan, the total number of seats reserved for women in parliament is just 2 per cent. In Nepal, the allocated number of seats is 5.8 per cent and in Maldives it is 6.3 per cent. Yet, like in the United States, women cannot be elected as president in Maldives. In Afghanistan, of the 249 seats in the Lower House of the National Assembly 64 are reserved for women now. In Pakistan, 17 per cent seats are reserved for women. (The National Assembly in Pakistan has 342 seats, of which 272 are directly elected and 60 seats are reserved for women, and 10 seats are reserved for religious minorities).
It should be noted that empowerment of women, as we know the phenomenon, is not a goal. In fact, it is an enduring process that paves the way for socio-economic growth and tolerant and the progressive socio-cultural environment. It may then also contribute towards greater political stability and integrity in a state. A careful analysis states the fact that economic and political empowerment of women in South Asia, particularly Pakistan and India, remains elusive due to lack of appropriate measures and policies for reducing gender inequalities. Governments are required to promote a women-friendly mindset and lessen the influence of patriarchal setup in societies. A section of independent, educated and privileged female urban population only reflects a change that the urban strata in South Asian societies is experiencing, however it does not represent the majority of women in South Asia.