South Asia remains as one of the fastest growing economic zones of the world, with traditional and modern alternating economic and its countervailing social and cultural political economy impacting on its gender divide. The hybrid nature of its developing economy corroborates unique lifestyles and practices in the big urban centres like Mumbai, Karachi, Lahore, Delhi and Dhaka, Colombo and Kathmandu, where the combined workforce in the urban areas consists of both females and males.
Paradoxically, South Asia constitutes as one of the world’s poorest, most gender insensitive and economically deprived area of the globe, where one quarter of the population almost live below the poverty line. It is composed of post-colonial nation states which earned their independence by the end of the Second World War. The history and politics of the region is enmeshed with the socio-cultural, religious and ethno-religious dynamics comprising of a pre-dominant agrarian and feudalistic, tribal combined with urban, semi-urban, post-urban lifestyles, trends and customs. Gender issues have occupied a central stage with almost usual and daily instances of discrimination in wage labour, opportunities of equal employment, as well as a hierarchical patriarchal structure rampant in almost all aspects of life and in all sectors concerned.
Yet, in majority of the cases, the issue of gender parity in terms of access to education, job opportunities, health, and sanitation, freedom of speech, movement, and overall opportunities to derive the maximum possible benefits from the given social and economic resources remain marginal. What are the factors responsible and what issues lie at the heart of the problem? This article will shed a light on understanding the impediments to a rights based approach for fair opportunities for women in South Asia.
To begin with many countries in the arena of South Asia have had more or less similar problems, which remain partly as a justification based on religion, class, and social mobility. Apart from the rural-urban divide, lack of horizontal development, haphazard development in rural and urban areas, corruption, and lack of transparency in the distribution of resources, and in some instances particularly in cases of Afghanistan and Pakistan, terrorism related to women empowerment, education as well as the forces of tribal Islam and the role of religious orthodoxy practiced in the tribal areas becomes a cause of great concern.
In addition, among some of the common problems faced by women in South Asia forced abortion and female infanticide, dowry and bride burning, domestic violence, disparity in education, child marriages, in adequate nutrition, sexual harassment and domestic violence are to name a few issues if not many as common denominators. The gap between the genders is recorded to be the largest globally and almost double on a worldwide average. Urban women in South Asia earned 42 per cent less than men, compared to 28 per cent less than men in rural areas.
Across South Asia, women report doing more unpaid care and domestic work than men: 10 times as much in Pakistan; almost 7 times more in India; and nearly 3 times more in Bangladesh. The challenges to gender parity in South Asia demand an urgent and immediate redressal. The psychosis that define “women as inferior to men,” needs an urgent redressal. Unless and until there is no disposing off of this narrative, nothing substantial in terms of change in social attitudes towards women can materialize.
Another very crucial point that reflects as to why most of the South Asian societies remain under the grip of gender in sensitization is the role of patriarchy. As a direct result of colonialism, patriarchy remains as the most established system of male domination, where a man has an absolute control over the life and property of a woman. Such control is magnified not only by the agrarian nature of the society but also by the distorted version of traditions. A complex combination of the effects of colonial policies, pre-existing norms of gender biases and their cumulative effects on gender identity have a deep impact on the existing norms in gender equality.
Actually, this very nexus of race and gender was an idea based on the colonizer’s differentiation of male and female bodies. Furthermore, often, primitive customs and practices are justified on the basis of religion in order to perpetuate the strict feudal control over the land. The concepts of women as property and honour are so deeply entrenched in the social, political and economic fabric that women murdered in “honour” killings are recorded as having committed suicide or died in accidents.
Consequentially, a myriad amount of socio-religious and class based discrimination is bolstered with age old primitive practices prevail in India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Afghanistan. Women in India are compelled to remain single after being widowed, customs like Swara, Pashtunwali, including girl child marriages and incidences of being declared Kari (culpable in crime) are rampant in many tribal areas and zones in Pakistan.
According to UNESCO, more than 4.5 million girls are out of school in Pakistan. UNESCO also says that for every 10 boys there are only 8 girls in class and that the poorest girls are the most disadvantaged. One of the most deplorable aspects is that in some zones of Pakistan, particularly northern tribal areas, the education of girls is strictly prohibited on religious grounds.
Girls still make up a disproportionate share of those missing out on education in many developing regions. Similarly, deeply compromised by wars and conflict that have lasted for more than thirty years, Afghanistan’s education system remains fragile and the chances for women in acquiring education has been a grim reminder of the overall gender imbalance in the country.
According to the government figures, only 26 per cent of Afghanistan’s population is literate, and among women the rate is only 12 per cent. Among school age children, 38 per cent (4.2 million in real numbers) do not have access to schools, most of which are girls. In Nepal, child marriage is not the only problem. According to UNICEF, only around a third of schools have separate toilets for girls. Poor, marginalised, illiterate girls and women have little access to resources and opportunities.
In South Asia, therefore, problems pertain to areas in which women suffering is aggravated to dangerous proportions and as discussed earlier, cases of forced abortion, female infanticide, genital mutilation, dowry and bride burning, domestic violence, disparity in education, child marriages and honour killings are common and rampant.
The level of education in women is a great determinant of development and progress of human societies. Women constitute the backbone of any given social and cultural structure and play an effective role in building role models for generations. Any infringement on basic rights of women including funda30mental rights of education, freedom of choice, decisions making, electoral rights, freedom of speech and social and political participation raise tremendous stakes for establishing a just social order.