Towards Gender Parity
The women of South Asia marked the International Women’s Day on March 8 with mixed sentiments in face of a whole spectrum of realities. There is on the one end, Sharmeen ObaidChinoy who has become the first Pakistani and South Asian woman to win the coveted Oscar Award. On the other, there are millions of oppressed women across the region in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan and Afghanistan who suffer from domestic violence, lack of education, inaccessibility to health facilities and much more on a daily basis.
Gender gaps are among the widest in South Asia and the size of these gaps needs to be measured in four critical areas revolving around economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political and social empowerment and health. The status of women in South Asia varies considerably across different classes, regions and the rural-urban divide due to uneven socioeconomic development and the impact of tribal, feudal and urban social customs on women’s lives. These issues represent a complex challenge. While some women are soaring to the skies flying passenger planes and supersonic fighter jets, other women are being buried alive or traumatized in full public view. In recent years, there has certainly been a greater recognition of the problem across the region and in many countries women have experienced improved access to services but despite the economic growth and changing social norms, serious gender inequities persist.
Addressing these inequities requires greater participation of women in the political decisionmaking of communities and states. At the same time, these efforts require complementary government actions, such as creating appropriate institutional frameworks to ensure women’s rights; supporting their training as well as market linkages, access to credit, child care facilities and schooling infrastructure. Ultimately, sustainable improvement of women’s welfare requires strengthening their ability to influence decision-making both within and outside the household. Until women are not integrated into the political mainstream as critical actors, their progress will remain slow. This integration can be brought about by facilitating empowerment programs that seek to build women’s networks and solidarity around issues such as integrating their voices in local governance.
It is a fact that Asia is home to two-thirds of the world’s poor, more than half of them women, and their deprivation and vulnerability continues to be a reality. This calls for an even greater endeavor to improve the system of governance by enforcing democratic values and changing bureaucratic culture. Gender parity needs to be established in education, health, employment, business, government and civil society. Governments need to pay more attention to women’s exploitation, which is seriously undermining their dignity and survival, such as trafficking of women and children, dowry killings in India and honor killings in Pakistan. What is required to address issues of gender disparity in the region is the launch of a Strategic Action Plan, perhaps from the SAARC platform, with concrete commitments and measures concerning governance and institutional mechanisms to mainstream a gender perspective. South Asia certainly has a long way to go toward achieving any semblance of gender parity.
Syed Jawaid Iqbal