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Gender in South Asia

By Aisha Khan

WE are living in a divided and unequal world that is socially fractured and economically uneven. Hatred, hypocrisy, prejudice, conflict and war are creating uncertainties and destabilising societies. Some regions are enjoying peace, security and prosperity, while others are struggling to break a chronic cycle of conflict and violence.

In South Asia, the causes for divisions within and between countries are many — creating fissures and fault lines that fuel tensions, and making the region volatile and societies vulnerable. Add to this the plight of women within society, and these issues become even more complex.

Gender inequality is a deep-rooted issue that is interpreted in a number of ways by different people. However, given the patriarchal nature of society, shifting from entrenched values will not be easy.


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Discrimination, harassment and violence occur at home and in the workplace, albeit in different ways; either overt brutality or covert threats, usually based on the anticipated reaction from society or the victim’s capacity to respond. In the workplace, human resource policies provide legal cover against harassment but remain largely silent on issues of salary, promotion and portfolio.

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In order to develop an integrated understanding of gender issues in South Asia, it is important to contextualise it in the prevailing socioeconomic, religious and geopolitical conditions; account for the fact that constitutional guarantees and legal provisions do not automatically lead to implementation; and acknowledge that discrimination persists within the family and societal institutions. The gap between legislation, policy and practice remains an impediment

At first glance, South Asia appears rich in cultural constructs such as family ties, social networks and economic relations, as well as assumptions of social harmony and pursuit of spiritual over material values. However, underlying this idealistic conceptualisation is the harsh reality of divisions and discriminations based on gender, caste, creed and socioeconomic disparities.

While the universality of gender inequality in the labour force affects growth, other insidious factors — especially those that treat women as if they were children of a lesser god — are even more alarming. Without a fundamental shift, opportunities for women will remain few, growth will be stunted, inequalities will prevail and biases will continue to shape social values, thus slowing down the process of empowerment.

This has major human rights implications. We tend to equate worth with economic strength, social standing and occupation in positions of authority. Acknowledging that productive outputs are indeed core drivers of sustainable economic growth, this cannot be used as the sole criterion for granting or withholding fundamental human rights, which intrinsically guarantee equality for all irrespective of station in life. Human rights are not based on who is rich or poor, employed or unemployed, young or old, etc. They are about equality, freedom, dignity and respect for all.

This is why it is important to shift our focus away from framing women’s empowerment in purely economic terms, and instead create the space to foreground the human rights of women and link it directly with equal opportunity, access to resources and freedom of choice.

Women are a heterogeneous group and a product of their society. A vast majority fall prey to the brainwashing that begins at birth and continues throughout their lives, making most women feel that striving for equality is either immoral or a sin. This restricted intellectual conceptualisation of womanhood prevents them from striving harder and demanding their rightful place and share in society. This web of cultural constraints, reinforced by a regressive and coercive interpretation of religion, acts as a mental barrier and effectively handicaps women psychologically who are then unable to demand full emancipation. The majority of South Asian women are not free agents who are empowered to make their own life choices, ranging from education, marriage, employment, family planning and financial investments.

There is also a disconnect between the Western and Eastern notion of gender, largely due to a perceived dissimilarity in culture. In the eyes of many in South Asia, the concept of equality is seen as an alien construct that goes against the stereotypical imaging of women that projects her subservience as a virtue and eulogises her sacrifices as an act of nobility. In the past, these stereotypes were reinforced by the entertainment industry, which played a major role in enhancing and glorifying this self-abnegating image of womanhood. But, since the 1990s, there has been a shift in the way that the industry frames the role of women. Today, women are often portrayed as independent entities making free choices, breaking barriers and asserting their identity as equal partners — not just in the economic domain but, more importantly, in the social domain.

Moreover, given the existing gender imbalance in wage, income, wealth and participation in the labour market, the impacts of climate change will act as a threat multiplier for women. There is, therefore, an urgent need to separate economics from gender empowerment and peg it on human rights. In this emerging scenario, if freedom and empowerment are framed only in economic terms, then the rights of many — especially women — will increasingly be usurped and violated, reducing them to lives of subservience, destitution, oppression and exploitation.

As countries in South Asia plot their ambitious trajectories for growth and pathways to leadership, we need to be mindful that progress should not be at the expense of any group, or at the risk of undermining long-term competitiveness, or losing the uniqueness of our culture.

The future offers South Asia a unique opportunity of blending the old with the new to create a society that is progressive, socially equitable, gender balanced and sensitive to its culture and traditions. Much will depend on how policies are implemented and perceptions are shaped to accommodate gender harmonisation, paving the way for a new, more emancipated and empowered generation of South Asian women.

The writer is chief executive of the Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change

February 10, 2020

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