Gender Disparity In South Asia

The aim of this paper is to show the linkage between gender disparity and social and economic inequalities that result because of gender disparity in the South Asian context. This is an important area of study because gender disparity is closely interlinked with and supports explanations of social and economic inequality.
This is also of particular interest in the South Asian context because compared to the rest of the world South Asia has one of the greatest degrees of gender disparity in the world. Furthermore gender equality can be used to measure the progressiveness and development of a given society as a whole by acting as an indicator to social equality. In other words the smaller the gap in gender disparity, the more developed and progressive a given country or society can be regarded.
This paper will deal with the common perception of women in the South Asian context, social exclusion and the limited legal rights of women, Their rights to land and property, access to education and healthcare, female foeticide and infanticide, the political and economic exclusion of women and the downward spiraling effect that the above factors will have particularly on the economy and South Asian society as a whole. The paper will draw from various parts of South Asia to illustrate vividly examples of gender disparity at work.

In order to really understand the existence of Gender disparity in South Asia one must look at the fiercely patriarchal nature of South Asian society. Throughout most of South Asia, men have been given the role of decision makers and heads of family because of cultural, social and religious backing that has gone on for thousands of years and thus gender bias is not just believed in by men but women also. “This has arguably resulted in female submission to male domination and the constraint of women’s choices to come to be regarded as the social norm. ”
The first significant way that gender disparity supports economic inequality is in what can be regarded as the “unseen economy”. Many South Asian women are employed in the informal sector and thus their contribution to the national economy is not recognized and accounted for in a respective country’s Gross Domestic Product or GDP. “Because their labour – in such activities as family care, household maintenance is excluded from systems of national accounts the work they do remains unappreciated and inadequately compensated. In Bangladesh, some studies estimate that women spend between 70 and 88 percent of their time in non-market work.
The vast majority of South Asian women work in the informal-sector or in unpaid family assistance, with the informal sector accounting for the employment of 96 percent of economically-active women in India, 75 percent in Nepal and Bangladesh and nearly 65 percent in Pakistan. “2 Methods to incorporate the contribution of the women to the economy should be implemented. This would be the only possible way of assessing their productivity accurately. One theoretical method is to make use of the economic concept of “opportunity cost”.
For example the productivity of a housewife can be taken into account by the cost of hiring domestic help to manage the household assuming she went out to work. Simply put, if she did not do the work at home, someone else has to be paid to do it. Such methods may be the only way to give women their due credit in recognition of their contribution to the economy. The next substantial way in which gender disparity supports a major economic inequality in South Asia is in the area of land rights for women.
A very phallic male-centred approach to the division of property and very often occurs in South Asia. A significant proportion of women do not receive their due share of inheritance. “3 In order to really understand the economic and social implications that this brings about one must see “the links between gender subordination and property and the need to be sought in not only the distribution of property between households but also in its distribution between men and women, in not only who owns the property but also who controls it, and in relation not only to private property but to communal property. ”
4 Actual ownership of a property does not always mean effective assertion of control over that property. In some cases women’s names are not put on the revenue records after they inherit, in others they are persuaded to sign relinquishment in favour of male family members. “5 This is because in many parts of South Asia it is customary for sons to inherit all the land and property without any shares going to the daughters of the family. The lack of property and capital makes women economically subjugate to men because of economic dependency.
They are unable to make economic decisions for themselves. When women’s access to property and wealth is denied this makes “(a) A woman’s class position defined through that of a man- father, husband etc. it is more open to change than that of a man: a well-placed marriage can raise it, divorce or widowhood can lower it. (b) This can occur to the extent that even women of propertied households, do not own property themselves and makes it difficult to characterize their class position. Indeed some have even argued that women constitute a class in themselves. “6 One must bear in mind that this not only gives rise to major economic inequality but also social inequality. The rise of capitalism has made economics in integral part of determining social class. Gone are the days when social class was not dependent on wealth and property.
Thus in this respect women are socially compromised as well economically. Another way in which gender disparity closely supports both economic and social inequality is with regards to the Law of a state. The Law can be used as a very good indicator of gender disparity and thus social and economic inequality. Simply put the Law has to protect both men and women. Men and women should have equality before the law.
The Apostle Paul said, “The law is lawful so long as one uses it lawfully”. Indeed there should not only be equality before the Law in areas of gender, but race and class as well. The legal terrain of South Asia is determined by the religious and cultural practices of several communities, and overlain by traditions of European jurisprudence and is particularly treacherous for women. Throughout the region different religious and cultural communities are governed by separate personal laws- those civil laws which deal with marriage, dowry and divorce; custody, guardianship and adoption of children and inheritance”. 7 The lack of a uniform civil code in South Asian states to protect the rights of women has sadly allowed loopholes in the law to be exploited which aids in the economic and social oppression of women.
It is a sad truth that in many parts of South Asia there is still a strong degree of gender-bias in the law of the state, which puts women at an unfair disadvantage as compared to men. “The lack of a uniform civil code in which fundamental human rights take precedence over gender discriminatory religious customs remains a main obstacle to the achievements of women’s equal rights. “8 In order to illustrate the significant impact the law can have on promoting inequality the laws pertaining to women’s rights in South Asia will be looked at. Property and inheritance laws are in themselves highly gender discriminatory across South Asia.
This will be tied in with the earlier example of land rights for women and the role of the law as a mediating device. Take for example the case of the “Jaffna Tamils in Sri Lanka, a married woman needs her husband’s consent to alienate land which she legally owns. “9 Legal ownership does not always carry with it the right of control in all senses. Legal ownership might still be challenged by prevailing social constraints as well. Thus there has to be not only implementation of legal rights but enforcement as well in order to safeguard the rights of women.
Strong degree of gender disparity can be seen from inheritance laws in Nepal. “One of the laws states that a daughter can only inherit paternal property if she is unmarried and over 35 years of age, and she cannot inherit tenancy rights. “10 Needless to say the very legal system, which should serve the function of protection, seems to undermine women and compromise their representation. A very serious aspect that needs to be looked at is the implication of some of the bias inheritance laws, which contribute to a downward spiral effect.
These bias inheritance laws not only economically and socially impair women but in many cases their offspring bear the brunt of the hardship as well. Firstly, these “discriminatory property laws limit women’s capacity to obtain credit and benefit from new opportunities for economic advancement by engaging in self employment. This also has further serious implications as in the case of the “cancellation of the provision of inheritance for orphan grandchildren by a Federal Shariat Court in Pakistan. This has a multiplier effect on economic and social inequality because of the overwhelming burden placed on widowed mothers.
They lose their only means of financial support with the death of their husbands and this also means that the children would not be able to inherit the property of their father which will also increase the financial burden of the women. 11 Also, the law not only fails to protect women in terms of property and inheritance rights but in many other areas as well. Women who are the victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse in South Asia have a much harder time seeking justice than their counterparts around the world.
Often in South Asia, women who are the victims of sexual assault and battery are blamed for the crime rather than the perpetrators and abusers themselves. Gender disparity really underpins the social inequality in Bangladesh. “Even today, for the majority of women in Bangladesh, the world consists of their immediate family, and the new households of near relatives and neighbours. Very few are involved in any social institution apart from the family, and this even often applies to middle-class women in urban areas.
The cultural institution of parda requires the isolation of all women besides minors from men outside the family and close relative circle. Movements outside the home are to be carried out only for prescribed reasons and at prescribed times of the day. ” 12 Because of this cultural institution many Bangladeshi women literally become “birds in a cage”. This not only compromises women socially but economically and politically as well. This restricts their occupational chances and mobility. Furthermore parda leaves virtually no room in a woman’s life for public interaction.
Women are thus excluded from elections, conferences and decision-making bodies. Because of the strong nature of patriarchy is South Asian society and the Dowry system in marriages, women are considered a liability even before they are born. In the next few paragraphs the paper will look at women’s access to healthcare and education and female foeticide and infanticide. This indeed causes an exacerbation of social and economic inequality. In order for a country or state to bloom as a society the rights and interests of both sexes have to be catered for.
If women are given equal educational opportunities and access to healthcare, the standard of living and quality of life as a whole will improve. Educational quotient and life expectancy will rise. Women will also be able to take on more jobs and increasingly knowledge based ones and thus contribute more substantially to the economy as well. If women are given an equal chance as men economically and socially in South Asia, it might gradually eradicate the mentality that daughters are a liability and thus slow down and eventually stop the vicious cycle.
The need for dowries may disappear if this were the case. Female foeticide and infanticide will cease to be such an impending issue and South Asian society will be more progressive as a whole. Prenatal sex determination techniques such as “amniocentesis techniques for developing foetal abnormalities were developed in India, at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi. It was soon discovered that these tests could also accurately determine the sex of the child. A statistic purporting to come from the Registrar General of India, based on hospital records alone showed that 3. lakh female foetuses were aborted in India between 1993 and 1994”.
Needless to say the sex ratios in South Asia are one of the most unbalanced in the world because of the substantially higher ratio of men to women. This is gender disparity in action in its worst social implication. Very simply, a price is put on the lives unborn female children. They are being killed in the hundreds of thousands to such a degree that some people have aptly come up with the term, “femicide” to describe the literal culling of the female sex.
What is far more worrying though is the practice of infanticide where many female children are killed after birth. This is tantamount to murder but goes unchecked in many parts of South Asia. Sometimes however, one wonders whether it is crueler to commit female infanticide rather than subject the female child to a life of hardship, misery and oppression. Girls are treated differently from boys since birth. They are not given enough food compared to boys and they suffer from nutritional deficits. Girls are far more prone to malnutrition in South Asia than boys are.
They also tend to suffer from a host of other ailments and still preferential medical treatment is given to boys. “Educational indicators of South Asian women although recording improvement in recent years, are some of the worst in the world, especially at technical and higher levels. Women constitute only 17 percent of technical students, and South Asian governments spend approximately 4. 4 percent of their educational budgets on technical and scientific education”14 It is of little wonder that women are subject to economic inequality judging from the statistics above.
In conclusion in can be said that gender disparity greatly underpins major social and economic inequalities in South Asia. This is evident in the Legal systems, educational systems and medical systems and social systems of South Asia. It can be seen that the root of a lot of economic and social evils in South Asia are due to gender disparity between men and women. If South Asia is to progress as a society as a whole, gender disparity must be eradicated or if not, at least curbed.