Issues Gender

Overview of Gender Dynamics in SAARC Countries:

Since the adaptation of pro-growth policies in the 1980s, South Asian countries have seen a period of unprecedented growth and development. However, this progress has not been unanimously beneficial for all. Pronounced inequalities across ethnic, caste, economic strata, and to our interest, gender lines continue to persist. The predominance of patriarchal societies in the region has meant that women, who have traditionally been confined to the domestic sphere, have always played second fiddle to men. While, it is encouraging to note that some of the norms are slowly beginning to change, nevertheless, the Gender Inequality Index for the region is still a high 0.568, second only to Sub Saharan Africa. Women continue to not only to hold a lower social status in society but they also lag behind in sectors of human development as well as face discrimination in the labour market.

Situational Analysis:


While it is true that this region has made progress in establishing more equitable legal provisions and seen an increased female participation in the labour market, it is also true that the instances of reported crimes against women (both within and outside households) have been on the rise, particularly in India which saw an increase of 7.1% in reported incidents of crime against women between 2010 and 2011. Incidents of women being victims of domestic abuse, dowry deaths, rape, trafficking and abductions are still commonplace. Besides being despicable and heinous acts in themselves these incidents also serve to perpetuate gender inequalities in society and measures must be taken to stop them.

Figure 1: Adult Literacy rates by gender


There is a dire need to empower women in South Asia and to this end, education, which plays an important role in determining life chances, is crucial. While South Asia, at large, has seen improvements in the Human Development Index, women as a group still continue to lag behind, particularly, on the educational front. As evidenced in Figure 1, adult literacy rates for females are almost unanimously (barring Maldives) lower than their male counterparts across all countries in South Asia, which consequently restricts their employment prospects. This imbalance needs to be addressed immediately.

Another crucial factor in female empowerment entails economic freedom. To this end, it is disconcerting to note that the economic value of female labour contribution in the domestic sphere (i.e., collecting firewood, fodder and water, cooking, cleaning etc.), for most parts, remains unacknowledged in societies in South Asia. Further, even in wage employment females are generally paid less than their male counterpart. For instance, in Nepal the median wage for a female agricultural worker is Rs. 100 per day as compared to Rs. 150 for a male worker.

Moreover, most women engaged in wage employment in South Asian countries are either informally employed or employed in the informal sector; for instance, 92.3% of women in Bangladesh are employed in the informal sector, while 84.7% in India, 91.8% in Nepal, 75.7% in Pakistan and 55.7% in Sri Lanka are employed informally.Informal employment and/or employment in the informal sector is associated with poor working conditions and subpar remuneration. Additionally, workers in the sector or with such arrangement usually fall outside the protective umbrella of government labour provisions, which cater exclusively to the formal sector. Hence, most employed women have little access to justice and are unable to benefit from social insurance or other such benefits accorded to workers by legislation.


Although the region has had a large number of female leaders who have been the head of nation (for example, Indira Gandhi, Shaikh Hasina, Benazir Bhutto, Srimavo Bandaranaike and Chandrika Kumaratunga), the general level of political participation of women in South Asia remains low; only 28% of seats in the national parliament of Afghanistan are held by women, 20% in Bangladesh, abysmally low 6% in Bhutan, 19% in India and so forth. All of these factors combined contribute towards making women’s position in South Asia extremely vulnerable.


Females in South Asia continue hold lower social standing than their male counterparts, face discrimination in the labour market as well as continue to be politically marginalized. The road to a more equitable society should focus on addressing all of the issues mentioned above.

More emphasis is needed on the development and enforcement of gender-sensitive legal provisions to eliminate gender discrimination. Perhaps, a good way forward would be to focus on amending laws that affect women, particularly those pertaining to crimes against women. These legal provisions should also focus on making the process of reporting crimes more female friendly. India serves as a good example as there are legal provisions that protect the identity of rape victims, females cannot be arrested after sunset and females are accorded the right to privacy while recording their statements.

Further, measures need to be taken to empower women and ensure their access to resources.There needs to be a categorical focus on increasing female literacy. Female education incentive programs have proven to be effective in certain places. Similarly, a measure that has been proven to contribute towards women empowerment is the promotion of women collective ownership of land and assets. For example, the poor low-caste women in Andhra Pradesh have, in groups of 5-15, leased or purchased land through government schemes for subsidized credit and grants and are farming on them productively in 75 villages. Perhaps, similar measure can be instituted in the other countries.

The government needs to concentrate on expanding social protection to the informal sectors, as women constitute the majority in this sector. According to The Social Protection Index assessment report by the Asian Development Bank (2013), women, owing to their lack of access to formal employment, are more likely to benefit from social assistance rather than from social insurance. One example of such approach is the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) in Pakistan. In a place where patriarchy strongly influences women ability to realize their rights and to gain access to assets and resources, this top-down approach, which was initiated in 2008, entailed unconditional cash transfer to women in poor household. This categorical focus has enabled the program to effectively challenge patriarchal norms governing the gendered division of space in Pakistan which usually acts as a barrier for women access to resources.

Furthermore, pension scheme for elderly women in Bangladesh and Nepal have proven to reduce vulnerability to poverty in elderly women. The Social Pension for Elderly in Bangladesh, where 50% of the beneficiaries are required to be women, targets those below a poverty income threshold ($37). The beneficiaries of the scheme are selected by community committees who seek out those whom they deem to be most vulnerable within their localities. There is also a separate benefit scheme for those deserted by their husbands and women. Such schemes have helped increase access of elderly women to health care services and consequently mitigated discrimination against them. Similarly, social pension for Dalit women of Mahottari District in Nepal has helped empower landless Dalits. There is a need for more programmes that similarly cater to specific groups of females caught at the juxtaposition of various inequalities.

The government needs to proactively work towards increasing female political participation. For instance, the quota system as instituted in Nepal, where 33% of a party national parliament candidates are required to be females, has proven to be fairly effective. However, it should be noted that this can come under criticism for being an act of tokenism.


ADB. 2013. The Social Protection Index: Assessing Results for Asia and the Pacific. Philippines: ADB.

CBS. 2008. Report on the Nepal Labour Force Survey 2008. Kathmandu: National Planning Commission Secretariat.

CBS. 2008. Nepal Living Standards Survey 2010/11. Kathmandu: National Planning Commission Secretariat.

CPRC. 2008. The Chronic Poverty Report 2008-09. Manchester, UK: Chronic Poverty Research Centre (CPRC). Available at:

Ghani, Ejaz. 2010. The Poor Half Billion in South Asia: What is Holding Back Lagging Regions? New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

UNDP. 2013. The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World. New York: UNDP.

Web Sources:

Ghani 2010.

The Gender Inequality Index is a composite measure reflecting inequality in achievements between women and men in three dimensions: reproductive health, empowerment and the labour market. GII ranges from 0 to 1 where a higher number indicates a larger degree of gender inequality.

UNDP 2013.

India saw an increase of 9.2% in reported cases of rape and 19.4% in abduction between 2010-2011.

Human development index is a composite index measuring average achievement in three basic dimensions of human development—a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living.

NLSS 2011.

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NLFS 2008.

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These statistics only include non agricultural informal employment

World development Indicators 2014.

CRPC 2008.

 ADB 2013.