Status of Gender Inequalities in South Asia

South Asia, beautifully seated in southern region of Asia, comprises eight countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, most of them are entangled with the common problems of high prevalence of poverty, political instability, crawling economic growth, low literacy rate and widespread malnutrition. More importantly, women who hold more than 50 percent of total population are severely suffering from rampant gender based violence, and discrimination in education, nutrition, health and employment paralyzing their human right and disrupting gender equality.

According to International Labour Organization, gender equality means that women and men have equal conditions for realizing their full human rights and for contributing to, and benefiting from, economic, social, cultural and political development.[1] Every country has set a target to attain the Millennium Development Goal and followed the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) for promoting women’s empowerment and formal and informal equality in economic, social, and political sectors. Most of the South Asian countries (Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives) are signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). [2] However, the quest of gender equality still remains far behind to be fulfilled.

If we see the trend of gender inequality index (GII) in these countries, though it is gradually decreasing, we can clearly depict the scenario of gender disparities in all three dimensions: reproductive health, empowerment, and labor market participation. Recent data show that GII of South Asian countries (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan) lie above the 0.5 level (the more the GII, grater the gender inequalities) which is very high in comparison to Sweden that has only 0.075 of GII.[3] In the same way, the reproductive health indicators like maternal mortality ratio (MMR) and adolescent fertility rate are still above the expectation signifying the poor delivery of family planning, antenatal, obstetric and postnatal care services; higher prevalence of sexually transmitted infections and nutritional deficiency among pregnant women, and not adequately addressing the adolescent reproductive health issues.

Similarly, gender status in education shows that there is unequal access of girls and women in education. The number of girls is just the half to the number of boys in case of attainment of secondary education in Nepal.  So are the conditions of other South Asian countries with an exception of Sri Lanka where the health and education conditions are significantly improved. The gender disparity in education is considered as the biggest hindrance in women empowerment. In the midst of such pessimism, recently, (constitutional assembly election, 2008) small South Asian country like Nepal kindled a hope in women empowerment ensuring 33 percent of female participation in parliament.[3]

Likewise, economically, South Asian women have limited access to resources. Most of them have to be reliant over male for any type of financial decision. Male dependency on financial decision-making has reduced women outdoor income activities. Only 32.8 percent of Indian women are economically active.[3] But in case of Nepal, eventhough women are facing pay level disparity; their proportion in labor force participation is the highest with compared to other South Asian countries.

The inequality is surfaced when we systematically create the differences between men and women empowering one group to the detriment of the other. Therefore, the predisposing factors for high gender inequality in this region are not other than gender wise discrimination in policies, administration, health services, employment, education and resource distribution. Moreover, gender wise social stigma, cultural taboos, customs, beliefs and values are perpetuating the condition more severe.[4] Family planning, for instance, is still considered as the responsibility of female. But, ironically, they are not allowed to choose the family planning methods without male partner’s consent undermining their sexual and reproductive health rights. Similarly, boys get more opportunity for better school enrollment and more nutritious diet. In case of female children, parents are reluctant to opt for early marriage and send them to husband house. But, for achieving economic growth, poverty reduction and social harmony, gender inequality is utterly unwarranted.

Gender equality cannot be achieved with a single elixir. It is a continuous process that can be started with poverty reduction, policy reaffirmed, institutional strengthening and gender sensitization.[4] Simply by increasing the literacy level among girls and women, promoting woman’s labor participation and economic independency, and expanding the female reproductive health right can significantly reduce the long persist inequality in this region. [5]

At the end, gender inequality is unsurprisingly abundant in South Asian countries. The constellation of high poverty, low literacy rate among female, long rooted gender biased belief and practices, and patriarchal social system remain the major constrains for the equality. Nevertheless, equal access to education, health and employment, and gender perspective mainstreaming can assure the women empowerment and gender equality in long run.[5, 6]

1.    ILO, ABC of Women Worker’s Rights and Gender Equality. 2000.
2.  CEDAW. List of Signatories and/or States Parties.  28 Feb 2010  [cited; Available from:
3.    UNDP, Gender Inequality Index and related indicators. 2011.
4.    Care Bangladesh, 2005. Gender Analysis Framework (Revised).
5.    UNFPA, Gender equality and empowerment of women in Nepal. 2007. p. 127.
6.    USAID, Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy. 2012.

( This article was published on Republica National Daily on Jan 28, 2013, )

My education includes training in medicine, public health, clinical research, biostatistics and health response in complex emergency. I have more than seven years of experiences in health research (Survey, Case control studies, Randomised Controlled Trials (RCT), Health Policy and Systems Research). My areas of expertise also include the project management particularly in health sector. I have also experience and interest to work in health emergency in large population in disaster setting.

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2 Responses to “Status of Gender Inequalities in South Asia”

  1. Sita says:

    sex selection has been notably increasing in the India and Nepal like South Asian countries. It is the practice of determining the sex of a fetus early on in pregnancy (most commonly using ultrasound imaging technology), and selectively aborting “less desirable” female fetuses, in exchange for the opportunity to “try again” for a “more desirable” male child.

    Infanticide is so prevalence in these countries. Presently, we can see the severely altered sex ratio. if we are not able to check it on will badly affect the social structure and stability.

  2. Dr Joshi says:

    Excellent article. You have tried to depict the current worst scenario of gender inequality in South Asia. Moreover, I am presenting some prevalent events of gender discrimination among these countries. They are Domestic violence, Lack of excess to education and medical facilities, Forced and early marriages, Lack of employment, Rapes and gang rapes,Honor killing, Acid throwing, Denial of inheritance etc.

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