Gender Equality: The South Asian Context

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By 2017-07-17

By Umesh Moramudali

The term gender as well as the term development have many definitions. Gender is considered as a social construct which distinguishes males and females apart from biological differences. It should be noted that sex is not a synonym for gender; sex is biological and distinguishes men and women while gender is a social construct which distinguishes males and females. Gender equality refers to the equal treatment of individuals in society regardless of the gender they belong to. It is often said that females are mistreated due to the factor of gender which subsequently led to gender inequality. Development refers to the enhancing of living standards of the people who belong to every segment of society. Modern day development theorists emphasize on inclusive development which ensures the reduction of discrimination and distributes the benefit of development amongst everyone. In that context, it is important to look at whether the social construct 'gender' hinders development and promotes discrimination and inequality.

From long ago, concerns were raised about females being discriminated due to the social construct of gender. In order to overcome the issue, different concepts emerged during different eras. Women in Development (WID) is one such concept which emphasizes the importance of ensuring the participation of women in development. Later, this approach was criticized due to the fact that it segregated women. Subsequently, the approach of Gender and Development (GAD) which emphasized on gender equality emerged. Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) as well as organizations such as the UN work in order to ensure gender equality in the process of development. As a result, a lot of policy reforms have been suggested and conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) were introduced.

The benefits of the SIGI Index

The Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) is a cross-country measure of discrimination against women in social institutions.

"The SIGI measures social institutions – as mirrored by societal practices and legal norms – that produce inequalities between women and men in non-Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. The added value of the SIGI is that it presents a wide range of new dimensions and variables that are not considered by other indices. It offers additional information, which complements – as opposed to substitutes – existing measures," the OECD states.

It should be noted that SIGI is not the only index that is used to measure gender equality. In fact, there are more popular indexes such as the Gender Equality Index. However, such indexes differ from the SIGI index.

It is argued that the SIGI index is a better indicator as it reflects the recognition females receive in a particular social institution.

However, SIGI alone cannot measure the gender equality level of a community or a country. It is true that SIGI reflects a very important segment of the society in a deeper manner, but there are other indexes which reflect other aspects in terms of gender equality.

SIGI measures the level of gender based discrimination that takes place in social institutions and as observed by the OECD in its publications, the higher the discrimination, the lower the development. That seems to be supported by many empirical examples such as the low rate of enrolment to educational institutions. Most of the non-OECD countries, which are developing countries, experienced the scenario of low female enrolment rates to educational institutions which was as a result of social norms such as giving prominence to marriage over education.

Yet, one cannot say that the lack of discrimination in enrolment to a social institution alone helps to achieve gender equality. One such example for that is the lack of female participation in politics despite the opportunities available. From Theory to Action: Women, Gender, and Development, a book by Professor Maithree Wickramasinghe highlighted that the female representation in parliaments of many countries remain very low although women are bestowed with the same rights as men in the political system. In Sri Lanka, less than 10% of parliamentarians are females despite the country having more than 50% of females.

"Another strong correlation can be observed between social institutions and women's participation in non-agricultural wage employment, which was identified as a key element of women's economic empowerment in the Millennium Development Goals.

Specifically, women's participation in such employment is lowest in countries with high social discrimination. Among the countries that score low in the SIGI ranking (low discrimination in social institutions), labour force participation is close to half; in countries that show high social discrimination, the average rate of women's participation falls to just above a fifth." As it is defined, in all cases, the variables are between 0 and 1. The value 0 means no or very low discrimination and the value 1 indicates high inequality. For the sake of presentation, the current Atlas shows scores for SIGI and its sub-indices rounded off to two-decimal places.

The full values for each variable can be obtained online from the OECD-GID database.

The SIGI combines the five sub-indices into a multidimensional measure of discrimination against women in a country using polychoric Principal Component Analysis (PCA). It is inspired by the Foster–Greer–Thorbecke poverty measures (1984) and aggregates gender inequality in several dimensions measured by the sub-indices. The underlying methodology of construction leads to penalization of high inequality in each dimension and allows only for partial compensation between dimensions. As noted earlier, the main shortcoming of these indices is that they cover only developing countries. This is due to the fact that the variables used as inputs do not measure relevant social institutions related to gender inequality in OECD countries. Further research is required to develop appropriate measures for developed countries.

SIGI in South Asia

According to the OECD, gender discrimination in social institutions is very high across the seven countries of South Asia, making the region one of the worst performers in the SIGI ranking.

"The situation is particularly bad in Afghanistan, the lowest ranking country in the region and one of the bottom three performers overall. India and Pakistan are also in the bottom ten. The two biggest concerns for the region are son preference and family code."

In order to identify the reasons why South Asian countries perform badly in SIGI, it is important to analyse different fields such as education, health, employment, and political participation. The OECD identifies the segregation of women in social institutions took place in different ways which had hindered the opportunities available for females. The OECD further identifies that certain cultural norms act as constraints for women to be treated equally.

Education in South Asia

In terms of discrepancies in education, countries in South Asia stand in a different position. In Afghanistan, the enrolment of females to education remains very low while in Sri Lanka the enrolment of females to education is more than 90% and the number of females being enrolled to higher education exceeds the number of males entering higher education. This is very progressive and is largely due to the government's policy of free education. However, the number of females entering the Engineering and IT Faculties remain low while 80% of students in Arts and Law faculties are women. In that context, a gender stereotype can be seen. Data reveals that more than 50% of the students following most of the degree courses are females, apart from Engineering which is followed by only 20% of females. According to data from the University Grants Commission (UGC) 82.9% of Law undergraduates are females, while 79.3% of the Arts undergraduates are females.

Land rights and property ownership

According to the OECD: "In Nepal, recent legal changes have strengthened women's inheritance rights and access to property other than land. In Bangladesh, micro-credit loan programmes are allowing women to start and run their own small businesses. There are about 23 million borrowers in total, of which 94% are women."

The issues of land ownership are highlighted by Mina Agarwal in her research as well. It was identified that land rights of women differ from one country to another. However, according to Agarwal, in every South Asian country land and property rights are vested with males, which leads to discrimination against women. Agarwal's findings go on to state that there is substantial evidence that economic resources in the hands of male household members often do not benefit female members equally.

Independent ownership of such resources, especially land, can thus be of crucial importance in promoting the wellbeing and empowerment of women, but as the present analysis shows, the issue is not just one of property ownership; it is also that of property control. As the literature identifies, females face discrimination in distributing properties amongst children, so often large portions of property are distributed to males in the family, ignoring the rights of the females. Even in the case of a widow, in certain cases the property rights are transferred not to the widow, but to male children. The findings of Agarwal are supported by the statistics and findings of the OECD as well. In Pakistan, it was noted that women have access to land, but data suggests that the share of females who own land is very low. A household survey, published in 2005 by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), found that women owned less than 3% of the land. Further, in cases where women do own land, they may not have actual control over it, which clearly goes along with the findings of Agarwal. It was identified that the right of inheritance for women in Afghanistan may vary, depending on whether they fall under Islamic and customary law. However, the argument to justify women being less entitled to land compared with men is that females do not handle financial responsibilities.

The difference in land rights from country to country can be identified by studying the case of Bhutan, where women enjoy rights to financial autonomy. Matrilineal inheritance systems grant women access to land, as well as ownership. An estimated 60% of rural women have land registered in their names and a majority of Bhutanese women work in the Agricultural Sector.

Political Participation

It has been identified that the lack of participation of women in politics is a serious concern. At the same time, it has been identified that certain countries in South Asia such as Nepal have performed well in providing opportunities to women. Despite these positive social development indicators, the country's overall level of women's gender empowerment is below the average level of developing countries, especially because of the extremely low involvement of women in politics (Parliament: 5%, Municipal Councils: 3%, Urban Councils: 2%, Pradeshiya Sabhas: 1%). These figures show that women's capabilities are grossly undervalued and underutilized in Sri Lanka.


As the Women in Development (WID), Women and Development (WAD) and Gender and Development (GAD) theorists suggest, developing countries have a long way to go in terms of gender relations. The level of gender equality in most third world countries is very low. As research suggests, none of the countries in the South Asian region are amongst the lowest gender inequality countries in the world. In fact, South Asia is considered as a region which has very high gender discrimination and this was clearly reflected by the SIGI Index. However, it should be noted that Sri Lanka stands above other countries in the region due to the gender equality in health and education.

Umesh holds a B.A. (Hons) in Economics from the University of Colom




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