The struggle of women in South Asia

8 Mins read

Gender discrimination is a pervasive issue in many cultures across the world, with South Asia being no exception.

Gender-based discrimination has been a part of South Asian culture for centuries – it is not limited to one aspect of life but manifests in education, career opportunities, health, and even domestically. It is so deeply instilled that it has become normalised and unquestioned. 

“A core feature of South Asian culture is the patriarchal structure in which it operates (though change is slowly happening especially over the last few years) which means that men are seen as the primary earners and women always as the homebody caregivers,” says Anam, a 28-year-old South Asian, from Pakistan.

“Even when these domestic duties carry a greater load for women, physically and mentally, their roles are seen as ‘less’ important but at the same time, must be enforced on them as well.”

Maya Shanbhag talks about what’s it like to grow up South Asian. [TedxYouth]

Women in South Asian societies face systemic discrimination that affects their social status, which has led to women receiving a second-class status in society.

They are expected to fulfil the traditional domestic roles such as bearing and caring for children and maintaining the household, leaving them little or no room for personal aspirations or even career advancements.

Meanwhile, men are traditionally assigned the role of being the breadwinner and protector of their families. In addition to being providers, men are expected to exhibit typically masculine behaviour such as physical strength, emotional resilience, and dominance.

“Gender impacts how men and women set their priorities and goals for their individual lives, with women expected to compromise a lot more as compared to men and men expected to face the brunt of the financial pressure and building a life for themselves and the women in their lives,” says Sarah, a 24-year-old working South Asian.

“Women are expected to give up their work — which a lot of times in rural societies may be out of necessity for a woman — and education in favour of starting and raising a family. So many women study to become doctors for years but are married off and not allowed to practice because societal norms dictate that they should stay at home more, be obedient and modest.” 

two Women working in the kitchen
Rural women performing their domestic duty in the kitchen making Rotis (Flatbread)[Flickr: cimmyt)

Gender discrimination in the workplace is a deeply ingrained issue in South Asian culture and is prevalent in many forms including wage disparities, limited career advancement opportunities, and harassment. 

According to UN women: “Across South Asia, women report doing more unpaid care and domestic work than men: Ten times as much in Pakistan; almost seven times more in India; and nearly three times more in Bangladesh. In Pakistan, rural women do almost five hours of unpaid care and domestic work per day compared to 0.5 hours for rural men.” 

This mostly stems from the lack of education women are given in South Asian societies, meaning women are often not equipped with the necessary skill sets and knowledge to succeed in the workplace and as a result are unable to compete with their male counterparts.

However, young girls are often employed, Oxfam says: “South Asia has the largest number of child labourers in the world. Boys are more likely to be engaged in paid labour, but girls are increasingly being employed because they can be paid less than boys. 

In India, estimates for Andra Paredsh alone indicate that there are 150,000 children aged 7-14 engaged in seasonal agriculture work, 90% of whom are women. Girls have the added burden of extra unpaid labour within the household towards younger siblings.”

women working in rural area
South Asian woman seen carrying the burden of unpaid labour [Flickr: World Bank]

“I was asked when I joined Dawn six years ago whether I planned to get married in the next one year. They did have some women who got married and left the organisation but they also had so many women in leadership roles — I thought it was so strange to already have this precognition but at the same time be so progressive,” Aman told us.

“Later, they found out that it was part of their strategy and real decisions were being made by the men who did next to no work but made the big decisions still. If a woman asserts herself at work, she is seen as bossy and bitter, and barren or unmarriable, whereas men are seen as leaders and good managers.

“While there has been a great change in the world in terms of maternity leave being taken more seriously — countries like Spain even allowing for menstruation leave — South Asian societies are still behind on this, with the concept of paternity leave still alien.”

The cultural and social norms in South Asian communities create barriers for girls to succeed in their lives and deprive them of the necessary ability to perform in the workplace to generate an income due to the expectation attached to being involved in household chores and looking after their families.  

According to the report on gender bias in South Asia, official statistics showed: “that as a region, south Asia has the largest gap between the rates of male and female literacy- 61.4% and 37.2% respectively (in 1997) and South Asian women make up 44% of world’s illiterate women.”

This traces back to the traditional gender roles which create barriers to women’s education in South Asian societies as women are expected to prioritise family responsibilities over their education and career.

One research paper, Barriers to female education in South Asia, suggests: “Education can make women less desirable on the marriage market because many South Asians believe education will make women less willing to shoulder the tremendous workload expected of wives.” 

The same research points out: “Education can increase a woman’s dowry cost since educated women are expected to marry more educated males, who command higher dowries.”

Natasha, who works for an educational institute in Pakistan, explained how “In terms of education and schooling, SA societies are notorious for prioritising education for boys over the education for girls (which goes back to the family structure and norms that are common) – girls are married off earlier, especially in smaller rural areas and if they do manage to gain full education, they are encouraged to study and take up activities in their schooling that is more feminine.” 

Girls in uniform
South Asian girls striking to achieve education [Flickr: nithiclicks]

Gender disparity in health is a grave concern in many South Asian communities. Several factors contribute to this, including poverty, limited access to healthcare services, and gender-based violence.

In many South Asian countries, pregnancy and giving birth are considered ‘natural’ phenomena requiring no extra attention to ensure a safe delivery.

Maternal mortality is a significant health concern for women in South Asia, particularly in rural areas where access to healthcare is limited because of which women give birth at home.

“Policies around reproductive rights/maternity/violence against women are created by men in positions of power who don’t have the life experience to make these decisions and if the cycle isn’t broken, then there are fewer and fewer women in positions of power or leadership and the cycle continues into the next generation,” says Anam.  

Akhter (2015) mentions that for “every woman who dies of pregnancy-related complications, 20 to 30 others experience acute or chronic morbidity, often with permanent health damage that can affect physical, mental, sexual and/or productive and reproductive capabilities.”

This is often due to traditional and cultural practices and norms that can hinder women’s ability to make decisions regarding their own health as in most cases seeking care is done by husbands or older people in their family. 

woman with her child
Woman with her new born mom and her newborn baby at the Maternal & Child Health Training Institute for medically needy in Dhaka, Bangladesh [Flickr: UN Photo]

Fikree and Pasha (2004) state that “women often cite economic circumstances and spousal or familial opposition to delivery in the hospital as the most common reasons for delivery at home, despite higher risks of morbidity and mortality”.

Maternal mortality is deeply connected with women’s empowerment, social norms, and values, mixed with the culture of shame, silence and negligence leading to a woman being treated as a second-class citizen in South Asian communities.  

In these cultures, child marriages are seen as a form to preserve family honour, safeguard girls from sexual harassment and ensure their financial security. Despite early child marriages being illegal in South Asian countries they remain a deeply ingrained cultural norm in many communities.

Girls from poorer families are more vulnerable to early child marriage because the cost associated with education impedes their attendance. This emerges from the fact that many families in South Asia communities still struggle from poverty and marrying off their daughters at an early age reduces their financial burden.

Lack of education facilities available to girls can increase their likelihood of ending up in early marriage; a 2010 study of 200 child marriages in Afghanistan found that 71% of parents who forced their underage daughters to marry were illiterate.

young girl
A young Nepali girl undergoing a marriage ritual (Flickr: Fernando Zarur]

Domestic violence is one of the most widespread forms of violence against women in South Asia. One of the main causes of such violence against women lies in the fact of deeply inculcated patriarchal norms and unequal gender power dynamics in South Asian culture.

“Grounded in gendered social structures rather than individual and random acts, violence against women and girls cuts across age, socioeconomic, educational and geographic boundaries; affects all societies; and is a major obstacle to ending gender inequality and discrimination globally,” a United Nations report said. 

It is important to acknowledge that most acts of violence take place inside the household, turning this into a crucial issue of intra-household disparities.

The general assumption that women are vulnerable in public gatherings and outside the household can be a misbelief but one that fits the description in South Asian culture. The South Asian mindset is so deeply embedded in terms of cultural values and the normalised system of religious and patriarchal norms that men and both women perceive it as “right” and “natural”.

The concept of “izzat” or family honour is something this mindset stems from as women are often perceived as the bearers of this honour. Any unusual behaviour from the expected social behaviour can as a result be met with violence with means of control and punishment.

“The enforcement of religious and societal norms leading to see women as the ‘lesser’ gender – resulting in less respect for women and their concerns and even domestic violence because of power imbalances,” says Anam.  

The present messaging in South Asian media and its popular culture still perpetuates those traditional beliefs and stereotypes.

Anam, who has worked in the media industry says that “popular TV dramas showing women as helpless, romanticising their self-sacrifice, showing them as caregivers only, objectifying women consistently on their physical appearances, and perpetuating harmful beauty standards (fairness creams, having fairness as a stipulation in marriages, rampant weight loss programmes, encouraging women to lose weight so they’ll be beautiful) or using the wrong language when discussing women, advertisements still enforcing stereotypes by showing women drinking a beverage in a ‘sexy’ manner when she has nothing to do with the product, the word ‘women’ used as an insult (when women drive and make mistakes, all you’ll see is men saying things like ‘women’ with a teacup emoji or eye roll), not enough women in leadership positions that matter.” 

This raises important questions, such as: how can men play a role in combating gender discrimination and combating gender inequality in South Asian culture?

Men can start by educating themselves about the issues related to gender inequality and discrimination and understanding the root causes and circumstances of these issues.

They can also challenge their own biases (the hardest pill to swallow) and reflect on their own beliefs, attitudes and behaviour that contribute to gender discrimination.

Other strategies include sharing household responsibilities by dismantling the traditional gender roles and equally sharing the workload at home, acting as an advocate and ally by using their privilege and platform that includes speaking out against sexism and promoting empowerment.

“Ideally, they would first look inward and challenge what they know – are they using language that contributes to this bias? Are they taking part in activities that promote this bias? For example locker room talk with the boys in person or on WhatsApp group but enforcing modesty on their sisters,” says Anam.

They could also “believe in women and empathise with the experiences of women and learn from their perspectives as opposed to dismissing them. Leading by example by embracing positive masculinity that is rooted in compassion and respect as opposed to control or dominance or ego.”

Featured image by Nick Kenrick via Flickr CC

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