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Mixed bag for South Asian women

Jan 15, 2010

Since the fourth world conference on women in Beijing 1995, it’s been a long road for women in South Asia, writes Pamela Philipose. Vibrant activism and solidarity have engendered significant positive changes, yet a host of challenges remain.

New Delhi: "We must ensure that the decisions reached in Beijing will change the world". That was Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then United Nations Secretary-General, commenting after the Fourth World Conference on Women. Held in Beijing in September 1995, the conference saw the participation of 6,000 delegates from 189 countries.

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Emerging from this process was the Beijing Platform for Action that recognised that while the status of the world's women had advanced in some important respects, progress had been uneven and unequal, with rising poverty a major challenge.

Fifteen years later, has the world come any closer to realising the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the Beijing moment?

To assess this the UN Commission on the Status of Women is anchoring the Beijing Plus 15 process and will review the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action in New York in March.

A few days prior to this, women's organisations from all over the world will participate in the Global Women's Forum to articulate their views.

South Asia is the scene of a vibrant women's activism, even in unlikely, conflict-ridden regions like Afghanistan. A consultation, titled 'Weaving Wisdom, Confronting Crises, Forging The Future', that will feed into the Beijing Plus 15 process, was organised recently by the South Asia Watch and the National Alliance Of Women in Delhi. It saw over a hundred women activists from the region "weave" their collective experiences and wisdom.

As participants representing Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka spoke out, what was clear was that they shared not just a common geographical region but several concerns. This is not surprising. Pakistani development economist, the late Dr Mahbub Ul Haq had noted over a decade ago that South Asia is one of the poorest, least literate, least gender sensitive and most militarised regions in the world.

The intervening years have brought many positive changes of course. The most evident is a new visibility.

As Afghanistan's Selay Ghafaar pointed out at the convention, "This is the first time that we have become a part of the South Asian women's movement." Today, governments cannot ignore women like they did in the past. Many countries - notably India and Sri Lanka - have a law against domestic violence, while others like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are working towards legislating on the issue.

Access to primary education for girls has improved greatly, although there are fresh challenges like the blowing up of girls' schools in Pakistan's Swat Valley and very high dropout levels in Afghanistan because of pressure from religious zealots.

There is good news in terms of political empowerment generally. While India has 50% reservation at the lowest tiers of government, Afghanistan and Pakistan have reservation across the board, Nepal has enacted legislation to guarantee reservation at the state and administrative levels, and in Bangladesh several senior ministers are women, apart from the prime minister.

There has been considerable legal reform too. Citisenship laws have been made more equal in both Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, Pakistan now acknowledges honour killings as a crime, while Nepal has legislated on legal guarantees for marginalised groups like Dalits, Madhesis as well as the disabled. Progressive court verdicts were flagged.

Following India's Vishaka judgment, setting norms to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace, the Bangladesh High Court has also laid down similar guidelines, as Salma Khan pointed out.

While the positives are considerable and invaluable, there are huge challenges. Take the continuing impact of conflict. Few countries have been as fortunate as Nepal, which is witnessing the innumerable benefits of the cessation of a 10-year war between the Maoists and monarchial rule.

The continuing conflict in Afghanistan has meant that women here live in a perpetual state of insecurity and restricted mobility. There has been a rise in the number of kidnapping and rape cases, and 90% refugee camps inhabitants are women and children.

In Sri Lanka, the war in the north has ended but the government has not involved civil society groups in ensuring the welfare of the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people still living in refugee camps. In Pakistan, the military offensive against the Taliban poses a dilemma. As Pakistani feminist, Khawar Mumtaz put it, "We are forced to support military action to enforce the writ of the democratically elected state, but we are also keenly aware that it is the women and children who suffer the most in such situations." India has been the site of innumerable conflicts, whether in Jammu & Kashmir, the Northeast or against Maoist insurgents in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.

Hanging on to the gains made over the years is also sometimes difficult. India's Sheba George pointed to how the country is backpedalling on deploying Section 498a - which punishes the torture of women by husbands or their relatives - with the authorities advised to go slow on arrests. Given this scenario, violence against women remains a key concern. Nepal's Shanta Laxmi Shreshta flagged a "persistent impunity and culture of violence", an observation underlined by Bangladesh as well.

Rising religious fundamentalism and militancy has only deepened this culture of impunity. In Bangladesh, 'fatwas' (religious dictats given by clerics) are illegal but continue to be delivered.

In India, thousands of women lost their lives or were raped when Hindu extremist mobs ran amok in 2002 Gujarat. While both Pakistan and Afghanistan are facing rising Islamic militancy at the cost of minority well-being, Sri Lanka is witnessing an aggressive promotion of Buddhism and Sinhala supremism.

Sri Lanka's Sepali Kottegoda recalled President Rajapakshe's declaration after the war ended when he stated that there was no longer any minority in the country "only those for the country or against it". According to Nighat Said Khan from Pakistan, this is because there is a "democracy deficit" in South Asia, with nation states suppressing ethnic minorities in the name of democracy.

Social welfare delivery and access to healthcare is poor at best and often non-existent. Afghanistan, for instance, has the second highest infant mortality in the world and a healthcare that is badly underserviced.

The underlying factor is persistent and endemic poverty. Growing impoverishment and rising disparities emerged as a big worry, with Pam Rajput, one of the convenors, observing, "South Asia's predominant development model is impacting negatively on the ability of the women in the region to find livelihoods and ensure food security."

Women's poor access to resources, especially land - given the lack of inheritance rights - was common to every country.

Pakistan reported that only 2% of those who own land are women, while in Sri Lanka, although one million of the estimated 4.5 million households, are headed by women, the system recognises only men as heads of households.

To add to this is the new challenge of climate change, which is forcing many peasant families out of their homesteads and rendering them into refugees in their own countries.

For the women of the region, it has been a long road from Beijing and the journey is by no means over.

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