UN: South Asia's Gender Gap

New UNDP report presents worrying statistics

L to R: Ingrid-Gabriela Hoven, Ajay Chhibber, and Jeni Klugman in Washington on Feb. 11, 2011. (Asia Society Washington Center)

WASHINGTON, DC, February 11, 2011 – On its 20th anniversary, the United Nations Development Programme's annual Human Development Report (HDR) finds that Asia has progressed fastest in terms of human well-being since 1970, with China, Indonesia, South Korea, Laos, and Nepal surging ahead.

But the HDR's new Gender Inequality Index shows South Asia in particular trailing behind on the critical measure of gender equality. Meanwhile, an Asia-specific HDR also highlights women’s economic, legal, and political rights and how they impact human development in the region.  

These were the essential findings presented by the report's authors at a launch event sponsored by Asia Society Washington Center. In her presentation, HDR lead author Jeni Klugman, Director of Human Development Report Office, stated that South Asia has an average loss of 74 percent—the worst losses in any region—based on the Gender Inequality Index. Klugman found that women lag behind men in all dimensions captured by the report, particularly in parliamentary representation, education, and labor force participation.

Reproductive health is also considered the biggest issue in South Asia, with its above average maternal mortality rate, according to Klugman. East Asia and the Pacific fare better with the lowest loss among developing regions, with a relatively low adolescent fertility rate and high female representation in government.

UN Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP Director for Asia & the Pacific Ajay Chhibber described the need to focus on three strategic areas in women’s rights and empowerment: building economic power, promoting political voice, and advancing legal rights. Chhibber's report finds that the richest Asian countries show higher gender inequality, such as China and India. He also finds the number of "missing" females—due to sex selection at or prior to birth—is alarmingly high in these parts of Asia. 

Chhibber stated that African countries do comparatively better than Asia when it comes to female farm ownership, and that women continue to earn less than men in Asia. Additionally, Asia ranks second lowest (next to the Arab states) in women's political voice. Laws that are meant to ensure justice fail to treat men and women equally and fairly. 

Ingrid-Gabriela Hoven, World Bank Executive Director for Germany, pointed out that reproductive health, primary and secondary education, and economic opportunities are still big challenges for women today. Hoven argued that basic services are still not available to women; wherein women are either deliberately excluded, or women find no time or resources to use market opportunities (due to their traditional domestic roles and lack of education). 

However, Hoven continued, while the issues raised by this year's HDR are indeed serious, opportunities do exist; moreover, gender equality brings with it an economic advantage. Mainstream media should latch on to this idea to the same degree it has latched on to climate change, Hoven argued, and recommended the economic argument for gender equality as the best means for doing so.

The panelists agreed that in order to move forward, pressure must be placed on local actors across Asia to advocate for women's rights and empowerment. Though international norms must be used as benchmarks, there is no universal prescription for solving gender inequality and any approaches must be culture-specific. 

To read the full UNDP reports, please click on the following links:

The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways of Human Development (UNDP Human Development Report 2010)

Power, Voices, and Rights: A Turning Point for Gender Equality in Asia and the Pacific

Reported by Marianne Baesa, Asia Society Washington Center