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The e-Newsletter of the Gender Network March/April 2012 | Vol. 6, No. 1 What lies

The e-Newsletter of the Gender Network

March/April 2012 | Vol. 6, No. 1

What lies beneath: The untold stories of gender equality

by Savitri Goonesekere *

In an era of aggressive changes in information technology and marketing, it is difficult to find “untold” stories.” However as we celebrate International Women’s Day, on 8th March 2012 we need to reflect that in the area of gender inequality and discrimination, there are many “untold” stories that should be in the public domain. This is especially so in the region I come from, South Asia.

In 2000 ADB, under the leadership of committed professionals like Shireen Lateef, organized a gender seminar during its Annual General Meeting in Chiang Mai. It was titled:

“women hold up half the sky.”

More than a decade later, South Asia has witnessed armed conflict and disaster, and there is a strong information base that demonstrates how women have sustained their families and communities. UN Women has remarked recently on a global phenomenon that women perform 66% of the world’s work, produce 50% of the world’s food, earn 10% of the income and own 1% of the property.” This is equally true for South Asia, where, in a classic irony, 65% women are employed in agriculture, and malnutrition is highest among women. There are other significant gaps which have been resistant to change, five to six decades after political independence was achieved in several countries.

Economic growth has improved, sometimes dramatically, but it has not and does not guarantee gender equality or the elimination of discrimination. This is most poignantly demonstrated in the manner in which ideologies of son preference and denial of life chances for women have been resistant to change. This is clear from practices such as female foeticide, child marriage and dowry violence, among all social classes in some countries, justified on the basis of “traditional” cultural values. Amartya Sen referred to South Asia’s “missing women” many years ago. It is estimated that 100 million women do not survive in the region today, because of pre-birth sex selection (including in middle and upper class families), and neglect in health and nutrition.

Continuing gender disparities exist in other areas, especially access to private land and its management, and distribution of State land in restitution and resettlement after displacement caused through infrastructure development, armed conflict and natural disaster. Women then lose livelihoods as well as land rights as users in communal land, and ownership they may have acquired through local customs and practices that are not reflected in the legal systems. A “male”” head of household usually receives priority in access to cash benefits, housing, or land grants in state programs. The cost benefits of single ownership and preventing fragmentation of an important economic asset discourages joint titling. Personal laws based on custom or religion which deny women land rights in private property remain in general unchanged .Equitable state land distribution policies and laws can compensate for unequal access to private land. Instead they reinforce gender inequalities, particularly when

* Professor Savitri Goonesekere is a former CEDAW and EFG Member. This talk was presented during during the International Women’s Day Breakfast Event Celebration. 8 March 2012. ADB Headquarters.















Internationalization of critical issues of concern to women has been a catalyst for change. These standards sometimes remain “untold stories” among those with responsibilities for accountable governancelegislators, administrators, the corporate sector and justice institutions. They have helped, however, women’s groups and/or gender activists, to network within countries and regionally and lobby successfully for change. They have helped to develop common and shared best practices in the region, e.g. responses to gender based violence especially domestic violence, trafficking, and political participation, reforms of citizenship laws, and Hindu religion based inheritance laws in India and Nepal, and family law reform in Maldives, restricting unilateral divorce by males.

A failure to respond to the reality that “women hold up half the sky” has encouraged minimalist micro level livelihood initiatives that perceive women as a “vulnerable group” in need of protection. Women would not have equal access to employment or livelihoods with such an approach.

Economic transformation will further marginalize women unless:

The State and the corporate sector including women in leadership positions, accept a norm of inclusive growth that gives adequate priority to human development. Without it, institutionalized inequalities of caste, ethnicity, culture and religion which foster multiple discrimination against women will remain and be legitimized in the name of culture and religion. Budgetary allocations for health services and education, including higher education, in an appropriate public-private balance, as a dimension of human resource development, is an unmet need of many decades, especially in the subcontinent.transformation will further marginalize women unless: Equality is understood as not merely “ formal ”

Equality is understood as not merely “ formal ” equality on paper but achieving equality in impact and results. Best practices formalequality on paper but achieving equality in impact and results. Best practices in the region on affirmative action such as quotas for women in legislative bodies must be developed further and extended to the corporate sector.

The current tendency to undervalue the importance of a solid evidence base for law and policy reform and programming should be resisted, and that more support is given for validated gender data generation and analysis. Statistics can hide and distort realities unless they are analyzed with professionalism. The regional South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Gender Information Base can be an important initiative helping to overcome sensitivities to information sharing. This may then become an accepted and shared peer review process to achieve common goals.be developed further and extended to the corporate sector. The positive contribution of women in building

The positive contribution of women in building social networks and their support for individual women to achieve gender justice must be brought more into the public domain in the same manner as the individual story of the women we commemorate annually on the 8th of March. These stories must be seen as human stories in the cause of peace inclusive development and justice, to complete an unfinished agenda of gender justice that is relevant for progress in all countries in the region. South Asia can no longer afford the human cost of economic growth that ignores women’s contribution to human development, and afford the human cost of economic growth that ignores women’s contribution to human development, and their lived experiences as responsible citizens in their families and communities.