The South-Asian ‘She’

 Published in: The Daily Star on March 31, 2014
The South-Asian ‘She’

A group of South Asian female entrepreneurs-cum-delegates arrives in the capital tomorrow to take part in a two-day seminar where networking is encouraged. In the event, women will be encouraged to talk to each other, gauge each other’s interest, interact and find opportunities. Asia Foundation and the State Department have jointly organised the meeting. While we will all study each other’s profiles and arrange for different project visits, a couple of statistics just sit grimly on our blackboards. And these figures are always done in white chalk, making it easier for the world to dust it off with dry cloth and not even water.
Imagine how it feels to have a whole aircraft with 226 passengers go missing right in the middle of nowhere. Imagine how family members who stood with photos of the missing right in front of Rana Plaza last April feel. Imagine how a woman feels when she reads that 4 million women go missing every year, especially from regions deeply struck by poverty. Studies show that more than 60 million women, 30 million from India and China alone, are ‘missing’ from the world’s population.
Truth is that in spite of all of us having routine discourses about women, in spite of all of us engaging in dialogues that promise women the best of exposure and privileges, at the end of the day, a woman is just a case of a single ‘favour’ with extensions to last a few years if lucky. And the huge number of missing women just goes unnoticed.
I remember having seen a poster of ‘Nijera Kori’ long ago where a woman was featured with many hands, juggling between jobs, commitments and chaos. The poster missed a few body parts like ten pairs of legs with which she manages to run to different corners, a few extra pairs of eyes with which she oversees all the members of the family. The list could go on. But does this same woman have access to capital? Is this same woman able to make it to our lists and gets the exposure that she so deserves? No.
The first discussion that comes up with gender exclusion is whether a woman is engaged in the formal sector or is the engagements pecuniary. In reality, World Bank data indicates that women account for 58% of unpaid employment, 2 out of 5 are girls who are never born owing to a preference for sons, and one-fifth go missing in infancy and childhood. Yet, there are more girls in secondary schools than boys; out of every 10 workers, 4 are women and women today account for 50% of informal global employment.
Investments are therefore required to make womanhood work beyond the traditional picture-perfect family photo frames. A woman can significantly push the per capita and GDP growth. A female earning member can contribute to the family welfare by introducing more bargaining power, which in turn supports development of human capital. A recent Goldman-Sachs and IFC publication shows that only one-third of the world’s small and medium enterprises (SME) are being run by women and that too…not without hassles. Women running organisations and institutions end up facing more difficulty in securing capital and work place safety that stems from cultural mind-sets and legal and cultural barriers. According to IFC estimates, 70% of the SMEs owned by women in the formal sector have a financing gap of around $285 billion and are either “unserved” or “underserved.” Closing this credit gap is crucial. Apparently, if this credit gap is addressed by 2020, per-capita income could be 12% higher by 2030 in the BRICS and the Next-Eleven, which includes Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey, South Korea, and Vietnam. But once again, the point is, do women really apply? Not exactly… Women are mostly reluctant to apply for loans, whereas policy bias, discriminations and misconceptions about female credit risk apparently exists in the world of finance.
In South Asia, we have a dichotomised picture that projects our strengths and takes us to the peaking range and then suddenly drops us at a deadly low with us being routinely raped and discriminated against. As for the positives, quite contrary to our belief, even Afghanistan has 35.8% female labour force, which is higher than most of the countries, except Malaysia and Indonesia. Girls’ gross primary enrollment is 40% in Afghanistan, a figure that has shot up from a measly 5% in 1999. In other Muslim countries, Indonesia has 108%, Iran 90.4%, Saudi Arabia 67% and Pakistan 62%. As for literacy in South Asia, Sri Lanka takes pride in a 97% literacy rate among women, with female literacy rate being just under 60% in Bhutan and 86% in Bangladesh.
Yet, let’s just think about India. The survey of more than 30,000 married women in villages and towns all across India, carried out by the National Council for Applied Economic Research, indicates that 6 out of 10 women cover their heads (which is once again, a personal choice), 8 out of 10 need permission to visit a doctor, 35% are prone to being beaten if they cook a dish badly, 36% get thrashed if they bring in insufficient dowry and 46% are battered if they neglect their household chores. Now, which world are we living in?
Is it the same South Asian paradox where India still marches in its glory and Bangladesh takes pride in its 20% representation in the parliament? Is it the same South Asia where on one hand Sri Lankan military, in a rare admission of guilt, admits soldiers had abused and tortured female recruits, after years of accusation, and on the other a movie star, a beauty queen and a popular model suddenly pop up as candidates running in Sri Lankan’s provincial elections?
Let’s not fudge our She-realities anymore. Let’s critically look at two-fifth of the female global population that disappears between the ages of 15 and 59. Let’s talk amongst ourselves on why India has only 10% female parliamentarians; let’s ponder on the fact that in spite of World Bank reporting female literacy rate being 21%, why are there fears on this being lower; let’s get together and reflect on the workplace rights for both the formal and the informal sectors.
Let’s catalyse existing opportunities for women and not let the females go missing anymore.

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