Asia's Gender Problem

Asia may lead the world in economic growth rates but when it comes to gender equality, most of it has a long way to go even to catch up with much of sub-Saharan Africa and most of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Of Asian nations, only the usually much-maligned Philippines stands out – despite its church-driven campaigns against family-planning in gender equality– ranking fifth of 136 countries surveyed by the World Economic Forum (WEF) That is an astonishing achievement, putting it ahead of most of the developed world even including New Zealand, often seen as a model of gender equality. The top five are Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

The WEF computation takes 14 different measures. They are all relative, not absolute measures, simply assessing female performance relative to men by various indicators such as wage levels, sex ratio at birth, literacy, political representation.

Otherwise good overall performance in Asia is led by two countries till living with the benefits of Soviet era equality – Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Next for Asia comes Sri Lanka, long by far the leader in South Asia and by comparison with most lower-middle income countries – though its position has slipped. Low-income Bangladesh is ahead of India but still behind several low-income countries elsewhere. It does stand out however in terms of improvement since a 2006 survey and rates highest in the whole Muslim world apart from the ex-Soviet Kazakh and Kyrghyz republics.

It also presents a much needed example to the Islamic world where the bottom performance for every level of national income group is occupied by Muslim nations with Pakistan being especially notable for its abysmal rating.

Malaysia too has nothing to boast about, ranking low among upper middle income nations despite having a large non-Muslim population and has barely improved since 2006. Indonesia does rather better, again suggesting that Malaysia has a lot to learn from its large but less naturally endowed neighbor, which scores moderately on most measures. Malaysia has a middle rank on education but falls behind on economic participation and political empowerment.

Singapore scores quite well by Asian standards but is still in the lower ranks of the rich nation list with a particularly poor rating on educational equality. Nonetheless it is well ahead of Japan and South Korea. which are behind even India in the overall rankings. Good scores on health for both countries are offset by very poor ones on others – especially economic participation.

Among upper middle income Asia, Thailand has a moderate record on most measures except education and is ahead of China which scores very well on some measures such as workforce participation but very badly on others like sex ratio at birth and political representation.

There is no suggestion of any causal link between equality and national income per head, but the survey indicates that equality is an important part of social development. Overall it shows that there has been gradual improvement in equality almost everywhere in the world.

However, Asia’s progress has been relatively slow compared with other developing (and developed) regions other than the Middle East and North Africa. Those countries are all Muslim, demonstrating that whatever Islamic leaders may claim the reality is of gender bias on a unique scale. It is especially noteworthy in countries where Islam is the official religion, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia Pakistan and Malaysia and least in predominantly Muslim secular states furthest removed from Saudi Arabia – Bangladesh and Indonesia.

While the measures and weightings which go into such league tables can be questioned, they do give a rough and ready indication of how far women shares in the benefits of economic and social development whatever the income level of their nation.