Asia's Women Catching Up

Women still get a raw deal in many parts of the world. But, suggests a World Bank report, they have been gaining ground very rapidly overall – to the point where men may be feeling their assumed roles seriously threatened. However, many countries still have a long, long way to go before equality by measures such as income, educational opportunities and inheritance rights is even close.

Needless to say, the report does not actually say so but a high proportion of the laggards relative to their income levels are Muslim. For instance Pakistan and Egypt stand out for their abysmal failings in women’s education and the whole Middle East-North Africa region exhibits a high degree on inequality in inheritance rights, an often-forgotten key element in women’s ability to exercise power equal to their numbers. However, there are standouts such as Bangladesh where female school attendance rates are almost twice the level of its former, and richer, master Pakistan. More than that, Bangla girls stay longer in school than boys.

Taking the world as a whole, life expectancy among women has risen more sharply than among men. Indeed there is no country now where male life expectancy is more than that of women. A key reason has been the decline in maternal mortality almost everywhere. Nonetheless not only is it still appallingly high in sub-Saharan Africa but in India, which is no less than six times that of Sri Lanka. Indeed, Sri Lanka and Malaysia are both held out as examples to follow.

China stands out in employment for women – as does Cambodia -- and in most countries employment of woman has advanced even if much of it is often irregular self-employment. Contributing factors to gains include globalization, which has brought women-intensive industries to low income countries and most recently the impact of mobile phones. In many developing countries mobile phone usage is almost as high am among women as men and has created new earning opportunities.

China may be tops in many things but is near bottom of the world league in terms of gender imbalance at birth. In 2008 China was short almost 1.1 million female births, two thirds of the global total. India was a mere 257,000 short – though still comparing very unfavorably with its South Asian neighbors. India also show an extraordinarily high rate relative mortality of girls under 5, a nasty characteristic not found in China or elsewhere East Asia. The implication is that while abortion of female fetuses is the main problem in China, neglect of young females is a major one in India.

The report also comes up with some data which may seem surprising. Almost everywhere those who do not use contraception ascribe the fact not to religion or their spouses’ demands but to inconvenience – presumably a reference to condoms and other mechanical means – or health concerns – presumably a reference to the possible health effects of contraceptive pills. The “inconvenience” rate is highest in Cambodia but also in the Philippines, where the religious factor is not minor. Of course the answers may be inexact. They may hide religious or spousal pressures or the cost factor anywhere that condoms are not provided very cheaply. Lack of knowledge of contraceptive methods is a problem in many African countries but barely exists in SE Asia and is not a major problem in South Asia – with Bangladesh being more knowledgeable than India.

The advance of gender equality in most aspects of life is taken as a given for all societies regardless of traditions which are very different. Many will regard it as an example of current western values being taken as a model for the world. The report even acknowledges that there are instances where male productivity is much higher than women in similar jobs, and that women still look mostly on men as more powerful. However, it may be difficult to combat the rise in women’s status and shift from child-bearing and home management to employment as well as motherhood.

Almost everywhere brain is replacing brawn as the way to economic advance and hence women can show their equal status. But more than that, girls are now outshining boys at key ages in school and hence becoming a majority of university students in some countries. This raises the issue, already a concern in some western countries, of whether school systems which treat boys and girls as equals may be favoring the earlier-developing girls.

The World Bank report itself even acknowledges the difficulty of male adjustment to changes in their relative economic importance with a chapter entitled: “The decline of the breadwinner: Men in the 21st Century”. Radical change has caught men by surprise. In the long run it may be futile, but it does explain why in some countries at least men resist, occasionally violently, to their loss of power and prestige.