Women Come Up Short in Asia

What is the meaning of development? Many supposedly successful countries in Asia and the Pacific could well be asking themselves how they fare on the data about women's positions in society compared with supposedly lagging regions in Africa and Latin America. But clearly gross domestic product and internet connectivity are not the only gauges of development.

A United Nations Development Programme report published on International Women's Day points to data which should cause plenty of embarrassment in Asia, northeast and South Asia in particular.

Surely the most outstanding and a rebuke to all those who insist that Confucian ideas should rule the modern world is the data on sex ratios at birth. The norm where there is no interference in natural processes is generally assumed to be between 104 and 105 boys per 100 girls – a ratio determined by nature because of higher death rates among males in the first years. Top of the list is that Communist paragon of male supremacy, China at 120 boys per 100 girls.

But second on the global list of aggressive gender selection is that paragon of the electronic age, South Korea, at 110 boys per 100 girls. This is one area where the South lags the North, which not only has a more sustainable fertility rate but a natural ratio of 105 boys.

South Korea is thus even worse than India, often cited as second only to China in sex imbalance, but only at 108. Generalizing about India is also difficult because some provinces (Punjab is worst) have very high male ratios while others, mostly in the south, have natural levels.

Low economic development actually seems to help gender balance at least in some countries. The most equal in Asia from a sex birth ratio standpoint are Bangladesh and Myanmar, both at 103. Southeast Asia generally comes out well with a regional average of 105 compared with the neo-Confucian Northeast at an average 107. The only poor performer in SE Asia is Singapore which also at 107. Meanwhile Malaysia at 106 is above the regional norm probably because of the impact of its Chinese population on the overall data.

Asia generally compares poorly with the rest of the world. The average in Africa is 103, the most equal to be found anywhere. North America and Latin and Northern Europe come in at 105 and Southern Europe at 107, a sure sign of gender bias around the Mediterranean.

Of course other regions may show greater bias as incomes and health services develop to the point where choice becomes easier. But most in Europe and the Americas have been at that point for many years already.

Abortion or infanticide of females is not of course the only way women go "missing" from the population. In total percentage of "missing women" Pakistan is in the lead at nearly 8% followed closely by India, with China close to 7 percent and Bangladesh and Iran around 4%. Given that neither Pakistan, Iran nor Bangladesh exhibit gender bias at birth, the only conclusion can be that these Muslim societies have high rates of early death due to neglect and disappearances from unnatural causes or in childbirth.

Says the report: "Few countries have adopted or implemented laws prohibiting violence against women, despite widespread evidence of discrimination and assault. Nearly half of the countries in South Asia, and more than 60 percent of those in the Pacific, have no laws against domestic violence. Nor are there many provisions against sexual harassment in workplaces, though 30 to 40 percent of working women report experiencing verbal, physical or sexual abuse."

Migrant women, a huge category in Southeast Asia, are subject to particular abuse and discrimination, including in such developed countries as Singapore where foreign domestic servants have low wages and even less freedom.

Development has brought more women into the workforce in most countries, but variations are still huge. For instance in Bangladesh 50 percent are in the workforce compared with under 20 percent in Pakistan and 30 percent in India.

China is ahead of almost everyone worldwide with 70 percent in the workforce – clearly a contributor to high growth. It and Vietnam and Thailand over 60 percent are well ahead of developed Asia -- Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore are all around 50 percent. (Though some of the differences reflect different age structure as well as social patterns and economic pressures).

Income disparities are also relatively small in both China and Vietnam, with women making nearly 70 percent of male rates, almost up to Australian and New Zealand levels, compared with barely over 50 percent in Singapore and South Korea. Bottom of the heap again is Pakistan, followed by India at 30 percent while Bangladesh is a creditable 50 percent.

Northeast Asia does well on gender equality in education – though it is not alone on this as Iran performs well on this count despite negligible political representation as measured by members of parliament. China does well on that measure too – over 20 percent -- but the real power in China lies elsewhere and women are conspicuous by their scarcity at politburo, party secretary and provincial governor level.

In China as elsewhere in northeast Asia, education and the rising economic power of women should in time make Confucian male chauvinism unsupportable. The absolute shortage of women will also erode male dominance. Nonetheless by then it may be too late to offset the damage done by gender bias compared with both undeveloped societies in Africa and the developed ones in the Americas.