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What women can bring to the Asian Century

By Isabel Guerrero

Today we celebrate International Women’s day. Like every year, hundreds of events will happen worldwide to highlight the importance of rebalancing the global gender equality and integrating women in economic, development and peace processes. We will read or hear the phrase ‘women’s empowerment’ many times but soon, people will refocus on other day-to-day issues, such as concern about the effects of the financial crises, its impact on people’s pockets and the lack of employment for new generations.

It is true that South Asia navigated the financial crisis better than most regions and that over the last two decades it has experienced a long period of robust economic growth, averaging six per cent a year. The idea that the world has entered the ‘Asian Century’, is now becoming a reality and some countries in the region are working hard to become global leaders in order to give the world economy a big boost. But if South Asia wants this boom to happen, it needs to go far beyond today’s celebration and bring women on board now, as they are a key force in shaping the region’s future.

A stronger and dynamic South Asia will only be possible with the integration of women in its development formula. Gender equity is not only a core development objective in its own right, but is also crucial to smart economics, enhancing productivity and improving prospects for the next generation. Bringing the feminine perspective to the table can really make a difference. Poverty can be reduced by empowering women in their communities to find their own answers, organically grown to solve problems as they emerge.

Unfortunately, South Asia — that includes the culturally-rich and diverse countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka — is at the bottom of the gender inequality global rankings. This index includes five indicators: maternal mortality, adolescent fertility, parliamentary representation, education and labour force participation. Some numbers are striking: 290 women out of 100,000 die during child birth — a number only exceeded in sub-Saharan Africa — and millions of girls simply go missing through sex selective abortions.

The region is home to the largest population of young people in the world, half of which are women. In order to take full advantage of the potential of South Asia’s youth, women need to have the skills that will allow them to leverage the opportunities that are available in an increasingly global market. More and better jobs are needed to capitalise on the region’s demographic dividend and to close the earning and productivity gaps between men and women.

Furthermore, half of the world’s child brides live in South Asia, which has serious consequences: women who get married at a young age are less likely to attend school and are more likely to be victims of widespread and often socially-accepted domestic violence. Unfortunately, over half of adolescents think that a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife.

The ‘Asian Century’ will only become a reality if South Asia welcomes growth that reduces gender gaps in health and education and ensures that women’s voices are heard. We need to work together to economically empower women. Gender equality will benefit all — it is not only a matter of fairness, but is relevant to generate and ensure economic growth.

The Express Tribune