24 June, 2022

The Humanitarian Collective

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Deprived of the Right to Dream: Gender Discrimination in South Asia

While many nations around the world have made progress in recent years regarding fundamental equality for young girls and women, South Asia lags behind. Staff Writer Avani Khorana examines this issue further, and lays out the steps international leaders must pursue to eradicate sexism and gender inequality.

The aspirations of countless South Asian girls are given a death sentence at the time of their birth. Sons are favored over daughters, making it difficult for young girls to survive and succeed. Throughout the region, girls receive little to no schooling while the sons’ education is made a priority. Additionally, 50% of girls are married before the age of 18 and are also often subject to teen pregnancy. Patriarchal values and social norms establish gender inequality throughout South Asian society, and create gender roles for women beginning in their early childhood.

Already, many young boys are kept out of school as a result of the caste, economic, religious, and ethnic tensions that shape much of South Asian society. For girls, these factors are only exacerbated on account of their gender, preventing them from receiving an education. 81% of girls never start school, compared to 42% of boys. Even when they are allowed to begin school, girls often never make it to secondary level schooling. Due to social norms throughout the region, girls are expected to marry before they turn 18 and a higher level of education reduces the likeness that a girl will marry early. For these girls, finishing secondary school becomes a challenge, and the prospect of pursuing higher education forever remains a fantasy. 

South Asia has the highest rate of child marriage in the world, with nearly half of women between the ages of 20 and 34 reporting having been married before they turned 18. About 17% of girls are married before their 15th birthday — which, if they did go to school, would be before they even began high school. South Asian social norms all too often force women and girls into rigid gender roles that deny them basic human rights, putting these young girls at risk of abuse and exploitation. 

Women are entitled to the right to live free of violence, to be educated, and to have the best mental and physical health possible. In South Asia, only Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh have laws prohibiting domestic violence — even in these nations, sexual assault against women and girls is all but commonplace. When kept out of school so that they can marry, many only go on to be abused by their husbands and give birth before the age of 18. South Asia has the second highest number of maternal deaths in the world, and even then these girls are often unable to support a healthy fetus and raise a healthy child. Patriarchal mores expect women to stay complacent with their subjugation, all but stopping them from demanding their right to health education, and protection be respected. 

However, in this moment as social justice and fundamental equality is being made more of a priority, it is clear that now is time for change. Girls should have the opportunity to thrive, and the patriarchy must be dismantled along with the current social norms. For many women in South Asia this may seem like a pipe dream, however, as modernization begins to invade more traditional areas people are becoming aware of the importance and value of educating young girls and defending their human rights.

Modernization has already begun to change the urban workplace. While originally designed by and for an all-male workforce, a growing number of middle class women have begun to enter new careers in urban areas of several South Asian countries. Many families still do not allow their daughters to work, but in recent years, women have begun to challenge traditionalist mores, speak out against misogyny, and fight for their rights. Through education and economic development in the evolving workforce, South Asian women can defy their traditional gender roles and create a society in which young girls’ dreams are no longer fantasy. 

Sources: Links embedded.

Hi! My name is Avani and I’m 15 years old. I live in New York City and am a rising sophomore at Horace Mann School in the Bronx. I listen to music 24/7 and love to play soccer and get creative with art and design. I love using art and writing as a way to speak out about social justice and humanitarian issues all over the world. Follow me on Instagram @khoranaavani !!!