Women in South Asia

The goal of human development is intertwined with women’s development. Women as an independent group constitute almost 50% of the total population in most countries. They comprise not only the valuable human resources of the country but their socio-economic development sets the pace for sustainable growth of the rest of the economy of the particular country and region. This statement is equally valid for the South Asian region which is a home to a fifth of the world’s population, cradle of ancient civilizations and religions, rich in its multiplicity of cultures, languages and ethnic strains is, in economic terms, one of the poorest in the world. The seven countries of Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka vary enormously in size, geography and resources. The prevalent situation in these nations make them, uneasily bound together by religious and cultural ties, yet they are widely different from each other. The one stark reality, which encompasses all of South Asia, is the poverty of its people. Geography and demography are partly responsible for the situation.

A commitment to gender justice has been evident in the region. However, inequalities persist. Women continue to be excluded. And they are still on the fringes of social, economic and political developments and key processes towards participation and decision making. This inequality and discrimination has led to massive socio-economic and human costs. The declining sex ratio, increasing threats of gender-based violence, reported growth in the trafficking of women and girls, increasing feminization of poverty, HIV/AIDS and unsafe migration and displacements due to disaster and armed conflicts have been fueling inequalities and insecurity for girls and women in the region. On the eve of the twenty-first century poverty, injustice and violence against women are causing havoc throughout the South Asian Region. The studies carried out nationally and internationally tend to show that women are rather more drastically affected than men by poverty. The discrimination against women is spread widely in areas of education, employment and health.

Education is the key to human advancement, which is not handed down to majority of women. Most of the women’s work, inside the house goes unnoticed and unremunerated. Even outside the family they remain underpaid. Neglect of women, particularly girls, is a black mark in the South Asian society. This is the only region in the world where men outnumber women in the total population. Women are vulnerable because of a vicious circle of gender stereotypes. Violence against women is a grave area needing immediate attention. Violence is not limited to domestic violence. Women at all times are exposed to abuse, mental and sexual harassment and even rape. Apart from individual violence, women and children continue to be the natural targets and worst sufferers both in the men-made and natural calamities. Every fifth minute a crime is reported against women. The most heinous crimes, rapes and dowry murders, are also on the rise. Apart from this, there is an alarming increase in the number of acquittals and cases pertaining to these crimes pending in the courts is startling. The region does not present very encouraging data where the education of girls and women is concerned. The social and cultural constraint severely restricts their accessibility to most productive resources including education. Dropout rate for girls is comparatively much more higher. The various socio-economic factors leading to this situation are, social taboos, poverty, attitude of parents, early marriage, early expectancies, security, distance to schools and lack of female teachers. Lack of awareness is also a hurdle in making full use of rights given to women including the policies and programmes made by the governments in the region for their betterment. Considering the current social scenario and present government policies, more women are encouraged to join the teaching profession. In the past few years this number has increased tremendously. On the contrary, the number of women teachers joining the teacher unions does not reflect their strength in proper ratio. This situation is enhanced due to the following reason:-

  • Misconceptions about unions
  • Lack of awareness
  • Social taboos
  • Multiple responsibilities
  • Time constraints

Those who join the unions normally do not participate actively in the union’s day today activities. Their representation at the decision making level is very low as very few women hold office or key positions. The aforesaid clearly describes the pathetic situation of women in South Asia. There are very many issues, which are yet to be addressed. The above highlights that there is a strong need to adopt a holistic approach to improve the prevailing situation. There is also a need to take some effective and preventive measures and save them from the atrocities, social taboos and barbaric gender bias.

Women's Network

The concept of the women’s network in the Asian Region was initiated almost two decades back. However, it took reasonable time to materialized the concept and to translate it into reality for various reasons. Looking back to the past one will find that, there were concrete reasons and evidences experienced by women in the teachers unions that motivated them to look for new strategies which can help them in improving their existing situation and poor status in the unions and get proper status and rightful place which they truly deserve. This was the time when women were hardly seen in the unions and their activities and there has been no indications or the efforts observed on the parts of the teachers’ union which can be considered helpful in promoting them either. The opportunities for women in the male dominating teachers’ organizations were dismal, their issues were ignored and they were not recognized as equal partners in building the unions, despite the fact that women form majority in the teaching profession. Women voiced out all these concerns during a regional workshop held in Kuala Lumpur on initiation of EI and the recommendations have been made to EI for a need of establishing a forum and communications structure which can facilitate collection and dissemination of information, planning and research including cultivation of leadership and organizing qualities through training among women. Strategies to increase women’s participation in the teacher organizations include awareness building, leadership and skills training, networking among women and international solidarity. It can be said that the concept of forming the network of women and establishing cohesion had come into existence because of the poor status of women in the South Asian countries with a strong desire to bring about the change in women’s situation in education and teachers’ organizations in particular and in society as a whole.

The first sub-regional women workshop was held in Kathmandu, Nepal in 1994 can be considered as a milestone in the efforts of forming a network for women in the SAARC. The women delegates from eighteen organizations participated in the workshop, discussed their problems and issues, voiced their concerns unitedly and unanimously agreed that they are lagging behind and need special efforts and affirmative action to fill up the backlog and to form a balance. Living in a patriartic society they are taught to maintain silence under all circumstances and should not cross their limit being ‘women’ as they hold secondary status due to their gender in society, thereby in education and teachers’ unions. They suffer constant violence, atrocities and discrimination in the name of culture and religion and not considered to be educated. They form minority in the teachers’ unions and cannot voice out their concerns, neither their problems are understood by the unions that they are overburdened with house chores and domestic responsibilities and therefore need some specific facilities, measures, attention and conducive environment in the unions for ensuring their participation. They called on EI to provide support for establishing a network including adequate assistance for training and activities benefiting women in order to improve their knowledge and skills.

There might be many more things to say but to make it precise, the lack of opportunities, lack of recognition, lack of friendly environment, lack of trust on women’s capability and ability, lack of consultation and communication, lack of attention towards issues concerning women, lack of voice, tendency to suppress them and use them as decorative pieces were few of the main reasons that can be held responsible to give birth to the women’s network.

The recommendations of this sub-regional workshop were sent to EI and all the member organizations and necessary support was requested from them.

With the support of CTF, five Joint National Workshops were conducted in 1995 in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and the concept of the women’s network was explained to the wider groups including the key male leaders from the eighteen organizations. As such the women’s network in South Asia has begun to take shape slowly. All the workshops were of a joint nature and aimed to explain the purpose, function and importance of the network for women in the sub-region. By 1996, the network started taking shape and began to expand as the contact persons at national level were appointed and women’s sub-committees were formed to take up the various responsibilities in order to implement the project for women, with women and by women. For instance, the women’s project committees were formed to take up the responsibilities relating to planning, evaluating, organizing, supervising, monitoring and reporting under the guidance of the respective Executive Committees and act as an Advisory Committee to the Executive Committees. The Editorial and Research Committees were formed to assist the Project Committees in publishing newsletters and collecting necessary information and data on women and the issues effecting them, the situation of women in organizations and reasons why they do not join organizations and come forward for leadership, the situation of women in education with particular emphasis on girl education, etc. The national contact persons were appointed with the intention to work as channels between the national organizations in the same country, within the organization at different levels and with the EI Regional Office. In 1996, a systematic series of Workshops and Training Courses were implemented to train the top women national leaders and trainers to run the follow up activities in these countries.

About 450 women leaders including 150 specially selected women were trained through these workshops. In 1997, the Regional and District level Workshops were organized to train the block and district level women leaders. The Union Skills Development Workshops were conducted to train women in important leadership and union skills i.e. negotiations, representation, conducting a meeting, election, writing the reports, maintenance of accounts, book keeping, decision making, communication, grievance handling, leadership, etc. The special workshops for the Editorial, Research and Project Committee members were conducted to enable them to acquire the necessary skills required to publish the newsletter. At the end of each year, Evaluation and Planning Workshop were organized. In 1998, while the regional activities were continued, awareness seminars started taking place for the rank and file members in order to reach the grass root level and encourage women’s recruitment by making them aware about the unions and their importance including the women’s issues and rights and the union’s role to address these issues. The joint committees in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh started publishing Joint Women’s Newsletters regularly. From 1999 onwards, while continuing the above activities, the network has expanded its dimensions towards women’s awareness on regional issues and organized several activities on some burning social issues such as violence against women, legal rights and included HIV/AIDS, child labour and girl child issues in all its activities. From 2000, an aspect of sustainability was added in the agenda of the network and the activities related to income generation have been organized in the region. While the process of the formation of the network within the organization is in place, the efforts are being made to establish the linkage building outside the organization as well.

The network process has been started with 18 organizations from 5 countries in the South Asia namely India (4), Nepal (2), Bangladesh (3), Pakistan (4), and Sri Lanka (5). Due to the huge size of the unions in India the project is being undertaken on individual basis, whereas, rest of the four countries the organizations agreed to implement it on joint basis from national to local level, which is one of the strong element in the women’s network. Due to worsening political situation in Bangladesh and Pakistan the organizations in these countries could not able to continue after 2000, but rest of the 11 organizations kept the project intact until now and the women’s network have become instrumental in bringing about the desired changes to the extent that now the networks are focusing their efforts to mainstream themselves into the unions and assist their unions in achieving the ultimate goal of building a “strong, independent, democratic and sustainable union”.

The recruitment, organizing and unionizing are part and parcel of the women’s network activities on one hand and they are equally involved in the action and activities relating to Education For All, Girl Child Education, Professional Code of Ethics and Human and Trade Union’s Rights on the other. They are engaged in campaigning on Maternity Protection Benefits and lobbying with the government on the educational issues such as National Policy on Education and appointment of the para teachers. As such, while the thrust of the women’s network is to achieve gender equality in the union and education, the unionism in not being left out and being always treated as an integral part of the whole concept.

Soon after, UEN from Norway, AEU from Australia and Lararforbundet from Sweden came forward to assist the women’s network in the South Asia. In 2002 Lararforbundet has became a partner by providing assistance for a technical staff stationed at Kuala Lumpur. As such CTF, AEU, UEN and Lararforbundet have been jointly assisting for the activities, trainings and publications at the local, national and sub-regional level. This is how the first network was started in the South Asia known as SAARC Women’s Network. The following countries and organizations are the members of the SAARC Women’s Network.




    All India Primary Teachers’ Federation
    All India Secondary Teachers’ Federation
    All India Federation of Teachers’ Organisation
    All India Association for Christian Higher Education
  • 4
  • NNTA
    Nepal National Teachers’ Association
  • NTA
    Nepal Teachers’ Association
  • 2
Sri Lanka
  • ACUT
    All Ceylon Teachers Union
  • ACUT(G)
    All Ceylon Teachers Union (Government)
  • CTTU
    Ceylon Tamil Teachers Union
    Sri Lanka Independent Teachers Union
    Union of Sri Lanka Teachers Solidarity
  • 5




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  • 50% of population
  • in most countries are women who constitute an independent group
  • Every 5 minutes
  • a crime is reported against women
  • Poverty affects women more
  • drastically than men