South Asia is the third lowest performing region in the 2014 edition of the SIGI, with medium to high discrimination across all sub-indices and in particular the discriminatory family code, son bias, restricted physical integrity (e.g. domestic violence), and restricted resources and assets. Unlike in other poor performing regions, however, countries in South Asia show strong homogeneity: no country in the region features in the first quintile of the SIGI, and half of the countries feature in the final quintile.
The region has some of the highest levels of discrimination in the family code and of son bias among all regions. Many countries are still failing to address weak or non-existent legislation on early marriage: the legal age of marriage is lower for girls than boys in most countries (e.g. Afghanistan and Pakistan). Challenging this entrenched social norm through legislation has had a positive albeit limited impact on total numbers. Although Bangladesh’s 1984 law sets the legal age of marriage at 18 for women (and 21 for men) and rates of early marriage have declined, progress has been slow: 74% of women aged 15-19 were married in 2011, and 11% of girls gave birth before the age of 15. In India, the 2006 Prohibition of Child Marriage Act has seen numbers of early marriage decline; however, the country still has the highest numbers in the world, and early marriage represents 47% of all marriages (WHO, 2013). Son bias is prevalent across the whole region but particularly elevated in Nepal, whose percentage of boys as last child (61%) is among the highest in the world.
The 2012 high profile rape cases in India put the global media spotlight on the pervasive violations of women’s freedom from violence and in particular the poor institutional mechanisms to support victims’ access to justice. Underreporting of violence is also due to high levels of acceptance by women that it is justified (e.g. up to 90% in Afghanistan). Victims are confronted with harassment or disinterest by the police and judiciary, the risk of social marginalisation, limited access to welfare or shelters, as well as high legal costs. A 2013 United Nations survey highlights “sexual entitlement” as one of the main reasons cited by male perpetrators of rape (Fulu et al., 2013). In many countries, marital rape is not recognised (e.g. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan) or the penalties are low (e.g. Nepal). Women’s low status in the family are also reflected in the high numbers of missing women. In addition, there are reports that dowry-related violence, honour crimes and acid attacks are prevalent, affecting particularly vulnerable women, such as the poor or women from minority or ethnic groups.
Overall, women have limited opportunities to access or own land and other productive resources in their own name. Studies suggest that in Afghanistan only 2% of women own land (USAID, 2010). Positive steps toward gender equality in this area include Pakistan’s 2011 Anti-Women Practices Law which seeks to protect women’s right to inherit. Other countries have introduced legislation on land ownership (e.g. Afghanistan), however the prevalence of customary or religious laws continue to undercut these civil law protections.
The vibrant grassroots women’s networks in the region are making headway in pushing policy makers and communities to step up actions on gender equality. Efforts to improve public accountability on legislation addressing violence against women have been successful, but attempts to increase women’s political representation less so. Active campaigning by local NGOs with support from the international community has ushered in stronger penalties for rape (e.g. India) and overturned proposed revisions to the existing legal code that would have barred women from testifying against their family members in cases of violence (e.g. Afghanistan). Although electoral quotas at the sub-national level exist in many countries (e.g. India), this has not led to higher percentages of women in parliament, with a regional average of 18%.