LAHORE: The 19th Annual Human Development in South Asia Report 2016: Empowering Women in South Asia has found that South Asia ranks really low in the female Human Development Index (HDI) in the world, only better than Sub-Saharan Africa.

However, it points out that South Asia has made a considerable progress regarding women’s education and health over 15 years, but has limited opportunities to offer women in economic, political, and justice system.

The report was launched by the Mahbubul Haq Research Centre at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

“Despite fragmented progress, we are hopeful for the future of women in South Asia. And if there is political will and resources made available, the region can improve the situation in the next 15 years by working diligently on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for women’s empowerment towards 2030,” Khadija Haq, the Human Development Centre president, said at the report’s launch.

Besides providing an overall South Asia profile, the report presents a detailed analysis of women’s empowerment in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. It shows that while every country has made progress in developing women’s capabilities and empowerment, women and men still live in an unequal world.

“Despite considerable improvement in women’s opportunities, capabilities and choices, South Asia has the lowest value of female HDI in the world, only better than Sub-Saharan Africa. In terms of the differential in male-female HDI value, the region is the worst in the world,” the report reads.

However, the educational indicators of women have improved at all levels of education, with considerable reduction in gender disparity. The report also finds women’s health status to have improved with a decline in maternal mortality ratio and a rise in life expectancy. However, the region lags behind the world with overall performance on most health indicators faring better than Sub-Saharan Africa only.

The report also reads that the region’s progress in improving women’s capabilities has not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in economic opportunities reflected from labour force participation rate, which is the second lowest in the world.

“All the countries have seen the formulation of new pro-women laws as well as the abandoning of several discriminatory ones. Nevertheless, issues of ineffective implementation due to a weak judicial system and inaccessibility of legal safeguards by women from poorer backgrounds have resulted in an increase in the incidence of violence against women,” it adds.

The region needs to recognise the role of women in development by deliberate efforts and inclusion in public policy. There is a need to approach the question of women’s empowerment in line with each country’s unique challenges and the particular interaction of economics, politics and law on one hand, and patriarchy, culture and religion on the other hand. Most importantly, there needs to be recognition of the fact that the question of women’s empowerment is not just about women, but rather about women and men and how they interact.

Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2016