* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
South Asia is one of the fastest growing regions on the planet. Ironically, it has declining employment rates, largely affecting women.
‘Step it up for gender equality’ was one among the many commitments renewed at the South Asian Speakers Summit on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) implementation, convened by the International Parliamentary Union (IPU) and Sri Lanka’s Parliament in Colombo, 11-12 July 2018.
Accounting for 39.4 percent of Asia’s population, and projected GDP increases, South Asia is one of the fastest growing regions on the planet. Ironically, it has declining employment rates, largely affecting women.
South Asia ranks second—lowest on the 2017 Global Gender Gap Index. Women’s mean labor force participation rate is 40 percent and national parliamentary representation ranges from 5.8 to 29.5 percent.
This is essentially due to gendered roles and norms privileging men in the public sphere of governance and economy, over women in the privacy of domesticity, where women’s unpaid care-work mediates the low value of all their work and relative exclusion from development. Private and public violence against women and girls is pervasive, demonstrating male power and control.
South Asia’s overall GDP gain from closing gender gaps in economies approximates 25 percent; women’s unique socially-determined resources enhance inclusivity of political and socio-economic decision-making and company profits.
Effective parliaments are markers of democratic and accountable governance. Through their functions parliaments strive to ‘leave no one behind’, which is the underlying crux of the SDGs.
For instance, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan have the highest number of women parliamentarians in South Asia, following electoral quotas. Similarly, following the 2016 election law reforms by the Sri Lankan parliament, women's representation increased from 1.9 to almost 25 percent in 2018.
The constitutional reform process initiated resulted in a Public Representations Committee Report on Constitutional Reforms, incorporating civil society-UN Women submissions recommending equitable representation of women at all decision-making levels.
The Sri Lanka women parliamentarians' caucus, supported by UN Women, prepared a separate submission to the Constitutional Assembly, submitted by the Minister of Women and Child Affairs. In India, the “knock-the-door” campaign led by Jan Sahas, supported by UN Women, saw manual scavengers visiting homes of parliamentarians urging response to their dire needs.
Parliamentarians raised these in subsequent sessions, leading to the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, covering India’s 600,000 scavengers, majority being women. Indian Parliamentarians across party lines have also been facilitated by UN Women to discuss annual Union budgets from a gender perspective immediately after release.
Parliaments must address challenges to implementing a gender agenda including the lack of women parliamentarians, inadequate political will and expertise, constraints in adhering to party discipline, inadequate policies, operating procedures, gender-based mechanisms, discriminatory attitudes and inadequate links with women’s CSOs and constituencies.
Existing good practice must be enhanced to ensure a critical mass of influential women parliamentarians through electoral gender quotas and strengthened gender capacities of all elected representatives.
This involves taking account of women’s and men’s concerns, from various marginalized groups - even in ‘neutral’ terrains like infrastructure or macro-economics.
It needs tailored interventions informing all stages of policy and legislative processes, including budget allocations, revenue generation and their gender impacts.
Policies and operating procedures should call for gender mainstreaming in all parliamentary work and functions, establishing parliamentary committees on women and girls with formal remit, institutionalized links with gender advocates and constituencies to source information, explore violations and press for redress.
Gender caucuses across sex and party lines and intentional engagement with male champions, technical gender units in parliament can strengthen the gender agenda. Finally rules or lack thereof, on sitting hours, child-care, respectful conduct in-session would further enrich women’s participation.
Jean D’Cunha is head of UN Women Myanmar on special assignment as Senior Advisor to UN Women Multi Country office for India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka.