Challenge: Gender inequality in South Asia


In South Asia, a preference for sons means that the girl child must struggle twice as hard to survive and fulfill her potential. If the girl child manages to overcome health issues and gets a basic education, it is unlikely she will escape child marriage – in the region, 1 in 2 girls are married before the age of 18. Bangladesh has the highest rate of child marriage at 52 percent, followed by India at 47 percent, Nepal at 37 percent, and Afghanistan at 33 percent. Although Bhutan is a middle-income country, it still has a high rate of women giving birth before the age of 18. 

Huge disparities by region, caste, class, and income affect the use of maternal and child health services in South Asia. The young age at which many girls first become pregnant – combined with their poor education, inadequate decision-making power and poor control over resources – means that many enter pregnancy ill-equipped to support healthy foetal growth and subsequently raise a healthy child. The region has the second highest number of maternal deaths worldwide.

Girls are systematically disadvantaged across the region as structural inequalities and the low status of women affect their rights. Social norms in South Asia prioritise a son receiving higher education, so the girl child often loses out on continuing her education. This is seen in the stark differences in the girl-boy ratio in secondary level classrooms across the region. Women make up less than five percent of the police force and less than 10 percent of judges in South Asia – reflecting the strength of social norms and the disparity in justice systems. 

Both girls and boys are affected by the prevalence of violence, sexual abuse and harassment in South Asia. Only four countries (Sri Lanka, India, Nepal and Bangladesh) in South Asia have laws prohibiting domestic violence. Patriarchal societal norms weaken the participation of women and children in family and community decision-making, especially adolescent girls. This reduces their ability to demand fulfillment of their rights to education, health and protection. This affects the ability of duty-bearers in fulfilling these rights. It is imperative to integrate a gender perspective across all UNICEF programmes to promote the value and empowerment of women and children in South Asia. 


As discriminatory practices are entrenched in social norms, UNICEF focuses on activities that instigate behavioural changes at the community level. Our regional partners strive to provide equal access to services and opportunities for girls, boys, adolescents and women. UNICEF is committed to strengthening these institutions by providing technical assistance, quality assurance, oversight and monitoring support. 

We work with our partners to identify and respond to barriers and bottlenecks that continue to fuel gender differences in education, health, water and sanitation, nutrition and national policies. And we ensure that their programmes integrate stronger gender strategies with a rights based approach. This helps to generate evidence and data, to influence and advocate for child focused policies and national level investments that are equitable and gender responsive.

We work with our country offices across the region to support government commitment to document and act on complaints received about the violation of child rights and discrimination against women. For instance, to combat the high dropout rate, the state budget supported secondary education and non-formal education for 62,000 adolescent girls in West Bengal, India. UNICEF also established Accelerated Learning Programs in remote areas disrupted by insecurity and displacement, providing learning opportunities for 31,800 excluded and over-age children in Pakistan. In Nepal, an inter-generational dialogue lead by fathers was held as part of a global campaign to end child marriage.

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