Empowerment of women implicitly assumes that in all societies, men control women—or, to be more precise, men control at least some of the women of their social class, particularly those in their households and families. Hence, women are a “class” in the two-class gender stratification system, that is governed by shared norms and values, and has a cultural as well as relational and/or material component. It recognizes that individuals belong to and are strongly influenced by social collectivities that are integrated by common ideological or normative systems. These ideological systems make prescriptions about many fundamental principles of social life, for example, how to organize families, how to allocate wealth among different groups or individuals, and how to organize relations between males and females etc. As a result, the perceptions, tastes, and choices of individual decision-makers are strongly influenced by the nature of the ideological or normative systems to which their social collectivity subscribes and into which they have been socialized. For those interested in development, then, understanding gender systems—not just the situation of individual woman—is critical. Therefore, empowerment of women need to focus on the rights, obligations and resources granted to females versus males under different gender systems rather than on the characteristics of individual woman or groups of women.
The role of civil society in taking it forward is the key to development and hence, is the matter of great concern in the resource-poor countries around the world. Despite constitutional safeguards, economic development and changes in social attitudes, women in the region continue to face various difficulties and discriminations in many aspects of their lives. Many, if not most, of these difficulties can be traced to cultural and social norms that have persisted in maintaining a patriarchal society in these countries despite several guarantees of gender equality in the constitutions of most of the countries in the region. This problem has been recognized civil society organizations during start of this millennium. This was more or less reflected in framing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000. In some of these countries, even when laws defending the right of men to use violence against women are repealed, the culture that created them continues to exert a tremendous influence over behavior; the situation is worst across a number of countries stretching from the Mediterranean to the edge of Southeast Asia, especially Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. However, during the last fifteen years, things are changing fast in favor of women but not up to the desired extent by the world order. The paper discusses all this taking the challenges and prospects into consideration and proposes a clear pathway at the start of post-2015, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) till 2030.
Despite progress over the last fifteen years, still gender equity and equality remain a distant goal, not an achievement in the region. The empowerment of women is restricted to a flawed system of reservation and subsidization that is flawed, yet becomes a necessary step for many of these countries in the region to help more women to enter the economic and political domains. Additionally, more independent women political leaders need to emerge without the assistance of political and influential families as a normal part of the decision-making process, who will take the agenda forward. Political measures and milestones may bring effective changes in the social and cultural beliefs; however, such changes cannot be imposed on a diverse and huge population through a top down approach. Instead, change must come from within the individual, whose beliefs and actions in turn will help gender equity and equality to be achieved in the long run and in a more sustainable manner. To be precise, economic and political empowerment is not an end to itself, this will be sustainable when women-groups become stronger as a social force, which provides social status to members; to function as a forum for discussing shared problems; and becomes a power to reckon with for taking joint actions with men and force the society to bestow the leadership status to women without a quota system.
The civil society organizations have a long way to go when things are becoming difficult for them in the emerging political scenarios of some of the countries in the region. Lack of clear political will, economic recession, social exclusion, and cultural intolerance are some of the challenges that they have to face in coming fifteen years down the line. The paper discusses all of these in detail and charts out a possible pathway that might take the women forward in overcoming these obstacles and help them to achieve their objectives by 2030.
In concluding, the paper emphasizes on a pathway where the processes will guide the broadening of choices, the expansion of options, and the provision of alternatives available to women in determining the course of events, which will shape their own lives and determine their destinies. Thus, it is a process which enables them to change the balance of power in social, economic and political relations in society. The proposed pathway also advocates more for political empowerment of women, i.e. giving women maximum participation in decision making processes and power sharing in the representative bodies, access to property, productive assets, common land and financial assets etc. Hence, all future efforts in improving women’s empowerment should focus more on improving the agency and resources dimensions. In particular, this paper deals with the deep seated traditions, social and religious norms that hinder women’s agency that is key to sustainable development goals in post-2015 scenario for civil society organizations. In nutshell, it includes the improvement of available resources such as better access to quality education, economic participation, enabling social environment, universal health coverage, favorable labor laws, inheritance and property rights that are essential for continued progress in empowerment of women of South and Southeast Asia.