- The Washington Times - Friday, February 28, 2003

HONOLULU On balance, economic development and social modernization have benefited women in Asia, but significant improvements in women's status require changes in attitudes that are embedded in centuries of traditions.
Recent studies show, for example, that high levels of education and household income do not necessarily ensure women's status in societies with strong traditions of male domination. In fact, relatively wealthy, educated women may be more restricted than poor, uneducated women who are forced by economic necessity to play a stronger, more independent role.
In Japan, married women with a college education are less likely to be employed outside the home than less-educated women. In India, preference for sons is stronger among women who are literate and who live in urban areas than it is among other women.
Until recently in most Asian countries, few women attended secondary school or university, and few worked outside the home. During the past 50 years, larger and larger proportions of women have completed primary and secondary school. The proportion of women attending university, although smaller, also is growing.
More recently, women have started taking up paid employment in greater numbers, particularly in the manufacturing, clerical and social service sectors. During the past 50 years, women's life expectancy has improved across the region, overtaking men's life expectancy in nearly all countries. Yet during early childhood, girls are still more likely to die than boys in some Asian countries, while in others, unusual birthrates for boys and girls in recent years point to the prevalence of sex-selective abortions.
Rising education levels: Primary-school education is nearly universal in many countries of East and Southeast Asia, both for boys and girls. In Asia as a whole, 14 percent of girls ages 15 to 19 were enrolled in school in 1950. By 1990, 26 percent were enrolled. In East Asia, there was an increase from 36 percent to 74 percent. Enrollment in Southeast Asia rose from 12 percent to 34 percent, and in South Asia, from 8 percent to 16 percent.
Women's secondary-school enrollment is steadily catching up with enrollment levels of men in some countries. In South Korea, Thailand and Hong Kong, it is nearly the same for both sexes. In the Philippines, enrollment is slightly higher for women, but women are much less likely to attend college or university than they are to attend secondary school.
More job opportunities: In Japan, more than eight of 10 working women are paid wages, while only two of 10 are unpaid family labor or are self-employed. In Bangladesh, by contrast, nearly eight in 10 work as unpaid family labor.
In the rapidly growing economies of East Asia, the most dramatic change in women's employment has been the decline in agricultural employment and the rise in office and clerical positions. In Japan, for example, the proportion of working women engaged in agriculture dropped from 43 percent in 1960 to 6 percent in 1999. While the proportion of working women who hold professional and managerial positions has increased in recent decades, it is still quite low. From 1960 to 1999, the proportion of working women holding such relatively well-paid positions rose from 5 percent to 15 percent in Japan, and from 0 percent to 4 percent in South Korea. Within the manufacturing sector, women have been heavily concentrated in low-wage, labor-intensive industries.
Longer life expectancy: Life expectancy at birth, one of the most basic indicators of health and well-being, is improving all across Asia, but longevity still varies widely. Survival is generally lowest in South Asia and highest in East Asia. By 2000, women could expect to live longer than men, on average, in every major country of the region except Nepal and Pakistan.
In societies where women live longer than men, improvements in women's life expectancy come at a cost. As widows live into old age, issues of financial support and medical care become critical for families and national governments alike.
High mortality among girls: Among South Asian families with limited resources, boys often receive more food compared with girls, and get better care to prevent diseases and accidents, and better treatment when they do fall ill. In India, boys are breast-fed slightly longer than girls, and they are slightly more likely to be fully vaccinated. When girls become ill, they are less likely to be taken to a health facility for treatment, and girls also are more likely to be severely undernourished.
Even in countries where child health care is generally good, death rates may be higher for girls. In the late 1980s, Chinese families enjoyed nearly universal health care, and mortality among children ages 1 to 4 was fewer than 25 per 1,000. Among firstborn children, the mortality rate was similar for both sexes, but among second-born and subsequent children, child mortality was 15 percent higher for girls.
In other East Asian countries, such as South Korea, high incomes and low fertility now allow parents to provide good nutrition and high-quality care to both sons and daughters. Yet excess female mortality has not disappeared entirely, even in South Korea.
Selective abortion: In societies that prefer sons, several practices may lead to abnormally high ratios of boys to girls at birth. The birth of baby girls may not be reported, or girls may not be counted in census enumerations. In some cases, families may even resort to female infanticide. In China during the 1980s, couples who wanted sons, but faced harsh penalties if they had too many children, sometimes gave baby girls away for adoption without registering their births.
More recently in South Korea, China and Taiwan, the introduction of technologies to determine the sex of unborn fetuses, combined with the widespread availability of abortion, has led to a record preponderance of male births. This suggests that couples are selectively aborting female fetuses. In addition, evidence is accumulating that sex-selective abortion also is occurring in India.
The 1990 census in South Korea suggests that nearly 80,000 female fetuses were aborted in 1989-90 for purposes of sex selection, a number equivalent to about 5 percent of all female births. In 1987, the Korean government banned tests to determine the sex of fetuses. In 1990 and 1994, it increased the penalties for sex screening. In urban areas today, sex ratios at birth have returned to normal.
The future: Advances in women's education can be expected to continue, although in some countries the pace of change is slow. A shrinking proportion of working-age men in some Asian populations combined with continuing reductions in hours worked will exert pressure on employers to hire women and to encourage them to remain in the work force. In the process, employers will have to accommodate women's needs to manage both work and family responsibilities, and husbands will have to provide more help at home.
Social development for men and women in the form of education, media exposure and opportunities to work outside the home can provide access to new ideas and, with time, a transformation of cultural values.
In Asia's developing countries and advanced economies alike, hiring practices and employment conditions need to be reviewed to reduce sex discrimination and to make it easier for parents to balance work and family obligations. Although it has proved difficult to end sex discrimination by legislation, some issues such as sex-selective abortion and care and support for elderly women require immediate policy attention.
Sidney B. Westley is a communications specialist at the East-West Center in Honolulu. This article is adapted from "The Future of Population in Asia," a book published by the center under a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. For more information, contact the EWC Publication Sales Office at 808/944-7145 or e-mail [email protected]


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