The South Asian region is home to 860 million womenthree-fourths of whom live in India alone. However, women and young girls continue to be systematically disadvantaged across the region. In fact, according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2020, South Asia’s gender gap is the second largest among the eight other regions of the world.

This situation is likely to worsen due to the COVID19 pandemic. Nevertheless, to fulfil the goal of building long-term and inclusive recovery systems in light of the current pandemic; for the pursuit of conflict prevention and international peace; and to ensure that policy responses address the specific needs of women, perhaps, it is time for the South Asian nations to consider the adoption of a Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP).

The South Asian Scenario

Anecdotal evidence reveals that in all South Asian countries, gender-based discriminatory practices begin even before the birth of a child and rigid patriarchal values subsequently, keep these inequalities alive. Rape, sexual violence and harassment along with women’s economic vulnerability, lack of participation and leadership are thus, endemic features of South Asia’s socio-political landscape. These inequalities are further intensified in situations of anti-state rebellions, conflicts and extremism.

For instance, in Afghanistan, at least 51 per cent of women have experienced lifetime physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence. Similarly, in the disputed zones of Kashmir, women are living under a constant threat of violence, molestation and abuse. According to certain estimative statistics ranging from January 1989 until September 2020, crime rates against women, particularly gang rapes and molestations hovered roughly at around 11,219.

These converging evidence point towards gender-based violence being one of the most common types of violence in South Asia, which continues to deprive women of their fundamental freedom and dignity of life.

In terms of female political agency, at present, only 13 per cent of parliamentarians in India are women, 20.63 per cent in Bangladesh, 20.17 per cent in Pakistan, 11.32 per cent in Myanmar etc. However, while these statistics showcase an improvement from the previous years, the numbers are not even nearly proportional to the total number of women residing within the countries.

This paucity of women’s representation in the uppermost echelons of lawmaking poses a serious problem for the promotion of human rights, peace, justice and humanitarian development of the entire region.

Adding to this is the problem of the COVID19 pandemic and the measures to contain it, which comes bearing a risk of exacerbating pre-existing inequalities and to some extent, deepen them. Thus, in the current scenario women in South Asia are likely to be confronted with increased gender-based violence, unintended pregnancy and economic insecurity. For instance, according to the United Nations Development Programme, while, the pre-pandemic female poverty rate in South Asia was projected to be 10 per cent in 2021, it is now expected to reach 13 per cent.

Nonetheless, despite the disproportionate impact, women in South Asia have not been included in the development of response strategies to deal with the pandemic, just like they were never included in conflict resolution and peace-making mechanisms within the region.

Practicability of FFP

The COVID19 pandemic has brought to fore urgent questions on gender-equality in South Asia, demanding a remodification of the decision-making actors within its national, regional as well as international systems. And the best way this can be made possible is through the facilitation of an active involvement of women, and by taking into consideration their specific needs and challenges. Thus, in a way, the ongoing crisis is precisely the time to be talking about a feminist shift in South Asia’s foreign policy.

A FFP is a political framework that promotes the overarching goals of gender equality, human rights, peace and environmental integrity. This innovative strategy is basically a reflection of the larger worldwide efforts following the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325.

But why is FFP important for South Asia? The reasons for this are multiple. To begin with, a South Asian FFP will help in transgressing beyond the entrenched patriarchal notions that believe in the inherently masculine traits of using force and manipulating access to resources, good and services for a particular group of people. It would thus, serve as a transformative and rights based approach across all auspices of policy-making and diplomacy, prioritising the needs of the most vulnerable communities, especially the women.

This is particularly significant for the conflict zones in South Asia, where enmity and hostility often hinder mutual accommodation and obstruct potential solutions to end heightened tensions. Henceforth, by encouraging a greater participation of women, the South Asian FFP can potentially prevent conflict through innovative ideas and solutions of co-existence. In addition, by following a humanitarian approach, the FPP can also prevent the widespread violation of women’s rights in conflict zones, which is predominant in the region.

Secondly, from a development point of view, overwhelming evidence suggests that gender equality is an important precondition for sustainable growth, welfare and security. The adoption of FFP by the South Asian nations will enhance gender equality within the region and beyond, further having positive effects on food security, economic growth, health, education and numerous other key global concerns.

Thirdly, it would help in improving and transforming the image of the South Asian region at the international stage. Given that South Asia’s gender gap is the widest in the global human development index, a FFP would be a step towards closing this gap.

Moreover, with more women in traditional forms of organisation in defence, trade and diplomacy, the South Asian FFP will foster greater respect for the international humanitarian law, enhance the credibility of international commitments ratified by the member states, and assist in building closer relations with countries that are already deliberating over women’s rights and security.

Last but not the least, to deal with the COVID19 effectively, it is imperative for the South Asian countries to promote health as a human right, apply a gender lens to policy making, prioritize and safeguard the continuum of sexual and reproductive health and rights, and continue to facilitate the provision of comprehensive sexual education. And all this can be achieved through the adoption of a FFP.

But while, FFP might serve as a significant tool to develop peaceful, inclusive and prosperous communities in South Asia, any talks about the concept of feminism within the region is automatically linked with a normative and an inferior soft power strategy. As a result, debates around systematically changing patriarchal structures and institutions have and will most certainly continue to be met with resistance and rejection based on the premonition that FFP will fail to confront aggression and hard-core security issues.

Conclusion

Nonetheless, for too long, South Asia has followed a gender-blind approach and failed to listen the voices of almost half of its population. Considering that foreign policy and diplomacy describes a country’s character, and is a reflection of its domestic ideas and values, it is perhaps time for the entire South Asian region to change its persona by giving equal space to their women. It is indeed necessary for both, to meet the short-term challenges of the COVID19 pandemic as well as to develop long-term, sustainable and inclusive peace within the region.