The present status of female education, health, nutrition, and sanitation in South Asia


Present Status of female education in South Asia

Education is no longer an achievement of the individual but the basis of one’s existence. There is clear evidence that education leads to many social benefits, such as improvements in the standards of hygiene, reduction in infant and child mortality rates, decline in population growth, etc.

Education therefore acquires a core position in the overall framework of human development and is used as a proxy for knowledge.


Education is also important because it directly contributes to economic growth. In this context, South Asia presents a dismal picture. With nearly half of the world’s adult illiterates, South Asia is the most illiterate region in the world. However, there are variations among the countries of the region.

While Maldives and Sri Lanka always performed well, registering adult literacy rates of well over 90 per cent, Nepal and Bangladesh lagged behind with low literacy rates of 40 per cent. The general apathy towards female education is one of the biggest shortcomings in human development in the region of South Asia.

With over 60 per cent of the female population illiterate, South Asia, along with the Arab states, has the highest number of adult females. Efforts made to correct this disparity in the 1990s, have not reduced the educational gaps between girls and boys.

While enrolment of girls at the primary level has improved, their dropout rate at the secondary levels of education has remained quite high.


It indicates that after primary schooling most of the girls (especially rural or belonging to poor families) either get married or work as child labour which forces them to abandon education.

Only for Sri Lanka and Maldives the female secondary school enrolment rate is somewhat respectable but not 100/ per cent. A significant female drop-out rate at secondary level jeopardises the process of human development. Most of the poverty-related problems are directly associated with female illiteracy.

The HRD Reports indicate that compared to other developing regions of the world, the level of public investment in education in South Asia is low and has barely kept pace with the rising population. During the 1990s, public expenditure on education in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal has been little over 3 per cent of the GDP, while it has remained at 2 per cent in Bangladesh and less than 2 per cent in Pakistan.

The decomposition of public expenditure on education across South Asian countries shows that Pakistan spent the most on primary levels of education, Bangladesh on secondary education and Nepal on tertiary level. In May 2003, at a ministerial conference of South Asia on ‘Education for All’, the countries of the region have committed to increase allocation to 4 per cent of their GDP.


Present Status of health, nutrition and sanitation in South Asia

Human life is the most precious and long life is priceless amongst all human achievements. It is both the means as well as the end. Longevity is closely associated with adequate nutrition, good health and personal safety. In calculating the HDI, life expectancy at birth is therefore used as a proxy for longevity.

Life expectancy in South Asia is low, second only to Sub Saharan Africa. However, there has been a gradual increase in the life expectancy at birth. South Asians are expected to live a little longer as the life expectancy for the countries of the region ranged between the high of 72 years in Sri Lanka to low of 59 years in Nepal. While there are multiple reasons for this, a general improvement in health systems of the region is a major factor.

Data collected by the HDR suggests that although there was no increase in the public expenditure on health services (with only one per cent of the GDP being spent on health), more than 75 per cent of the population had access to health services. Improved access to health services was reflected in the marked increase in the coverage and spread of child immunisation programmes.


While only a small percentage of the population in the region was immunised in the 1980s, all countries in the region made remarkable progress in the immunisation programmes against deadly diseases like TB and DPT.

Improvements in health services are also reflected in the decline in infant death from 97 death for every 1000 in 1990 to 67 infant deaths in 2000. Even among the under five year old children, mortality rates have declined from 147 to 95 deaths for every 1000.

However, the number of maternal deaths at the time of child births are much high in the region. The main reasons for this are low levels of female literacy, low marriageable age of women, preference for male child and poverty. The non-availability of adequate health facilities at the time of child delivery, especially in remote rural areas also increases vulnerability of maternal deaths.

Most of the births (more than 80 per cent) take place without the attendance of skilled health staff. Only Sri Lanka and Maldives have adequate number of trained health personnel at the time of child birth. High mortality rates of women at child birth and children below five years of age is related to malnourishment, unhygienic conditions before and after the child birth, neglect of female child, etc.


The daily calories intake per head in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka is satisfactory but for the remaining nations it is below the standard. Overall, the daily calorie supply of 2379 in the region is less than the average for developing countries at 2663.

The deficiency in calories intake adversely affects the working capacity of people, both physical and mental. A large chunk of population in the entire region is under nourished, i.e., either they survive on inadequate food or quality of (intake) food is below standard.

The under-nourishment and malnourishment hampers the workability of the people. Lower workability is associated with lower productivity and lower income which Intensifies the vicious circle of poverty. Another area related to health is access of population to safe (drinking) water and sanitation.

About 12 per cent of the population mostly living in rural areas of South Asia does not have access to safe water. The non-availability of safe water many times spread water-bound diseases and causes epidemic, particularly during rainy season.

The condition of availability of adequate sanitation facility to rural population is worse than safe water. Only 37 per cent of the population of the region has access to sanitation facilities. It is only 15 per cent in India. Only Sri Lanka and Bhutan have adequate sanitation facilities for most of the rural masses. Lack of adequate sanitation facilities often poses serious threat to the health of the people and women are the worst sufferers.

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