violence in South Asia
all across the globe have come to recognise gender violence
as a symptom of unequal power between men and women. Gender
norms are determined by social and cultural norms demarking
what they think are appropriate places for women and men.
Such norms perpetuate gender hierarchies, which are entwined
in the foundations of the structures of family and community
and restrict decision-making and access to resources,
leading to a multitude of other restrictions and social
taboos. Social interpretations of the 'man's place' and
'male privilege' are used to justify such restrictions
on women and also to justify violence against women.
South Asian countries, the culture of patriarchy is deeply
entrenched, making a strong foundation for gender biases.
In this region, gender biases are perpetrated not only
by men, but also by women as part of the social order.
A complicated web of social, cultural and economic factors
trap women and girls in its meshes, rendering them vulnerable
to various forms of violence. These factors, coupled with
rigidly defined and enforced gender norms create a vicious
cycle of deprivation, low self-esteem and discrimination
and children are generally undervalued in South Asia.
There are even laws which put 'women and lunatics' in
one class. Discrimination against women in many families
in South Asia begins even before birth with sex-selective
abortions. The preference for sons is still strong, while
daughters are considered an economic liability. Once the
girl child is born, she faces discrimination in the areas
of nutrition, health care and eventually in the area of
education. Even though women in South Asia all suffer
from various forms of gender-based violence and discrimination,
are socially disadvantages and are given a low status
in society, they are not a homogenous category. Social
and cultural norms in various countries in the region
create slight differences. For example, while an upper
caste urban Hindu woman in India and a rural Muslim woman
in Bangladesh may both suffer from domestic violence,
the factors that contribute to the violence may vary.
This may be the same for women of the same nationality,
but from different economic levels.
some things remain homogenous. According to the 1996 Human
Development Report for South Asia, 'several factors that
transcend class, religion, culture and locality affect
the lives of all South Asian women. These include responsibility
for housework and childcare, vulnerability to domestic
violence and the economic vulnerability that reflects
women's unequal legal and social status.' The report goes
on to mention that these commonalities are based upon
a shared history of colonialism and religious, cultural,
economic and political structures shaped by a strong patriarchal
values that deny women power.
South Asia, British colonisers used communalism as a ploy
for their policy of divide and rule. Hindus and Muslims
were divided along religious lines for political gain.
Historically, women have been treated as war booty and
have been humiliated, raped and abused by invading armies
and warring factions. The history of the Partition of
the subcontinent is no stranger to this. It is rife with
accounts of women being raped out of revenge by each religious
community against the other. The same history is repeated
in Bangladesh's war for independence, where many Hindu
women were raped and assaulted by the Pakistani army.
The more recent carnage in Gujarat, where scores of Muslim
girls and women were raped and sexually assaulted by Hindus
is another instance of how women become symbols of community
shame and honour.
sort of religious fanatism both by those of the Muslim
and Hindu faith are hotbeds for the recruitment of young
men and adolescents to sustain the movement, creating
a continuous chain of violence. However, India, Pakistan
and Bangladesh are not the only sufferers of such violence.
In the Kingdom of Nepal, the Maoist movement has also
had an impact on women. Looting, extortion, harassment,
torture, seizure of homes and land, rape, kidnapping effect
women both physically and mentally.
movements and organisations for 'the betterment' of women
have existed for over 100 years. In the subcontinent,
such small organisations can be traced back as far as
the late 1800's. In modern times, in the growing gloom
of violence against women, many strong women's movements
have grown and spread across the sub continent in a strong
bond of sisterhood, especially in the area of trafficking
and migration. However, even though the women's movements
are growing, there has been little change in social attitudes
and traditions towards women. Women in Pakistan have yet
to be rid of the curse of 'honour killings', in India,
brides are burnt in secret, Dalit women are abused as
caste culture reigns strong and in Bangladesh acid violence
victimises more than 300 women every year. It is true
that women's movements have brought about amendments in
the law and the introduction of new laws and that women
now take active part in government affairs and women lead
many human rights organisations. Such women play an important
part in ensuring that women and their demands are made
visible and heard.
women's entry into the market and public domain is fiercely
challenged and women who dominate South Asian governments
almost always reach the top wearing the badge or bearing
the legacy of deceased male relatives. Women still lack
access to resources and justice and lack of information
about legal remedies, coupled with poverty, fear and a
social system that insists that issues like domestic violence
and rape must not be aired in public, further inhibit
the process to safeguard women's human rights.
much for the NGOs. How about the governments of South
Asia? Some instances of violence are country-specific.
For example, the curse of karo kari or honour killings
plagues Pakistan, acid violence is most widespread in
Bangladesh that in the other countries of the region,
the problem of caste is found in India and Nepal. However,
the governments of the region are trying to deal with
the issue of violence against women and create mechanisms
for the advancement of women. Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan
have separate Ministries for this issue, like the Ministry
for Women and Children Affairs of the Government of Bangladesh,
created in 1978. The Ministry of Human Resource Development
of the Government has a Department of Women and Child
Development. Furthermore, all have policies and activities
geared towards the development of women, especially in
the areas of health and education.
of the countries have a National Human Rights Commission
where cases of violence against women are also dealt with.
Unfortunately, despite the setting up of exclusive ministries
and department cells and despite the laws and the legal
system and the setting up of family courts and special
tribunals, it is a common fact all over south Asia that
violence against women has had no significant drop. The
main reason for this is lack of implementation of the
laws due to various reasons, including corruption - and
the disinterest of the governments. Furthermore, most
of the government officers who work in these specialised
departments are not trained or sensitised in how to approach
the issue and have little idea of the concept of gender
and development. According to a 1994 study on judicial
attitudes to women in India, 48% of judges agreed that
it is justifiable for a man to slap his wife on certain
occasions, 74% endorsed the view that preservation of
family should be the primary concern for women even when
there is violence within the marriage.
for legal reforms, implementation of the law and other
related issues have always been on the agenda of human
rights organisations, especially women's rights organisations.
To date, many grass-roots level women know that there
are laws to protect them from various forms of violence,
but when the issue becomes a domestic one, culture, tradition
and family bar the way for any attempts to seek justice.
Economy is also a factor, coupled with the fear of becoming
an unwanted burden in a father's or brother's home. Reporting
of violence against women has increased and spans the
region and several relevant regional meetings are held
every year on the issue. What more can the NGOs do, short
of running the government?
the way people think is central to addressing gender based
violence. Policies and laws cannot be implemented unless
there is community support. Emphasis needs to be made
that the issue of violence against women needs to be tackled
by both men and women and that the media should refrain
from sensationalism and stereotyping. Media is vital to
create awareness right to the grass roots level and a
sensitive media is a powerful tool.
bottom line, however, is that gender violence cannot be
dealt with unless one also addresses the fundamental issues
of basic health, education, nutrition and livelihood,
all of which play a role to reduce the risk of violence.
Women in the region now work just as hard as the men and
are an integral part of the development of the countries.
In all, gender violence in South Asia needs to be given
much more attention to than what the governments are currently
giving the issue.
writer is Associate Professor, School of Law, BRAC University.