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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 189
May 14, 2005

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Law Vision

Gender violence in South Asia

Saira Rahman

Women 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.

In 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 against women.

Women 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.

However, 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.

In 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.

This 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.

Women's 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.

However, 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.

So 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.

Some 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.

Advocacy 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?

Changing 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.

The 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.

The writer is Associate Professor, School of Law, BRAC University.


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