Violence against women is one of the most widespread violations of human rights. The term encompasses physical, psychological and sexual abuse of women. It does not permit any exact boundary. It cuts across limits of age, race, culture, religion, wealth and geography.
In South Asia, the scenario of violence against women has an institutionalised form. Although the scenario of women’s participation in political leadership is quite different due to its dynastical proclivity. India, as the largest country of this region, saw a chronological development of female leadership. India has experienced several years’ female leadership by Indira Gandhi. Now, Sonia Gandhi, her party’s leader is also a woman. Pratibha Patil is the president of India. Pakistan has a political background of women’s rule as well. Nusrat Bhutto and Benjir Bhutto were two prominent political figures of Pakistan. In Sri Lanka, Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Chandrika Kumaratunga were two legends of female leadership. In Bangladesh, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina are prominent female political leaders.
But there is no impact, either direct or indirect, of female leadership in socio-cultural grounds in South Asia. A wide chasm exists here between these two — political and socio-cultural — fields. Want of equal honour and dignity of women is still a matter of frustration. Women in South Asia possess a large space in political leadership with the smallest amount of social dignity. This coexistence is a unique feature of South Asia.
Violence against women begins prior to birth in South Asia. Social expectation and strong preference for male infants results into these sorts of problems. Female infants are considered less powerful, both mentally and physically, than the male. Parents believe that women cannot contribute financially. Dowry system is another curse. In India, dowry-related violence covers more than 32.4 per cent of crimes against women. A report stated that at least 9000 women become victims of the dowry system every year. These numbers increase at a rate of 1-2 per cent every year. As an outcome, abortion and female infanticide is increasing day by day in this region. A research showed that abortion leads to the killing of more women and children in India than does war.
In the South Asian societies, a male dominated trend has chronically existed. Patriarchal system does not provide equal opportunity for women. In conjugal life, women are tortured by their husband. Gender-based division of labour provides a vulnerable position for the women. They are always subjugated by male partners (i.e. brother, husband and son) in the name of cultural norms and religious values.
In Kashmir, the Dukhtaran e Millat, a militant fundamentalist party went on to throw acid on the face of girls refusing to accept the Burqa. In Afghanistan, the Taliban, another Islamic party, after capturing power, banned women from the public sphere and confined them into home. These two are instances of violence in the name of religious value. These incidents are the same as Hitler’s agenda and the brutalities in the medieval period against women. During Hitler’s regime in Germany, women’s sphere of activity was only around fire house, church and children. In the medieval era, women were bound by greater limitations.
Beside these, there are many dimensions of violence against women in south Asia such as domestic violence, rape, assault, sexual harassment, prostitution, trafficking, pornography, acid throwing, bride pricing, abduction and early marriage of girls. Violence has no specific zone.
In every sector of life, women face severe problems. In educational institutions, girls cannot get education opportunities as the boys do in South Asia. In India, only 54 per cent of women are literate compared to 76 per cent of men. Notable fact is that, girls even suffer from violence in their educational institutions. Recently a female student of Viqarunnisa Noon School in Dhaka became a victim of sexual harassment by her teacher. Stalking is another indicator of moral decadence. In the political sphere, women are controlled by some sectarian political norms, values and practices which flourish the agenda of fascism and fundamentalism. At home, in the food sharing system, women get smaller portions of food than that of their male counterparts. In India, two-third women are undernourished.
In the domestic level, violence is multidimensional. Forced labour and sex, sexual harassment by relatives, browbeating and ‘honour killing’ are dangerous forms of domestic violence. Spousal rape is another menace of this society. A recent report prepared by World Health Organisation stated that in rural Bangladesh, 30 per cent women have their first sexual experience without any consensus. Even in rural areas, many women do not seek help or report violence when it occurs. A World Bank study affirmed that rape and domestic violence against women are more dangerous than cancer, motor accidents, war and malaria.
In Muslim-dominated areas, women are killed in the name of ‘fatwa’. They are killed in a savage way by ‘dorra’ or whip strikes as a punishment for extra-marital sex. Governments remain nonchalant. In property sharing system in both Muslim and Hindu societies, women are bereft from their property rights. They often suffer from malicious misrepresentation of religion in the society.
These incidents indicate a structural form of violence against women in this region. A 2002 report commissioned by UN stated that in India the police record as a whole shows that a woman is molested in every 26 minute and a rape occurs in every 34 minute; an incident of sexual harassment takes place in every 42 minute and a woman is kidnapped in every 43 minute. In every 93 minute a woman is killed. This report illustrates a pathetic scenario of south Asian women’s condition.
As an inexorable outcome, a wide range of physical, mental, sexual and maternal health problem occurs in this region. Mental depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, sleep difficulties, eating disorders and emotional distress damage normal life of victims. To eliminate structural violence, observers and specialists suggest some strategies. Governments have to take direct policies to prevent violence. They must include norms and values in their education policies. Women’s participation in decision making of the society and their empowerment are two inevitable preconditions for establishing a violence-free society. Equality is another precondition. Only effective democracy can ensure political and legal equality for women in the societies of south Asia. State and non-state actors and factors can contribute in solving this problem. Local, national and international non-government and nonprofit organisations have to contribute in this sector.
Finally, a change of attitude, manner and behaviour of men is important to build a violence-free society. Only joint initiatives of both men and women can ensure a peaceful society. Together, we can establish peace in South Asia. This is the time to wake up.