A new report has underscored the systemic failures in South Asia that leave women and girls at heightened risk of sexual violence and allow perpetrators to get away with impunity.
Titled Sexual Violence in South Asia: Legal and Other Barriers to Justice for Survivors, the report has found that laws in six South Asian countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, India and Sri Lanka – are insufficient, inconsistent, and not systematically enforced.
The study by international women’s rights organisation Equality Now and UK-based charity Dignity Alliance International has found that survivors and their families frequently face further victimisation after assault, which results in extremely low reporting rates for rape, long delays within the criminal justice system, and withdrawal of cases.
The researchers have called on South Asian governments to take urgent action to address sexual violence, improve access to justice for survivors, and end impunity for perpetrators.
The study includes case studies of rape survivors from the region, such as Bhavna (name changed) from India. A blue-collar worker who was employed by a catering company to cook for weddings and parties, she was lured by the prospect of a good job to a new location, where she was sold to traffickers. “I was kept in a farmhouse and people would come to rape me,” she said.
After six months, she managed to escape. “When I returned home, my husband beat me and left. Instead of supporting me, he told the Jati Panchayat that I had eloped with someone else. I went to the police and they were initially unwilling to file a report, saying that I was a bad woman with loose morals.”
With the help of an NGO, Bhavna filed a rape case in 2016 and another case against her husband for domestic violence. “The Jati Panchayat did not care about me being raped and did not like me speaking publicly about my husband being violent. He was from the same caste as them and they thought he should not have to go to jail. The Panchayat said that if I had some self-respect then I wouldn’t take this legal course and make things into a big issue.”
As ‘punishment’ for filing a case, the Jati Panchayat ordered that Bhavna’s parents would have to pay a fine of one lakh rupees if they allowed her to return to their home. “My father told me they could not afford the money and so they cut ties with me.” Bhavna’s rape case is still ongoing and the perpetrators are out on bail.
Hers is only one story among many others in the report that finds numerous protection gaps in laws and failures of implementation.
Jacqui Hunt, Equality Now’s global lead on their End Sexual Violence programme, says, “Over the past decade, high-profile cases involving gang-rape and murder have periodically sparked widespread public protests in South Asian countries. Confronted with calls for action, governments across the region have failed to implement meaningful, systemic reforms. Sexual violence has not been prioritised, little has been done to shift the focus of blame from victims onto perpetrators, and impunity for rapists remains rife.”
She adds that the reason they decided to undertake this study is that despite high rates of sexual violence throughout South Asia, criminal justice systems are failing to meet the needs of survivors. “Identifying the obstacles faced by women and girls who have been raped, and shining a public spotlight on the myriad barriers impeding survivors’ access to justice, is well overdue,” she tells eShe.
“Alarmingly,” she notes, “reported cases are just the tip of the iceberg, accounting for only a small fraction of the true number of assaults. Underreporting of rape and other forms of sexual abuse is a huge issue, with victim-blaming, threats, fear of reprisals, and lack of faith in the justice system some of the reasons why survivors don’t come forward.”
For the small minority who do manage to file police complaints, it is only the start of a long and arduous quest to access justice, considering that conviction rates for rape are extremely low throughout South Asia, from 3 percent in Bangladesh to 27 percent in India.
Obstacles facing rape survivors are numerous, including long delays in investigations and trials. Overly burdensome or discriminatory evidence is required in rape cases; for example, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka all permit evidence about the sexual history of rape victims; this is based on patriarchal assumptions that only ‘chaste’ women deserve justice for being raped.
Further, in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, the ‘two-finger test’ – an unscientific, intrusive and retraumatising vaginal examination performed on the wrongful premise that it can determine a victim’s sexual experience – is still being practised on girls and women who report rape. Often, it is used to imply that she is lying.
Marital rape is not criminalised in Bangladesh, Maldives, India and Sri Lanka, thus legally permitting impunity for rape within marriage as women are treated as the property of their husbands and denied rights over their own body.
“One of the stark findings of our research was how very little progress has been made in effectively dealing with sexual violence in South Asia. Women and girls are still being blamed for the violence done to them and perpetrators are very rarely held to account – in many cases, evading punishment with the active or passive collusion of state agencies,” says Hunt.
Hunt suggests that, to successfully tackle the epidemic of sexual violence across South Asia, it is imperative that the problems are widely acknowledged, including the deep-rooted causes that underpin rape.
“This entails recognising and dismantling harmful gender stereotypes, systemic inequality, and discrimination. It also requires addressing the additional intersectional challenges faced by women and girls from socially excluded communities, who are subjected to prejudice and persecution stemming from ethnic, tribal, caste, sexual orientation, and religious identity,” she avers.
Hunt concludes, “Governments need to work closely with civil society, particularly women’s rights groups, survivors and activists, to develop holistic plans that deliver solutions to improve prevention, prosecution and protection. Key to this is creating well-funded programmes built upon equality, respect, and mutual relationships.”