The Universe of Violence against South Asia’s Women
By Lubna Jerar and Priyanka Singh
What South Asia needs is a feminisation of politics and polity. This is necessary to counter the “grand celebration of the triumph of masculinity in its most naked and vicious form” as filmmaker Rahul Roy terms the current situation.
He was among the diverse group of thinkers, activists, lawyers and scholars working on gender-based violence around the region at a recent event titled “feminise to humanise”. Octogenarian activist Lalita Ramdas in Alibag village south of Mumbai coined the slogan for the public online discussion, 28 November, pegged on the #16DaysofActivism.
The #16Days kick off on 25 November, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and continue until 10 December, Human Rights Day.
The issues discussed ranged from domestic violence to attacks on transgender persons, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic to gender violence in conflict situations, the weaknesses of the NGO-led movements as well as positive changes.
Participants shared experiences and insights around the multiplicity of challenges arising from the ongoing pandemic of gender-based violence that needs to be urgently and consistently addressed.
The ‘Feminise to Humanise: Gender Violence in South Asia’ event was the eighth in a monthly series called “Imagine! Neighbours in Peace” organised by the South Asia Peace Action Network or Sapan.
This month’s event was dedicated to the late Kamla Bhasin, the much-beloved, pioneering South Asian feminist who devoted her life to empowering women across South Asia against misanthropy and sexual violence.
Sapan has emerged from the vision of leaders such as Dr Mubashir Hasan, Asma Jahangir and Nirmala Despande who dreamt of a ‘visa-free South Asia’. Asma Jahangir and Nirmala ‘Didi’ famously led the women’s peace bus after the Kargil ‘war-like situation’ and reclaimed bangles and chunnis (scarves) as symbols of strength rather than weakness.
Participants included journalist Mandira Nayar from Delhi who hosted the event on behalf of Sapan, launched in March this year. She summarised the challenges of sexual violence in South Asia and highlighted the disturbing fact that cases of rape arose dramatically during the pandemic-related lockdown in India.
From Colombo, journalist Nalaka Gunawarde shared the Sapan Founding Charter which articulates the vision of the Network calling for a visa-free South Asia along the lines of the European Union. Sapan also advocates a regional approach to common issues like environment and climate change, human rights, education, child labour and gender-based violence to name a few.
Gender-based violence is not a “women’s issue” – it is a legal, social and human rights issue rooted in patriarchy, as editor ‘eShe’ magazine Aekta Kapoor from Delhi pointed out. She presented an overview highlighting the issue with some staggering figures.
“Who am I, and how I want to identify myself, that only belongs to me”, said Ho Chi Minh Islam in Dhaka, urging the audience not to neglect the issues faced by transgender individuals in the fight against gender violence.
“I want the empowerment of trans-women and Dalit women,” she said, asserting the need to think in a broader spectrum. She spoke of the need to move beyond mere tokenism, towards making more inclusive systems and trans-friendly organisational structures. She also highlighted the violence that arises from erasure and invisibilization.
Her observation that there are many organisations in Bangladesh working to protect women, but most are not trans-friendly, is probably true of other countries in the region too.
Three out of four women face intimate partner violence, which affects the body and mind, noted Dalit-rights activist Manjula Pradeep, speaking as a survivor from Gujarat. Gender-based violence is a serious constraint to women’s agency “as it both reflects and reinforces underlying gender inequalities”, she said.
She said there are laws in place regarding such violence but they are often not implemented. Laws are also inadequate to address systemic issues linked to gender violence. The Covid-19 pandemic impacted shelter homes and counselling centres for women facing domestic violence, while women in rural areas without access to online services are even more vulnerable.
Broadcast journalist Maria Memon in Islamabad has dealt with online threats and violence. She said there have been some positive developments in Pakistan, such as the passage of an inheritance law, and recognition of transgenders in a new anti-rape bill. However the problems remains as exemplified by insensitive statements on women’s rights and identity by leaders including the Prime Minister himself. The prevailing patriarchal mentality also led to both Houses of Parliament not passing a much-needed Domestic Violence Act.
Speaking about masculinities in South Asia, filmmaker Rahul Roy in New Delhi said that “a grand celebration of the triumph of masculinity, in its most naked and vicious form” is visible across South Asia today. “Each and every memory, institution, history or herstory was being threatened to remain silent.”
He emphasised the need to move away from organising principles of masculinity, which are based on hierarchy, domination, superiority, violence and hatred. The only recourse, he said, was “a healthy dose of feminist politics that offers no space for a masculinities-inspired vision.”
Researcher and rights activist Rita Manchanda in New Delhi addressed the issue of gender-based violence in conflict situations where there is a “continuum between everyday gender violence” and the dramatic violence seen in such situations. Beyond the existing conflicts from Afghanistan to Kashmir, it was important to recognise post-conflict situations of “no war and no peace all over South Asia”. Everywhere in such tense situations, women were targeted “as cultural purveyors and reproducers of the community”.
Speaking from Dhaka, lawyer Sara Hossain highlighted the need to confront the neglect of the women ‘birangona’, which translates to brave women warriors, a title given by Sheikh Mujib after Bangladesh’s Liberation War. Tragically, even today as Bangladesh celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence from then West Pakistan, neither their families nor society in general have ever accepted these ‘birangona’, women who were consistently raped during Pakistani military operations. This neglect of women who fought and suffered for Liberation is part and parcel of the experience of those who survive rape and sexual violence in the contemporary context.
Advocate Shireen Huq from Dhaka pointed to the pitfalls of the ‘NGO-isation’ and ‘UN-isation’ of the women’s movement, which tends to airbrush out significant parts of the history of the movement itself. The UN, for example, calls for the “elimination of violence against women” while the women’s movement has always referred to the #16Days as “protest against violence against women”.
While laws are essential to set standards, together with prosecution and punishment, what is needed is a campaign to tackle the very culture of misogyny, she said. Shireen Huq also expressed her disturbance at what she termed an overemphasis on punishment, particularly the call for death penalty for sexual offenders. This stress on punishment, she said, emanates from lack of confidence in the judiciary.
Eminent human rights advocate Radhika Coomaraswamy, Chairperson South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) and former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women made the closing remarks from Colombo. As she pointed out, this is the first time since the #16Days was instituted in the 1990s that we are without Kamla Bhasin – who was incidentally also a board member of SAHR. Had she been around, she would have been very visible during the ongoing 16 Days of Activism, mobilising women with poetry, posters, speeches, lectures, music, dance and theatre, all tools that she used so well.
Violence against women is a global problem, but there are also specificities of South Asia that must be confronted, said Dr. Coomaraswamy. For example, there is a particular need here to make domestic violence visible, to name, shame and punish intimate partner violence. All South Asian nations also need to work on making their criminal justice systems respond better to gender based violence.
Reflecting back upon the early days of her own activism when issues related to practices like Sati and dowry deaths were at the fore, Dr Coomaraswamy noted that today gender-based violence does not just revolve around cultural practices but also the violence faced by women as members of targeted communities. She highlighted how women human rights defenders are becoming victims, with regimes implementing new sophisticated technologies of surveillance and control.
Clearly, gender-based violence is not limited to any one country in the region. It is a regional issue and needs to be dealt with as such. Rather than pointing fingers at each other, South Asian nations would do well to learn from each other’s best practices and put an end to this pervasive pandemic of gender-based violence.
Note: The Facebook Live recording of the event is available at this link.
Lubna Jerar is a senior journalist in Karachi. Priyanka Singh is a data analytics consultant in New Delhi. This is a feature report edited by Kanak Mani Dixit and Beena Sarwar for Sapan News, an online syndicated service available at www.southasiapeace.com.