New Delhi The Fe­male Strug­gle

Women in South Asia con­tinue to suf­fer in vary­ing de­grees from coun­try to coun­try while they wait for sweep­ing changes so that they are ac­cepted as equals in this male-dom­i­nated re­gion.

Southasia - - MALÉ - By Sha­bana Mah­fooz

It took a year for In­dian state au­thor­i­ties to for­mally charge Kuldeep Singh Sen­gar, a politi­cian from the rul­ing party, for the rape of a 16 year old girl, a crime he un­abashedly de­nied on me­dia and the po­lice ig­nored it. How­ever, it was only when the girl tried to set her­self alight did the fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors make the charge. By that time, the girl’s fa­ther had al­ready died, suc­cumb­ing to wounds in­flicted dur­ing cus­tody, from a beat­ing al­legedly by Sen­gar’s brother.

The case as­serted the re­sults of a poll sur­vey con­ducted ear­lier, which showed that In­dia is the world’s most dan­ger­ous coun­try for women due to the high risk of sexual vi­o­lence and be­ing forced into slave labour. War­torn Afghanistan and Syria ranked sec­ond and third in the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion sur­vey of about 550 ex­perts on women’s is­sues, fol­lowed by So­ma­lia and Saudi Ara­bia. Pak­istan ranked sixth.

The sur­vey asked re­spon­dents which five of the 193 United Na­tions mem­ber states they thought were most dan­ger­ous for women and which coun­try was worst in terms of health­care, eco­nomic re­sources, cul­tural or tra­di­tional prac­tices, sexual vi­o­lence and ha­rass­ment, non-sexual vi­o­lence and hu­man traf­fick­ing. Re­spon­dents ranked In­dia the most dan­ger­ous coun­try for women in terms of hu­man traf­fick­ing, in­clud­ing sex slav­ery and do­mes­tic servi­tude and for cus­tom­ary prac­tices such as forced and early mar­riages, ston­ing and fe­male in­fan­ti­cide.

In 2016, there were around 40,000 rapes re­ported in In­dia - up 60 per­cent from 2012, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial data, with many more cases un­re­ported. The con­vic­tion rate of peo­ple ar­rested for rape was 25 per­cent in 2016, while the back­log of rape cases pend­ing trial stood at more than 133,000 by the end of that year.

In an­other sur­vey ex­plor­ing safety per­cep­tions among ado­les­cent girls across six In­dian states, an in­ter­na­tional non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion re­vealed that young girls, aged 11 to 18, re­ported feel­ing more sus­cep­ti­ble to mo­lesta­tion or abuse while us­ing pub­lic trans­port. Nar­row roads lead­ing to school, lo­cal markets or pri­vate tu­ition were also re­garded as be­ing un­safe and 28 per­cent of young women from large cities, es­pe­cially from low-in­come groups and slums, said they felt in­se­cure in cin­ema halls.

An un­safe en­vi­ron­ment for women has also re­sulted in a less ac­knowl­edged eco­nomic ef­fect. In­creas­ingly afraid for their own and their chil­dren's safety, many women in In­dia are sim­ply leav­ing the work­force or tak­ing lower-pay­ing jobs. Bloomberg re­ports that from 2004, about 20 mil­lion women (the size of the com­bined pop­u­la­tions of New York, Lon­don and Paris) van­ished from In­dia’s work­force, as es­ti­mated by the World Bank. Only 27 per­cent of In­dian women are in em­ploy­ment, which is the low­est among the ma­jor emerg­ing na­tions and G-20 coun­tries, and bet­ter only than Saudi Ara­bia, the re­port says.

In re­cent months, the rape, tor­ture and mur­der of an 8-year-old girl in the state of Jammu, an 11-year-old in Gu­jarat and the rape of a1 6-yearold in Ut­tar Pradesh, have pushed In­dia for more strin­gent pun­ish­ments to de­ter such crimes, which in­cludes fast-track courts and death penalty for rape of girls be­low 12.

Only re­cently, In­dia’s Supreme Court up­held the death penalty for three men con­victed in the gang rape of a young woman in Delhi in 2012, a land­mark case that brought an un­prece­dented level of at­ten­tion to vi­o­lence against women in the coun­try. How­ever, there are few signs that sexual vi­o­lence against women in In­dia is less­en­ing.

In­dian state data shows that crimes against women surged 83 per­cent from 2007 to 2016, re­sult­ing in 39 crimes every hour. Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Crimes Records Bureau, in 2016 the rape of mi­nor girls in­creased by 82 per­cent com­pared with the pre­vi­ous year. Wor­ry­ingly, across all rape cases, 95 per­cent of rapists were not strangers but fam­ily, friends and neigh­bours.

Rape of mi­nor girls is a wor­ry­ing is­sue in Pak­istan as well. The coun­try is yet to re­cover from the shock of rape and mur­der of 7 year old Zainab from the city of Ka­sur in early 2018. Na­tion­wide protests and a suo moto no­tice by the apex court swung se­cu­rity agen­cies into ac­tion and, af­ter a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion us­ing sci­en­tific meth­ods, the cul­prit was nabbed. Proven to be guilty, he was sen­tenced to death, but the awarded pun­ish­ment is yet to be given, with Zainab’s par­ents press­ing for a pub­lic hang­ing.

Zainab was not the first vic­tim of child abuse in Pak­istan. Be­fore her, 129 child abuse cases had been re­ported in 2017 only in Ka­sur – Zainab’s home­town, while more than 4000 such in­ci­dents took place in the whole coun­try the year be­fore.

Pak­istan tight­ened its leg­is­la­tion to pro­tect chil­dren in 2016, crim­i­nal­is­ing sexual assault, child pornog­ra­phy

and traf­fick­ing for the first time, af­ter a pae­dophile ring, cir­cu­lat­ing porno­graphic videos, was ex­posed – yet again in Ka­sur.

Un­der the cur­rent law in Pak­istan, sen­tences for rape are death penalty or a sen­tence of be­tween 10 and 25 years. And yet, cases of vi­o­lence against women in Pun­jab – the province to which Zainab be­longed -in­creased by 12 per­cent in 2017 from the pre­vi­ous year, while a re­port by the Women De­vel­op­ment De­part­ment of Sindh shows a to­tal of 1,643 cases of var­i­ous types of vi­o­lent acts filed by women from across the province since July 2017. The acts in­cluded cases of hon­our killing, a cen­turiesold tra­di­tion of im­part­ing ‘ jus­tice’ through mur­der­ing fe­males to set­tle fam­ily feuds.

Qan­deel Baloch, who shot to fame through so­cial me­dia, was stran­gled to death by her brother Wasim two years ago, as Wasim had found her sib­ling’s be­hav­iour ‘in­tol­er­a­ble’. In an ef­fort ‘to re­store the rep­u­ta­tion and hon­our’ of one’s fam­ily, over 1,000 cases of hon­our killings were re­ported in Pak­istan in 2015.

Other sim­i­lar stud­ies con­ducted by the Women Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­tre in Nepal showed that 1,563 cases against women vi­o­lence were recorded from 2012 to 2013. Apart from that, it was also pointed out that be­tween 5,000 and 12,000 girls and women aged 10 to 20 are traf­ficked every year.

Vi­o­lence against women has also been in­creas­ing in Bangladesh in a rapid fash­ion over the last decade, ex­em­pli­fied by the grow­ing fig­ures of dowry-re­lated vi­o­lence, where women are tor­tured and, in many cases, killed by in-laws and hus­bands.

What seems com­mon in most South Asian states is a highly prej­u­diced at­ti­tude to­wards women. Whether it is In­dia or Pak­istan, Nepal or Bangladesh, girls in most fam­i­lies are un­wanted and seen as a fi­nan­cial bur­den. They have mostly no say in fam­ily de­ci­sions. Fe­males, even those who have yet not reached ado­les­cence, are seen as a means for achiev­ing sexual grat­i­fi­ca­tion. Many are de­nied priv­i­leges in em­ploy­ment oth­er­wise given to men. Like other coun­tries of the world, the #metoo move­ment has picked up in this re­gion as well and so has leg­is­la­tion for vi­o­lence against women. But what does not seem to change is the South Asian so­ci­ety’s at­ti­tude to­wards them.

The so­ci­etal at­ti­tude is en­trenched in gen­der roles de­fined mil­len­ni­ums ago, where man is the provider, the de­cider, the strong and re­spected. A woman is not en­ti­tled to these priv­i­leges. Girls are trained from an early age to care for their broth­ers, fa­thers and then hus­bands. Their re­spect lies in their de­pen­dence on men, while mostly, their moral­ity is mea­sured against the length of the scarf they tra­di­tion­ally wear with their dress.

It is only when in the fa­mil­ial setup are women given re­spect, are treated as equals and have a say in at least the de­ci­sions rul­ing their lives, will a sweep­ing change come over so­ci­ety. Only then, will a coun­try in South Asia be no more a dan­ger­ous place for a woman to live in.

As Deepa Narayan, a so­cial sci­en­tist and au­thor of Chup: Break­ing the Si­lence About In­dia’s Women says, ‘We have un­der­es­ti­mated the power of cul­ture in cre­at­ing vi­o­lence within our fam­i­lies. To re­claim our hu­man­ity we need a na­tional con­ver­sa­tion about what it means to be a good woman and a good man in In­dia to­day’.

The writer is a broad­cast jour­nal­ist and free­lance writer. She has keen in­ter­est in is­sues con­cern­ing women, re­li­gion and for­eign af­fairs.

In 2016, there were around 40,000 rapes re­ported in In­dia - up 60 per­cent from 2012.

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