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South Asia’s daughter


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THE tragic gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi on Dec 16 has led to widespread outrage across India, forcing the government to consider new laws to ensure stronger protection for women.

The horrifying case is a wake-up call for a society which has long turned a blind eye to violence against women. But the fury and the shame are not India’s alone. They are shared by all countries across South Asia where the mistreatment of women is rampant but tolerated and ignored.

In every country across South Asia, gender inequality remains a barrier to progress, justice and social stability. As such, the murder/rape victim is not just India’s daughter, as some have described her. She is the daughter of South Asia.

South Asian governments have shrugged off the daily tragedies of violence against women as a reflection of deep-rooted societal, religious and tribal traditions. But their arguments are wearing thin. The region cannot aspire to be taken seriously on the global stage unless South Asian women can live and work with dignity and respect. The Delhi tragedy should therefore spur all governments in the region to take tougher action to stop discrimination and end violence against women.

It will not be easy. The father of the rape victim has said his daughter’s death has “brought an awakening to society”. Certainly, the case has provoked a fierce public debate on the treatment of women. The government, the police force and the media have leapt into action. There are strong reasons to believe that this time around, the anger and protests will not die down.

But diehard elements are not keeping silent either. Across South Asia, sexual harassment is reduced to ‘Eve teasing’. The lawyer of the men accused of the crime has said that Westernised women invite sexual assaults and that he has not ever seen a “single incident or example of rape with a respected lady”. A spiritual guru has said that the girl should have “chanted God’s name and fallen at the feet of the attackers” to stop the attack, while others insist that rapes only occur in Indian cities, not in villages.

Such nonsense is not new — and certainly not confined to India. Across South Asia, reporting of sex crimes and police investigations of rape are hindered by a tendency to blame the victim for not following the traditional, conservative social roles ascribed to women.

Women in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan face daily violence and abuse, not just from extremists but also mainstream society. Cases of acid attacks on women, violence over dowry demands, so-called ‘honour’ killings and other equally barbaric practices are under-reported and rarely lead to police action against offenders.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission recorded 4,010 cases of violence against women in the seven months between March and October last year, nearly twice as many as in the previous 12 months. Female activists and rights groups say a lack of prosecutions makes the perpetrators of such attacks against women feel they can operate with impunity.

Not surprisingly, UN data on South Asia makes grim reading. The region’s rankings for many gender gap indicators — health, adult literacy, economic participation — are often close to or lower than those in sub-Saharan Africa. Most damagingly, despite the recognition of the urgent need to end violence against women, millions of women across South Asia continue to suffer violence inside and outside their homes.

As the UN points out, in every country across the region, pervasive gender inequality remains a barrier to progress, justice and social stability and deprives countries of a significant source of human potential.

Asia may have the highest male-female sex ratio at birth in the world, but sex-selective abortion and infanticide leave a trail of 96 million ‘missing’ women in some countries. Women comprise 51 per cent of the population in most regions worldwide, yet they account only for 49 per cent of the total population in Asia-Pacific.

Women in the region are also more vulnerable to poverty than men, not simply because they have lower incomes, but also because their ability to access economic opportunities is constrained by discriminatory attitudes that restrict their mobility, limit employment choices and hinder control over assets. A large number of countries in the region have no laws on domestic violence. Even where domestic violence laws exist, legislation is not effectively implemented.

The key problem, as the UN points out, is that South Asia has not put in enough time and effort to ensure systemic economic, political and legal changes that could make progress take root on multiple fronts. The region may have produced women prime ministers, but for ordinary women life is a struggle against inequality and discrimination. Men in public life have done little to question women’s second-class status.

The UN says that the issue of gender is conventionally perceived as being “just about women” and that the case for gender equality is often pitched as a human rights or social justice argument. In fact, equality between men and women is good economics. In China for example, recent impressive growth rates are the result of increased female employment.

The furious public response to the tragedy in Delhi is an encouraging sign that public mores are changing. The dignified reaction of the rape victim’s family and friends also signals that erroneous notions of family honour and dishonour are finally being discarded.

Violence against women is not just a problem in India, it is a regional scourge. As such, public opinion and governments across South Asia must vow to make 2013 a year when women’s rights are finally given the attention and priority they deserve.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.

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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (19) Closed

umesh bhagwat Jan 11, 2013 10:35pm
long live the revolution!
alex Jan 12, 2013 03:05am
Dear author, when will the public's response to atrocities, terror attacks in Pakistan change?????
abbastoronto Jan 12, 2013 04:22am
Gender equality has nothing to do with geography. It has to do with each gender being able to contribute equally to system's wealth generation. Once women achieve equivalent education and get similar jobs, gender equality will emerge automatically. However, the willingness to educate girls to do with society, not the State. If your dad will not give you same education as your brother, you will never achieve equality with men.
sunny Jan 12, 2013 04:23am
Very nicely written I want to add one more thing -- women is SE Asia is the greatest human resource. Women here generally have much better work ethics. My mother (barely 5 ft.) worked the whole day (a full time job as a teacher, cooking, serving etc. etc.), and slept only 5-6 hours a day. I am not half as active as she was though physically I may look much stronger. I have observed this in all walks of lives in SE Asia.
Mohinder sandhu Jan 12, 2013 05:23am
Very well said.People in our region have very little or no respect for women.But other than treating women badly we have many other so called cultural problems like caste system religious hatred etc etc .the only solution to all this is education and more education.Government can make as many laws as it wants, its not gonna make any difference unless people accepts it.protest against the government to spend more on education than on arms.This region needs at-least 20 % or more of GDP spent on education for at-least next 25 years,than only things are gonna change.Protest for education should begin NOW without delay.
Silajit Jan 12, 2013 08:13am
What has that got to do with what she's saying? She's saying Pakistani women face similar problems. So calm the heck down.
Akram Jan 12, 2013 10:27am
Pakistan cannot accelerate its economic development without unleashing the other half of its population and giving them education first. It is Pakistan's national shame that in 2013 more than half of our women are still illiterate. When you educate a man he provides from himself, when you educate a woman she educates her whole family, thus when you educate a woman, you educate a whole nation. This is what we need, yet how many of us reading this article have made any meaningful contribution to this noble cause? The tools for revolution are in our hands, let us each make some contribution whether its helping donate either money or time or both to this cause.
Cyrus Howell Jan 12, 2013 11:19am
"...forcing the government to consider new laws to ensure stronger protection for women..." Right. India being a democracy the leaders are very worried the women of India will vote them all out of office.
Cyrus Howell Jan 12, 2013 11:28am
My Chinese wife worked all day as a production manager in a small bakery starting at 6 AM and taught Mandarin Chinese nights at a Berlitz language school. In Shanghai she was administrative assistant to a university president, but had only a secondary school education because she was sent to the Chinese countryside for eight years during the Cultural Revolution. Her father was a professor, but she worked in a hospital, picked cotton and did farm labor. She was not able to marry during those eight years.
Cyrus Howell Jan 12, 2013 11:42am
Only war will change things, and war will come if people have no gas, no petrol and no electricity. In Latin America revolutionaries fight because the people have no schools and no medical clinics. In Pakistan the madmen want no schools and no medical clinics. They want the people to suffer even more so they will rise up and be led.. Crime in Karachi is the result of no employment all across the country because Karachi is the best place to steal and deal drugs.
Cyrus Howell Jan 12, 2013 11:49am
The idea of the long march is to force a peaceful revolution. Last chance people. Pakistan is having war and peace at the same time. Make up your minds. Your enemy is willing to die for God. The question is are you willing? You need to revisit the Hollywood film The Untouchables on DVD, and take it seriously. "Just what are you prepared to do?" Sean Connery as the Irish American police patrolman.
S Raghavan Jan 12, 2013 01:46pm
Article is well written . Gender equality and gender related development are the measures for improvement of human development index of a country. As the author says, all countries in SE Asia have dismal records in this field. Year 2013 should bring an eye opener and all countries should resolve to improve the rating.
abbastoronto Jan 12, 2013 01:50pm
Which one?
IG Jan 12, 2013 02:22pm
rightly said.
Agha Ata (USA) Jan 12, 2013 02:26pm
Long live the Evolution
aDIL Jan 12, 2013 03:31pm
100% Agree.
Neeraj Jan 12, 2013 04:45pm
Out-of-Context!!! if there is one problem doesn't mean that others cannot be addressed.
Mian mithu Jan 12, 2013 08:24pm
The same goes for women in the Middle East or Africa. Each country has its unique set of problems. India's are unique to India, Afghanistan's are unique to Afghanistan. Women in Britain did not latch on to women in Germany or France to take up the fight for equality so why does Pakistan or Nepal have to be lumped in with India? Maybe Nepal because women are sold in Indian brothels. Even within India the situation is different from north to south or east to west. Maybe we should leave it at that and concentrate on the problems that are unique to each country. In Pakistan some of the problem relates to decisions taken by jirgas and panchayats, the lack of implementation of laws even shariah law which is nearly always subserviant to customary law.they may or may not have these problems in India but even if they had it is not related to this particularly horrendous case in Delhi. India has Problems with the abortion of unborn females and it will have very huge consequences sp. for countries like Bangdesh and Nepal who will loose their females to trafficking and kidnapping to feed the need in India but that is another matter. Don' t force common ground keep focus on those unique and particular circumstances that hinder equality and respect of women at the local level. Its about patterns of behaviors.
Imran Jan 12, 2013 08:37pm
Give the guy a break, he's just asking a valid question.