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South Asia’s daughter

January 11, 2013

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.