In a video released on December 17th, 2020, Human Rights Watch stated that South Asian governments should accept the advice of their experts and ignore “populist death penalty rhetoric” in order to stop sexual violence against women. There have been several high-profile sexual violence cases in South Asia, provoking comments from experts on sexual violence from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka about the protests across the region. The movement is a protest against regional governments’ continued failure to adequately address sexual violence or to provide for the safety and wellbeing of survivors.
Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, addressed the increasing protest movement, stating that women and girls “have long watched their governments tolerate – or even facilitate – impunity for sexual violence and they are taking to the streets and demanding change now.”
The protests, which were led by women’s rights activists, were in response to numerous sexual violence cases across South Asia in 2020. In Pakistan, a woman was criticized by the police chief for not choosing a safer route after she was gang raped in front of her children when her car ran out of fuel. In India, the police and the government refused to acknowledge that a 19-year-old Dalit woman was gang raped even though she told them she was before she died. This was supposedly to protect the perpetrator, who allegedly belonged to a dominant caste. The Bangladeshi government also failed to remove a video of several men attacking and sexually assaulting a woman before it went viral on the internet.
The protesters expressed their outrage at government inaction, and called for legal reforms and better prioritization of women’s rights. Several South Asian governments have been criticized for choosing to use the death penalty for perpetrators of sexual violence, rather than tackling the issue through comprehensive sexual education, gender-sensitive police training and mental and physical health and wellbeing services for survivors. Opting to enforce the death penalty is seen as a way out of addressing underlying societal issues that have allowed sexual violence to become endemic across the region.
While many of the protesters and experts are calling for legal reform, Farieha Aziz, the co-founder of the organization Bolo Bhi in Pakistan, stated “We do have laws and certain procedures. What is necessary is that they are implemented.” In countries where the appropriate laws exist, the failings lie in enforcement, making it very difficult for survivors to receive justice.
Activists, experts and survivors across South Asia have criticized the legal systems for putting obstacles in front of survivors which may deter them from pursuing justice. In Bangladesh, it is estimated that less than one percent of investigated rape cases result in a conviction. This is a stark statistic that could make survivors feel that the likelihood of their cases being thoroughly investigated in order to achieve justice is exceptionally low. The legal process can be very traumatic on its own, and survivors might be less likely to come forward to name the perpetrator due to the historical lack of convictions.
Dr. Lhamo Yangchen Sherpa, a medical expert in Nepal, stated that “It’s not only that the police register the case. You then have to go to the court, which might take years and years… [The accused] have good lawyers, which means that the case either gets dissolved or the case goes on for a very long time.” This can often result in things being settled outside court, or survivors choosing not to report the crime at all. Shabnam Salehi, the commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said “The judges still consider [the] victim as a criminal, and they ask a lot of questions that is against the human dignities.” The process of reporting a crime and facing the accused in court carries the risk of re-traumatizing the survivor, particularly if the legal process is lengthy and biased.
The Bangladesh government has decided to approve the use of capital punishment in rape cases after the increase in protests over the past year. Introducing the death penalty is an easy option and does not address or respond to the protestors’ anger. There is a lack of evidence as to whether the death penalty reduces sexual violence, however, it has been suggested by experts that it could result in survivors choosing not to report a crime or accused rapists killing their victims to decrease the chances of their arrest.
As well as reforming the legal system and ensuring its proper enforcement, sexual education is an incredibly important aspect of a child’s upbringing. Sexual education informs young people about their bodies, consent and reproductive rights, which gives them the tools to understand right and wrong. It also teaches them how to have healthy relationships and to understand the power structures within them. Rape culture is perpetuated because microaggressions such as cat-calling and misogynistic jokes are tolerated. The education system in South Asian countries should be restructured to challenge existing gender norms and reinforce the concept of consent.
In early 2020, the High Court in Bangladesh ordered the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs to create a commission in 30 days to respond to the increase in sexual violence. Nine months later, the commission still had not been set up. A witness protection law that was drafted by the Law Commission approximately 15 years ago has also not been passed by the government. Furthermore, sexual harassment legislation that women’s groups helped to draft a few years ago has yet to progress.
The Rape Law Reform Coalition, comprised of 17 women’s rights groups, is directly opposed to the use of capital punishment in rape cases. The Coalition drafted a list for the Bangladeshi government to begin implementing. It included changing the definition of rape to include all victims despite their marital status or gender identity, banning the use of character evidence in rape trials, implementing sexual and gender-based violence training for police and court officials, as well as including sexual education in school curriculum.
It is clear that Bangladesh, and other countries in South Asia, must listen to their experts and women in order to make meaningful changes. By using expert knowledge and listening to the personal experiences of survivors, governments can gather information on which parts of the legal and education systems need to be changed and how to implement those changes effectively.
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