Women in South Asia are being put at risk of sexual violence by weak laws

Women in South Asia are being put at risk of sexual violence by weak laws

Women are being put at risk of sexual violence by the laws that are supposed to protect them, according to a new report analysing laws on rape in South Asian countries. 

Legislation is insufficient and not enforced, resulting in extremely low reporting rates for rape, long delays within the criminal justice system, and withdrawal of cases, perpetuating a cycle where survivors and their families face further victimisation, and those responsible for gender-based violence remain unchallenged. 

Released jointly by international women’s rights organisations Equality Now and Dignity Alliance International, the report “Sexual Violence in South Asia: Legal and Other Barriers to Justice for Survivors” focuses on six countries: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, India and Sri Lanka. 

Analysis of country-specific laws and policies found gaps in legislation, failures in implementation, and governments not fulfilling their commitments and obligations in international law regarding the protection of women’s human rights.

To compile the study, researchers spoke to survivors of sexual violence as well as activists and lawyers. They reported numerous obstacles experienced by rape victims. For the small minority who do manage to file police complaints, this is only the start of a long, arduous process to access justice. The report highlights the following issues: 

  • Conviction rates for rape are extremely low throughout South Asia – in Bangladesh, it is only around 3%
  • Police officers refuse to file complaints or fail to investigate allegations; in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka stakeholders spoke about justice system officials being susceptible to bribery and corruption
  • There is overly burdensome or discriminatory evidence required in rape cases; for example, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka all permit evidence about the sexual history of rape victims
  • In India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, the “two-finger test” – an unscientific, intrusive and retraumatising vaginal examination performed on the wrongful premise that it can determine a victim’s sexual experience and which is often used to imply she is lying – is conducted in medical examinations of women and girls who’ve been raped
  • Rape survivors and their families frequently face extreme pressure to withdraw criminal complaints and stay silent; this includes being forced into informal community mediation, and subjected to social stigma, victim blaming, threats, bribery, and retaliation including loss of employment, eviction, and further violence
  • Survivors are coerced into dropping legal cases and accepting extra-legal settlements or compromises with perpetrators
  • Marital rape is not criminalised in Bangladesh, Maldives, India and Sri Lanka
  • Support services for survivors are lacking, with minimal access to safe houses, counselling or other types of psychosocial care; poor provision of victim and witness protection schemes puts survivors and their families at risk of coercion and further harm
  • Survivors from socially excluded communities face even greater barriers to accessing justice as a consequence of ethnic, religious, caste, and tribal prejudice and persecution

The report adds that the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem of sexual violence against women across the region. 

Report co-author Divya Srinivasan, a human rights lawyer and Legal Advisor for Equality Now, says that urgent action is needed. “Our research reveals how governments across South Asia need to take urgent action to provide women and girls with better protection against sexual violence and end widespread impunity for perpetrators. 

“This requires closing gaps in laws, addressing flaws in criminal justice systems, and investing in holistic responses to ensure access to justice and support for survivors.”

Detailed recommendations are given for governments to follow to protect women and girls from sexual violence and improve access to justice. These include: 

  • Addressing protection gaps in the law including ensuring that all forms of sexual penetration are covered within the definition of rape
  • Improving police responses to cases of sexual violence, through training and ensuring a more diverse workforce in terms of ethnicity, language and caste
  • Implementing and enforcing nationwide bans against the two-finger test
  • Improving prosecution procedures and trials of sexual offences
  • Designing and funding holistic interventions to improve access to justice for survivors
  • Enact comprehensive laws for the protection of victims from socially excluded communities

Read the full report:  Sexual Violence in South Asia: Legal and Other Barriers to Justice for Survivors

Featured image: Rape protest in India, 18 January 2013 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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