South Asian Women Speak Out on Gender-Based Violence

April 18, 2013

  • The World Bank’s South Asia Vice Presidency held a panel discussion on gender-based violence, featuring attorneys and activists from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan.
  • The panel questioned the effectiveness of tougher sentencing laws and argued that the solution lay in changing attitudes toward women.
  • “I’m hugely optimistic that this horrific moment is going to translate ... into some extraordinary changes,” said one panelist.

The panel was titled “Breaking the Silence,” and the five South Asian women on the panel did just that, bringing the issue of gender-based violence to the fore at the Spring Meetings of the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund.

“We cannot keep silent,” in the face of horrific acts, said Isabel Guerrero, the World Bank’s vice president for South Asia. “We have to add our voices.”

Gender-based violence surged to global public attention following the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old New Delhi student in December, who later died from her injuries. The case sparked a movement called “1 Billion Rising,” with rallies and events in India and throughout the world. Other gender-based attacks such as the shooting in Pakistan of Malala Yousafzai, a teenage advocate for girls’ education, have added to the outrage.

Moderator Barkha Dutt, a noted Indian television journalist and columnist, asked whether the recent outcry marks an “inflection point,” and whether a new law in India will help matters.

“I’m hugely optimistic that this horrific moment ... is going to translate and already is translating into some extraordinary changes,” said panelist Ratna Kapur, a professor at Jindal Global Law School in India who practiced law for a number of years in New Delhi. “Thousands and thousands of people (are) coming out onto the streets, young men and women, and it's become a political issue.”

But she and other panelists agreed that India’s new law, which includes the death penalty for rape in some cases, is too focused on police and the justice system, and not enough on women’s empowerment.

“Violence against women is an issue of rights, not just law and order,” Kapur said, adding that the new law “reproduces the understanding of the traditional Indian woman.”

“It could be a tipping moment if we now build on it, if governments and society stay with it, build on it, look at the reasons for the violence against women, look at the reasons for discrimination against women, and then come up with long-lasting solutions to it,” said Seema Aziz, a Pakistani businesswoman and founder of the CARE educational foundation. “Otherwise this will pass as everything else passes.”

" It could be a tipping moment if we now build on it, if governments and society stay with it, build on it, look at the reasons for the violence against women. ... Otherwise this will pass as everything else passes. "

Seema Aziz

Pakistani businesswoman and founder of the CARE Foundation

And Nisha Agrawal, CEO of Oxfam India, pointed out that unless laws are vigorously enforced and accompanied by changes in attitudes, they are meaningless.

“We have a fantastic domestic violence law on paper, but it remains on paper, eight years after it was passed,” she said. “The center has never put any budget behind it, most of the states have never put any budget behind it. ... It’s not happening.” Similarly, she said, on property rights, even the best laws in the world cannot change men’s and women’s attitudes.

Guerrero asked panelists to consider whether South Asia is different in some way, and whether the economic empowerment of women reduces violence or exposes them to more of it.

“How much is this really about the fear of the power of women, as women become educated?” she asked.

Kapur cited a "crisis of Indian masculinity" and "a sense of displacement" as more women come into the public arena and get jobs. But Agrawala pointed out that violence is also highly prevalent in rural areas, where more women remain in traditional roles.

And panelist Shireen Huq, co-founder of Naripokkho, a women's human rights advocacy organization in Bangladesh, said that when her organization interviewed convicted rapists, what they found was “a sense of right.”

“It was less about grievance and less about backlash to these women becoming visible, powerful, or financially strong … they had license,” she said. The men’s “traditional sense of what it means to be male” included the right to abuse women.

The conversation ranged widely, from the importance of education to the validity of affirmative action for women to the ubiquity of sexual harassment on streets and public transit in South Asia. In the end, it came back to the question of the role the World Bank can play.

“The first step is breaking silence – the next step is meaningful action,” said audience member Hawwa Lubna, a journalist and student from the Maldives who was attending the Spring Meetings as a civil society delegate. She cited a well-publicized case in her country where a girl who had been raped by her stepfather was sentenced to be lashed for fornication. “I would like to see international institutions take a more active role.”

The panel was part of an ongoing effort by World Bank South Asia to raise awareness and find solutions for gender-based violence:

  • A text-message contest for young adults in the region netted more than 1,200 entries, and the winning 10 were displayed at the panel.
  • In June, the Bank will hold a regional conference in Nepal on “Inclusive Approaches to Addressing Gender-Based Violence in South Asia.” The event will bring together global and regional development practitioners, academics, experts, policymakers, and cultural/social leaders who can effect change in attitudes in society, and ultimately influence policy and practice. 
  • Also in June, the Bank will host a hackathon in Nepal to spur development of technology-based solutions to domestic violence.