Gender violence in south Asia


Anupama Srinivasan argues that what we know about gender violence in South Asia – dowry harassment, domestic violence, acid attacks –  is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Anupama is Programme Director at the Gender Violence Research and Information Taskforce (GRIT) at Prajnya. Based in Chennai, India, she has spent the last year carrying out research in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh into gender violence, looking at it through the lens of security.

Rachael Jolley:  Could you talk me through the motivation for doing this research?

Anupama Srinivasan: The starting point was that gender and sexual violence remains an under researched area.  It tends to fall into many different categories – you see some work on it under the label of human rights, and some under the label of women’s issues.  As a result, different people take, or abdicate, responsibility for it.  It is everyone’s problem and no one’s.

So the starting point was, what is the big picture?   And also, what is the evidence we have to back up the statement that ‘gender  and sexual violence is highly prevalent in South Asia?’   We say this all the time, and we say it with a fair amount of confidence, but what are the numbers behind it?  How do they correlate with the anecdotal evidence that is more publicly visible through newspaper reports or documentary  films.  And who are the different players on this scene?  What are their roles, their responsibilities and their motivations?

I happened to see a call for proposals, from the Global Consortium on Security Transformation, and  they were interested in looking at different security issues.  Human security issues.   And it was important for me to be able to place the issue of gender and sexual violence within the idea of security.  Traditionally you tend to look at security as military security, national security.  But there is also the idea of looking at it as human security, health security.

RJ What were the sources of material you looked at?

AS There were two kinds of sources.  One was the existing literature – both country specific and specific to certain forms of violence.  Gender violence is a very broad label and you can and must break it up to look at very specific forms of violence, whether defined by where it takes place or defined by the degree of violence itself.  So the literature was one, main starting point.

The other was conducting in depth qualitative interviews with a range of people who have many years of experience working on this issue.  I also travelled to Sri Lanka to do interviews there.  Unfortunately there was no real budget provision to travel to the other South Asian countries. Obviously that would have been ideal.   So one of the challenges was identifying the right people to speak to.   The other was getting access to them.  We make assumptions about the levels of internet access sometimes, and I did find that particularly challenging with Nepal and Bangladesh.  I think those two countries remain gaps in this research to a certain extent.

RJ  You say in your report, that gender violence remains invisible and shrouded in silence – what are the factors that make that true?

AS What has always been true is that someone who experiences violence is either too scared, ashamed or embarrassed (or a combination of all these things) to talk about it.  That goes with the fact that as a society we don’t really encourage or create public platforms or spaces that enable this kind of conversation – even one on one (e.g. accessing a mental health professional).  That is a big stumbling block.

One of the things we say when we work on this issue is that what we know is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg.  That has pretty much become an assumption.   But we know more now because we have more legislation.  Many countries have been trying to work with police forces to sensitise them a little more on how to respond – what  are the things you say, and what are the things you don’t say when someone comes to file a complaint.  I think that has made a difference to the numbers of people who have experienced violence who are willing to come up and talk about it.  But I still believe it is a minority and there are many more stories that we don’t hear at all.

RJ You talk about violence in public spaces and private spaces.  Presumably the violence in private spaces is more difficult to assess.

AS I think in the private spaces  (generally in people’s homes) you pretty much have wait for someone to file a complaint – whether it is one-off incidents, or chronic abuse over many years .  And it  is always a dilemma:  how far can you go in encouraging someone to report an incident, what are the consequences for their own lives for their personal lives, for how everyone else views them?  This is a hard question for service providers, for those who run helplines in charities, for shelters.  With private spaces the role of the state is also a tricky question.  How far do you go in enforcing non violence in a home, for instance.  Whereas in a public space, if you saw someone assault a woman on the train for instance,  many of us would think it is the right thing to step in at that point and say, this is not done.  So the lines are quite blurred. It is a tricky question that we really don’t have the answers to.

RJ Dowry harassment was one of the things you looked into – what is that?

AS In many countries in South Asia, but specifically in India, the tradition is that when a girl is married into another family her father has to provide what is called a ‘dowry’ which could be money, or jewellery or even electronic equipment or furnishing a house (or a combination of all of these things). The ideas is that you are handing over your daughter and you are also saying, take care of her, and use all of this to take care of her.  It’s interesting, it has now become almost a bride price – what is the price of a bride and therefore her relative worth?  India has passed fairly strong anti-dowry legislation, so dowry is illegal – the taking of dowry, especially, is illegal – but in reality we know it happens all the time.  And it happens fairly openly. If you walk into 20 marriage halls you’d find a fair number of very proud fathers telling you what kind of dowry they were able to put together, and how many years they had to work to put it together.  It’s a proud moment for them.  It comes with the baggage that the value of the woman about to married off, is determined not so much by the people like her, or even how much she might have studied, or the kind of job she has but by the worth of this dowry.

RJ So where is the harassment?

AS  Some of it is before marriage, so that is easier to deal with because there is still a point at which you can turn back and say, ‘all right, I am not going to go ahead with this’.   We have seen stories of women who have publicly declared, even on the day of the wedding, that they are not going to allow their families to be subjected to this kind of harassment.    So there is pre-marriage negotiation behind the scenes, behind all the shopping for the jewellery and the saris, and all that nice vibrant stuff that you see.

After marriage, though, it often tends to become more secretive and confined within a woman’s new household.  This could take the form of verbal abuse every day – say her father has promised that within 10 days of the marriage he will bring over an extra amount because they didn’t feel it was adequate, but he hasn’t been able to put that together.  It is safe to assume that the young woman would face a fair amount of, to begin with, verbal abuse.  That could, depending on circumstances go right up to dowry deaths.  This could mean bride burning, where you have these curious ‘accidents’ in kitchens when a stove explodes when the young bride just happens to be sitting there.  And when you see one, yes, it is tragic. Then you see 10, then you see 100.  You’d be foolish not to notice a pattern.

Since the legislation was passed in India, I wouldn’t say the number of dowry deaths has drastically come down, but it hasn’t drastically gone up either – because there is some amount of fear about the possible legal repercussions.

RJ Have many cases been taken?

AS Yes, quite a few, and very often by the girl herself – who has just said, enough is enough, this is ridiculous, I am not going to  do this to myself, or to my father or my family.  There have been cases of women walking out of marriages a week or 10 days after the actual wedding, and obviously that is so much harder both legally and emotionally – because of how society views it, especially if you’ve had a large wedding with 2000 people attending it.

RJ You mentioned legislation in the context of India – what about outside India.  Does this go on elsewhere?

AS Yes, it does, in the Maldives, for instance, and to a lesser degree in Pakistan and Bangladesh.  In Nepal, I think, it is quite high .  The whole bride price is quite high in Nepal.  But it is most prevalent in India.

RJ Is India the only place with legislation in place?

AS No, Nepal has legislation in place too.  The curious thing is that the legislation tends to be included in broader, say, domestic violence legislation.  If you have a husband beating a wife, the reasons are many and one of those could be dowry.  Having unique legislation, just on dowry, is one thing, but in many countries I think the assumption is that you can report someone for abuse, whatever the reason might be.

RJ Acid burning comes up in your report as another example of gender violence

AS Acid attacks are most peculiar to Bangladesh. And a bit in India and Pakistan.  This happens when you have a ‘spurned lover’ or you have a young man who isn’t being allowed to marry a girl because her family has found someone else for her, whom they deem to be more worthy or more suitable, or the girl herself has rejected his ‘advances ‘.    It is easy to procure acid – easier than it should be.  It is easy to put acid into a plastic water bottle, walk up to someone and throw it in her face – which is literally how these attacks happen.  They tend to take place in very public spaces.  These attacks have very serious long term consequences.  The idea is,  ‘if I can’t have this girl, if she doesn’t want me, I’m not going to let anyone else have her  If I can disfigure her in this manner, the chances of her being able to lead a happy life and find someone else to live with are low – and, horribly, that is true.  A lot of these women who have been attacked with acid have had to undergo years of physical therapy, and dealing with what is almost guilt –  what did I do? I must have done something really bad to have this happen to me.

RJ You must have difficulty getting reliable statistics on these attacks.

AS That’s the curious thing.  Acid attacks take place in public, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a case is filed in a police station.  Often a family may chose not to do so because they don’t want to complicate an already difficult situation. There is also a fear of further repercussions.  Say this has happened to an older daughter in the family, and they have 2 younger daughters, I think their first fear would be – what’s to stop the guy, out on bail, from doing this again.  Short of confining someone in her home, how do you prevent this kind of violence?

In Bangladesh, after they passed their legislation, they found the number of acid attacks went down drastically.  This is strong legislation with a death penalty.  Although I don’t think anyone has actually  been given the death penalty,  the fact that you have deemed it to be a crime this serious – and setting aside the whole debate about death penalties – just recognising the severity of the crime, they have found that acid attacks have come down, in the years since the legislation.

RJ You say in the report the numbers went down from 490 in 2002 to 179, that’s a significant drop.

AS  Yes, it is.  But that is one of the gaps.  While we know the sheer numbers, we don’t really have the analysis that can attribute this solely to the legislation.  We can infer from this, and the timing of it, that the legislation is likely to be a strong reason, but unless we go back and do more in depth study, we can’t confidently say it is only because of the legislation, and that if you pass laws on all the different types of violence we will be able to bring them all down.

RJ You mention the links between women earning money and violence in society – but you say there is no clear cut correlation.

AS Yes, we tend to assume that if a woman has access to education and access to a good job, a livelihood and a certain amount of independence, she is less vulnerable to violence and more likely to have the skills to protect herself or seek justice.  But some studies have shown that the correlation isn’t quite as strong as we like to think it is.  That’s obviously worrying, because it goes against broad notions of empowerment, and the idea that all these different factors – education, employment, income, independence – all contribute to stronger women.  Again, it is very basic research that has been done and it’s something we really need to explore a lot more to understand.

You see the same pattern with land ownership – a study done by the International Centre for Research on Women  [ ] has shown that women who own land in more matriarchal societies aren’t any less vulnerable to violence than you would assume.  The land is an asset, but does it give them greater security?

RJ In this study, did you come across legislation in one country that other South Asian countries could learn from ?

AS I’m not sure about specific legislation.  But to be fair, both India and Sri Lanka introduced domestic violence legislation in the same year, and there was quite a lot of sharing – where we come from, where we stand on this issue.  There are quite a lot of commonalities between the two.

One thing I did find, however, and it continues to bother me,  is the reluctance to share the work you’ve done.  I find that very problematic.  In a small country, I’d walk into the office of one organisation and they would tell me they have done this, that, and the other.  It was good work, and I’m delighted that they’ve done it.  But then, they’d go on to say, ‘No one else has done anything on this.’  Then I’d move 2 streets down to another organisation, and they’d tell me exactly the same thing.  I don’t get it.  Surely you want to share the work you’ve done, and you want other people to find out about it.  And you don’t want to be doing the same things everyone else is doing – because where is the value add?  You are doing pretty much the same thing, and coming up with the same numbers.  Whereas if you identified a legitimate gap and focused your energies on that gap, it would be a lot more useful.

I posed this question to a few people, and the very  honest response I got was that you are driven by funders to a large extent, and by what is perceived globally as the biggest problem, the one issue that everyone want to invest money in.  Over the last two years, for example, there has been a lot of talk about honour killings in Pakistan and India, so that would be a smart thing to write up a grant application for, never mind that 10 organisations are doing the same thing.  In Sri Lanka, after the Tsunami, there was a lot of work about post disaster violence, and violence in camps.  Now the conflict has ended there is a lot of work – important work – going on about what are the long term consequences of the violence women faced from the State, from military groups.  But the problem is that these things happen in phases, they all happen at the same time, so what do they add up to?  That’s the kind of question we must ask ourselves.

RJ  That sounds like something to be learned from this project – any other learning, or massive gaps to be filled?

AS  The question that still needs an answer is, whose responsibility is this?  Obviously data collection and research on a massive issue like this, on a tricky, difficult,  ethically difficult issue like this, can’t be one person’s responsibility – whose is it going to be?  Civil society, non profit groups, the government?  In my ideal world every government would set up an accessible, transparent database of the different forms of crimes of violence against women, or gender violence for that matter, that respects privacy and all the difficult ethical issues that go with it – and you’d back this up with qualitative research that filled the gaps, but I think this is a pipe dream – it would call for large, sustained financial investment.  For example 3484 women were raped in India in 1999.  But know no more than that.  We don’t know who the rapists were,  where the rapes took place – so how do we put in place security measures?  How many took place? How do we know how many were perpetrated by strangers, or by people known to them?  Unless we can break down these numbers into other correlates , we are going to be going round and round in the same ways.


The Prajnya Report on Gender Violence as Insecurity by Anupama Srinivasan is part of the New Voices Series of the Global Consortium on Security Transformation.

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