March 14, 2018
Globally, one in three women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. On March 6, The Asia Foundation in Washington, D.C., hosted a panel discussion on why gender-based violence remains so prevalent in Asia and the legal frameworks that exist (or don’t, but should) to protect women and girls. Here are four key takeaways from our presentations and the ensuing discussion.
1. Violence against women is one of the deadliest forms of violence in Asia, yet it is dramatically overlooked by governments and policymakers. The Asia Foundation’s recent report, “The State of Conflict and Violence in Asia,” finds that gender-based violence is one of the deadliest forms of violence in the region. It often kills more people than armed conflict and other forms of escalated violence that typically receive more attention from policymakers and development actors. For example, between 2011 and 2015, India recorded over 40,000 dowry-related deaths. This is over 10 times more than the combined fatalities of the Kashmir conflict, the Naxalite rebellion, and Northeast India insurgencies during the same period of time, all genders combined. And dowry-related deaths are only one of many deadly forms of gender-based violence in India. In Nepal and Bangladesh, recent data from violence monitoring projects supported by The Asia Foundation indicate that gender-based violence is the first or second cause of intentional homicides in these countries, well ahead of political or ethno-communal violence.
2. Most countries in Asia have laws against domestic violence, but nearly all laws exclude unmarried intimate partners. Panelist Paula Tavares shared research conducted by the World Bank’s Women, Business, and Law team on legal protections against domestic violence and sexual harassment. She reported that all countries in South Asia (five in total) and the East Asia and Pacific (EAP, 17 countries in total) have laws against domestic violence. But the composition and specific protections outlined in these laws differ across countries. Although it is widely recognized that domestic violence can include physical, sexual, psychological, and economic violence, half of the countries that have domestic violence laws do not include protections against economic violence. While domestic violence laws in South Asia include protections against sexual and economic abuse, 74 percent of women (age 15+) in the EAP are not protected from sexual violence and 76 percent of women are not protected from economic violence. There is also variation in who is protected by such laws. Globally, only one out of three countries protect unmarried intimate partners from domestic violence. Across Asia, most laws do not protect unmarried partners. Eighty-eight percent of women in the EAP and 100 percent in South Asia are not protected against domestic violence by an unmarried intimate partner.
3. Limited awareness, capacity, and lack of political will hinder women’s legal protection. Laws against domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence are just the starting point. There is no shortage of legislation, and most laws have been accompanied by awareness raising campaigns. Human rights lawyers and activist organizations have been on the frontlines, bringing these measures into place and lobbying for justice. Asma Jehangir, who recently passed away, is one such example of courageous activism against injustices toward women and vulnerable groups in Pakistan, as well as across Asia and the world. In Pakistan, a robust legal framework includes a number of articles in the constitution, such as the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act (2016), Domestic Violence (prevention and protection) Act (2013), Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act (2010), and the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act (2010). However, implementation is hindered due to limited awareness among the general public about the content or even existence of such laws; archaic legal systems and courts that are insensitive to the needs of victims, or the alternative of the controversial and patriarchal jirga systems; and weak administration and local government capacity.
4. Violence against women and girls extends throughout the life cycle. Gender-based violence against women and girls is multi-dimensional, deeply rooted in inequitable societal norms, and persists throughout the life cycle. Excess child mortality rates and a deep-rooted bias against girls often begins in the womb. Gender biases within a household have implications on health and education outcomes, with girls and women often faring worse than boys and men on relevant indicators. One of the most egregious forms of violence against girls is child marriage. South Asia sees the highest rates of child marriage, which is in turn associated with lower education outcomes, inferior employment opportunities, and higher rates of domestic violence. Globally, including in Asia, legal protections against child marriageare limited, and many countries that have adopted 18 as the legal age for marriage still allow exceptions in cases of parental or judicial consent. Additional challenges such as low levels of female labor force participation and insecure public spaces both result from and perpetuate environments in which violence against women can persist. Though most countries across Asia have laws against sexual harassment-which may occur in or outside of the workplace, in public and private spaces-the laws vary in scope and coverage. These myriad factors and forms of gender-based violence compound to compromise the safety and well-being of women and girls and must be addressed holistically for prevention and response efforts to be effective.
Barbara Rodriguez, who moderated the event, is associate director of The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program. Sofia Shakil is the Foundation’s country representative in Pakistan and Adrian Morel is acting regional director for Conflict and Development. The World Bank’s private sector development sector specialist Paula Tavares served as a third panelist. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.