Written by Shireen Lateef, Senior Advisor (Gender)
The region is reeling from the gruesome and brutal rape of a young woman student in Delhi. The horror of the incident and subsequent death of the victim has awakened the global community and generated momentum to fight violence against women. The One Billion Women Rising Campaign is mobilizing men and women to rise up and demand an end to violence on V-Day – 14th February. Eliminating Violence against Women and Girls is the theme of the 2013 UN Commission on the Status of Women with high hopes of an endorsed global action plan to protect women and girls everywhere from discrimination and violence.
Asia must confront the grim reality that 3 of the world’s top 5 most dangerous countries for women (Reuters) are in this region (Afghanistan, India, Pakistan). Honor killings, dowry deaths, female infanticide and child brides have landed these South Asian countries on the “dishonorable” list. In Pakistan, 1000 plus women each year are victims of honor killings. Media stories proliferate on the plight of child brides in Afghanistan and dowry burnings in India. Reports of acid throwing to maim and scar women who stray from the norms of culturally appropriate behavior is not uncommon in Bangladesh.
The rest of Asia is not off the hook. Sexual assault, harassment, domestic violence, female trafficking and pre-natal sex selection is evident across the region. The Asia region may be home to the world’s fastest growing economies but the treatment of women and girls is wedged in a cultural time-warp. Behind the façade of gleaming glass skyscrapers, exuberant stock exchanges and everything “designer” lurks age-old customs and traditions that value sons more than daughters; privilege the education of boys over girls; deny women inheritance rights, and; keep women bound as custodians and bearers of family honor. The trappings of ‘modernity’ comfortably co-exist with age-old traditions. While progress and ‘modernity’ is evident everywhere across the region, the progress is spurious if 50% of the population – women and girls - continue to live under constant fear and terror of violence. This is not progress. This is simply unacceptable.
The Asia region is home to the largest numbers of “missing women” in the world. The 2 largest and fastest growing economies of the region – India and People's Republic of China (PRC) – account for more than two-thirds of the world’s missing women. Large numbers of women report intimate partner violence: 30% in Viet Nam; 40% in Bangladesh; and 60% in Kiribati and Vanuatu. Across the region, women’s safety in public and private spaces remains precarious. The protection of the region’s women and girls is of utmost urgency and requires immediate attention.
Better laws, better implementation of existing laws, reform of the police and justice systems and harsher penalties for perpetrators are certainly the first and necessary steps. But, laws and justice systems are only one piece of the puzzle. The complexity and root causes of violence need to be better understood and require a multi-pronged approach. Combined efforts are needed to tackle education and decent jobs for women and girls; better laws and more women police and judges; safer public transport systems; school curriculum that teaches mutual respect; working with men and boys to change behavior and attitudes, and; counseling and legal support services for victims. Action on all these fronts will make the region a safer place for women and girls.
Despite the magnitude of the problem, violence against women continues to occupy a marginal space in public policy and development agendas. Yet, the social and economic costs of violence are enormous and stall all other development efforts. It reduces human capital; decreases productivity; reduces progress towards Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and slows down poverty reduction. Increased investments in women and girls need to be prioritized. These investments will deliver immeasurable social and economic returns. The empowerment of women and girls must be at the centre of the post 2015 development agenda.
The hardest part will be changing attitudes, cultural practices and mind-sets. This may be daunting but not insurmountable. Culture and traditional practices are not cast in stone and should not be an excuse for inaction. Unacceptable cultural practices that disrespect and demean women need to be tackled head on, and slowly chipped away. Women’s education and economic empowerment will over time trickle down to changing the value placed on women and girls, giving them a voice in households and communities and empowering them to carve out their own destiny.
There is no quick fix to ending violence against women. Complacency is not an option. The time to act is NOW.