Notes from the Field

Despite Serious Consequences, Gender-Based Violence Still Bitter Reality Across Asia

November 30, 2011

A global campaign is underway right now to bring attention to a pressing human rights issue which affects up to 60 percent women across the world. The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign – which falls between International Day Against Violence Against Women (November 25) and International Human Rights Day (December 10) – brings attention to the global issue of gender-based violence. While living a life free of violence is a basic human right, millions of women around the globe are victims of violent acts including domestic violence, forced prostitution, rape in wartime, marital rape, and other forms of physical and psychological abuse.

Indian woman

Despite the serious consequences of gender-based violence, the WHO notes that it continues to have an "unjustifiably low priority on the international development agenda." Photo by Karl Grobl.

Gender-based violence is deeply rooted in societal norms that set and reinforce the unequal power relations between men and women which perpetuate the problem. Within the Asia-Pacific region, there are a number of entrenched cultural practices that contribute to gender-based violence and pose a significant barrier to women’s equal rights. Forced early marriage, domestic violence, dowry-related violence, rape, acid throwing, female genital mutilation, forced prostitution, and the trafficking of women are major threats to health and well being of millions of women in Asia. According to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), many types of gender-based violence have increased in the Asia-Pacific region in recent years. Because these root causes are so deeply ingrained in patriarchal systems and cultural practices, implementing efforts to change them is complex and difficult.

Despite the serious consequences of gender-based violence, the WHO notes that it continues to have an “unjustifiably low priority on the international development agenda.” Today there are 50 million fewer women in South Asia than there should be due to factors including violence and neglect of girls and women and sex-selective abortions. While most countries have guaranteed women’s rights in their constitutions or international agreements, they often fail to protect women from abuse in the home, the workplace and in society as a whole. Perpetrators are rarely held accountable and most women have minimal access to legal assistance. Often a “culture of shame” exists for victims of violence and cultural stigmas discourage women from reporting crimes against them or even speaking about them.

The most recent census conducted by the Ministry of Finance in Timor-Leste found that 38 percent of women aged 15 to 49 reported having been abused and 74 percent of married women reported suffering from domestic violence. Despite these high rates of abuse, few victims report crimes to the police, largely because of widely held beliefs that these problems should be kept within the family. Therefore, one important step toward addressing the culture of silence surrounding violence against women is to open channels for women to access legal services and raise awareness that this is a crime and victims need support and not criticism. The Asia Foundation has taken efforts to strengthen the capacity of women lawyers in Timor-Leste to provide services for women who are victims of gender based violence. In 2010, for example, we supported an exchange of 12 women lawyers from Timor-Leste to Indonesia in order to build their knowledge of service delivery for women’s legal aid. The Foundation also supports monthly roundtable meetings for women lawyers working in legal aid organizations in Timor-Leste. In order to further bolster the low numbers of cases which actually reach court, due to cultural stigma or other reasons, The Asia Foundation worked with a partner NGO to develop the Guide to Legal Services and Professional Code of Ethics and a supplement, Guidelines to Mediation, which requires that all cases involving serious family or sexual violence be referred to the court.

One very effective method for ensuring gender-based violence receives its due political attention is to include women in political decision-making processes. Across Asia, women’s voices are often left out of the political realm which leaves few voices in support of strengthening legislation to combat gender-based violence. Global data show that in countries with strong laws against domestic violence, domestic violence is seen as less acceptable and its prevalence is lower. As such, legislation against such violence is critical in cultures of discrimination. Many states across the Asia-Pacific region are working to incorporate women into politics. Nepal, a country with high levels of gender discrimination, declared in its 2007 Interim Constitution that women must comprise at least 33 percent of candidates in parliamentary elections. As a result, Nepal is the only country in the Asia-Pacific region that has attained the 30 percent mark for numbers of women parliamentarians. Even with this representation, however, women in Nepal still face major challenges such as male domination in political parties and a widely held belief that women politicians are mere figureheads and less capable than their male counterparts. This indicates the evident need for support for female candidates beyond simply placing them in positions of power. In support of such efforts, the prime minister of Nepal declared 2010 the year to combat gender-based violence. The Asia Foundation and its partners have been working to support the government’s gender-based violence unit in efforts to build overall response capacity and to increase visibility of the issue at the national and local levels.

The struggle to end gender-based violence has potential for significant positive impact from the regional to the country to the individual level. As one of the most extreme expressions of gender inequality, gender-based violence slows progress toward achievement of the Millennium Development Goals – negatively affecting human rights and slowing economic development. The economic costs of violence against women include both direct costs such as services and bringing perpetrators to justice as well as indirect costs such as lost earnings for women and lost employment for businesses. The UN estimates that the barriers to women’s participation in the workforce in the Asia-Pacific decrease regional revenue by approximately $89 billion every year. In addition to economic losses, gender-based violence takes an extreme toll on women’s well-being – including physical and psychological trauma, mental distress, and reproductive health problems. These repercussions extend to children who live in households where domestic violence occurs. Children in such households are subject to higher rates of infant and child mortality and morbidity.

Given the wide-reaching, destructive potential of gender-based violence, it is heartening to note positive progress. Nineteen countries in the Asia-Pacific region have passed laws prohibiting domestic violence. Furthermore, men’s engagement in the fight to end gender-based violence is growing – and is critical to change the cultural attitudes and practices which enable its perpetuation. For example, in 2009, The Asia Foundation, in partnership with two Nepali NGOs, conducted a campaign to engage men in the fight to end gender based violence. Nearly 5,000 men participated in sensitization programs on gender-based violence and 10 community-level men’s “anti-violence” groups were formed.

Such continued effort by women and men across the globe will ensure that the yearly 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign will spread to 365 days a year free of violence for millions of suffering women across the globe.

Kate Bollinger is a junior associate for The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at kbollinger@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Write a comment:

* Required

Comments are moderated. Please be polite and on-topic.

 characters available