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UN Report: South Asian Women Need More Domestic Violence Protection

  • Kurt Achin

Child bride at the Balaji temple in Kamkheda village, in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, May 7, 2011

Child bride at the Balaji temple in Kamkheda village, in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, May 7, 2011

International rights activists say South Asian women need more legal protection from violence brought on by their own families. A new report from the United Nations says even in countries with domestic violence laws in place - justice remains out of reach for millions of women.

Laws non existing, or inadequate

The report titled In Pursuit of Justice notes that only four South Asian countries - Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh - have laws specifically prohibiting domestic violence. But even where laws exist, scholars say lack of awareness, poverty, and social stigma often prevent women from accessing legal help.

United Nations Women, which was formed last year to focus on gender equality and women's empowerment, points to nearly 90,000 cases of family violence in 2009 here in India alone. The report says 35 percent of Indian respondents surveyed say they have been physically abused by family members.

Madhu Bala Nada is a senior policy advisor to UN Women in India.

"We have to re-look at the way we have been looking at family as a protective unit," said Madhu Bala Nada.

Hina Jilani is a prominent lawyer and co-founder of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. She agrees South Asian countries should stop behaving as though family matters fall outside the justice system.

"The family has now become the locus of violence, especially against women and children and the whole question of family being the basic unit of society is there in international instruments [of human rights] as well as in many constitutions," said Hina Jilani. "So I would say we really need to review the whole notion, and stop romanticizing the family."

The UN Women's report says nearly half of all women surveyed in Bangladesh report incidents of physical violence by their partners.

Bangladeshi women's rights activist Sultana Kamal says the country's domestic violence law can not make much of an impact unless attitudes also evolve.

"In our society there is an acceptance of violence against women - either explicit or latent," said Sultana Kamal. "It's a culture of impunity. The whole society will have to stand up and say this can't go on."

But Lakshmi Puri, assistant U.N. secretary-general for gender equality and empowerment, says passing domestic violence legislation can be a good catalyst for changing public mindsets.

"When there is a law against domestic violence, people realize - even in the family context - that it is not a natural thing to do," said Lakshmi Puri. "That strengthens the perception that it is wrong to use violence against women and girls, in the family."

Sapana Pradhan Malla, a member of Nepal's Constituent Assembly, says the laws in place to protect women should be enforced.

"Generally what happens in our part of the world - yes, we criminalize excessive use of power, we also criminalize abuse of power," said Sapana Pradhan Malla. "But we don't criminalize non-action of state actors, so we need to criminalize and make them accountable."

Not enough women in official positions

United Nations officials say more women in law enforcement and the justice system could also help victims of violence. Currently, in South Asia, women make up just 9 percent of judges, 4 percent of prosecution staff and just 3 percent of police.

Experts say increasing the number of women in such positions could better help South Asian women understand and navigate the justice process, many of whom are impoverished, illiterate and unaware of the laws and programs in place to protect them.

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