Tag: Equality Now

Insufficient rape laws across South Asia increase risk of sexual violence: Report

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Photo- Human Rights Watch

By SAT News Desk

NEW DELHI/MELBOURNE, April 21, 2021: It is not uncommon in South Asia when a sexual violence victim woman does not report the case and it vanishes in thin air. In fact, women and families desist from going to a police station for fear of victim-blaming or massive delays in the criminal justice system.

A recent Jirgha (community panel) deal in Pakistan pushed a family to forgive culprits for parading a girl naked, reports voicepk.net. The case had garnered media attention when Sharifan Bibi had filed a petition in the Peshawar High Court in 2017, where she narrated her ordeal and accused the local police of collusion with the suspects. A rape victim in a recent case in India was asked to marry her alleged rapist.

A new report reveals how laws on rape in South Asian countries are insufficient, inconsistent, and not systematically enforced, putting women and girls at heightened risk of sexual violence. Survivors and victims’ families frequently face further victimization, resulting in extremely low reporting rates for rape, long delays within the criminal justice system, and withdrawal of cases.

Released jointly by international women’s rights organization Equality Now and Dignity Alliance International, ‘Sexual Violence in South Asia: Legal and Other Barriers to Justice for Survivors’, focuses on six countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, India, and Sri Lanka – and calls on their governments to take urgent action to address sexual violence, improve access to justice for survivors, and end impunity for perpetrators.

Analysis of country-specific laws and policies relating to sexual violence found that in the six South Asian countries examined there are gaps in laws, failures in implementation, and governments are not fulfilling their commitments and obligations in international law regarding the protection and promotion of women and girls’ human rights.
In-depth discussions carried out by researchers with focus groups, survivors, activists, and lawyers identified numerous obstacles faced by sexual violence survivors. For the small minority who do manage to file police complaints, it is only the start of a long and arduous quest to access justice.

Impediments include:
● Conviction rates for rape are extremely low across throughout South Asia – in Bangladesh, it is only around 3%;

● Long delays in police investigations, medical examinations, prosecutions, and trials are common; 

● Reports of police officers refusing to file complaints or failing to investigate allegations are widespread; in four countries – Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka – survivors and other stakeholders spoke about the challenge of justice system officials being susceptible to bribery and corruption;

● In rape cases, overly burdensome or discriminatory evidence is required; for example, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, and Sri Lanka all permit evidence about the sexual history of rape victims; this is based on patriarchal assumptions that only “chaste” and “moral” women and girls can be raped;

● In India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, the “two-finger test” – an unscientific, intrusive, and retraumatizing vaginal examination performed on the wrongful premise that it can determine a victim’s sexual experience and which is often used to imply that she is lying – is conducted in medical examinations of women and girls who have been raped;

● Rape survivors and their families frequently face extreme pressure to withdraw criminal complaints and stay silent; this includes being forced into informal community mediation and subjected to social stigma, victim-blaming, threats, bribery, and retaliation including loss of employment, eviction, and further violence;

● Survivors are coerced into dropping legal cases and accepting extra-legal settlements or compromises with perpetrators – in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal over 60% of survivors interviewed reported facing pressure to settle or compromise their case; in various instances, survivors did not receive the compensation promised under these extra-legal agreements;  

● Marital rape is not criminalized in Bangladesh, Maldives, India, and Sri Lanka; legally permitting impunity for rape within marriage treats women as the property of their husbands and takes away their rights over their own body;

● Quality support services for survivors are lacking, with minimal access to safe houses, counseling or other types of psychosocial care; poor provision of victim and witness protection schemes puts survivors and their families at risk of coercion and further harm;

● Survivors of sexual violence from socially excluded communities face even greater barriers to accessing justice as a consequence of caste, tribal, ethnic, or religious prejudice and persecution; while India and Nepal have passed specific laws aimed at preventing and redressing discrimination against certain socially excluded communities, more work is needed by all governments in the region to address this intersectional discrimination.

Report co-author Divya Srinivasan, a human rights lawyer and Legal Advisor for Equality Now, says: “Our research reveals how governments across South Asia need to take urgent action to provide women and girls with better protection against sexual violence and end widespread impunity for perpetrators. This requires closing gaps in-laws, addressing flaws in criminal justice systems, and investing in holistic responses to ensure access to justice and support for survivors.”

The report calls on South Asian countries to implement comprehensive and inclusive measures that effectively address sexual and gender-based violence. This includes:

● Addressing protection gaps in the law
● Improving police responses to cases of sexual violence
● Ensuring survivor-friendly medical examinations in rape cases
● Improving prosecution procedures and trials of sexual offenses
● Designing and funding holistic interventions to improve access to justice for survivors
● Reviewing laws and policies to ensure the specific needs of all marginalized communities are met

Evlyn Samuel, the report co-author from Dignity Alliance International, says: “The report reveals a multitude of barriers that survivors of sexual violence experience at different levels while accessing the criminal justice system across these countries. This calls for a dire need on the part of governments to adopt a more comprehensive, gender-sensitive approach in addressing issues of sexual violence against women and girls to bring systemic and transformative changes.”

Pakistan: Protect human rights defenders

Pakistan: On 4 July 2012, Farida Afridi, Executive Director of women’s rights organization Society for Appraisal and Women Empowerment in Rural Areas (SAWERA), located in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) region of Northwest Pakistan, was shot to death outside her home by two armed men on a motor bike who subsequently fled the scene. According to reports she had been facing threats prior to her death for working to help women and her murderers are believed to be affiliated with extremist elements in the region. Ms. Afridi’s murder is not the first such incident in the region. In December 2011, Zarteef Khan Afridi (not related to Farida), a coordinator of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, was similarly murdered and his death was reportedly followed by a statement by an extremist organization that those found working on developmental issues would be killed. A suspect has been arrested in Farida’s murder but the perpetrators in Zarteef Khan Afridi’s case remain at large.

Threats to the lives of human rights defenders are common in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province and the neighboring FATA region, and they are routinely criticized for their work to further the rights of women and accused of promoting a ‘western agenda.’ Reportedly, during a sermon on 4 May 2012, a politically influential religious cleric, Maulvi Abdul Haleem, from Kohistan district in KP province warned female NGO workers against entering Kohistan and threatened to forcibly marry violators to locals. He went on to declare that NGO workers would be prevented from trying to ‘influence’ local women in the name of empowerment, decreed education and employment for women un-Islamic and stated that honor killings were ‘a local custom and religious practice.’ Such statements have led to fear amongst human rights defenders, particularly women. The provincial government has not taken any steps to protect human rights activists and rights groups working in KP and FATA are losing staff whose lives and safety are threatened. This is particularly concerning as the region is rampant with violations of women and girls’ rights and NGOs working there urgently need the encouragement, support and protection of the government.

The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders specifies the obligations of States to guarantee and protect the rights of human rights defenders. Pakistan also has a duty to protect all human rights established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 2), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 2) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (Article 3). Activists such as Farida Afridi, who, despite threats to their lives, continued to work tirelessly to promote the rights of women and girls as enshrined in Pakistan’s obligations under CEDAW, must be protected by the Pakistani government and justice must be speedily conferred if violations occur.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, took note of violations against human rights defenders working on women’s rights and gender related issues in Pakistan, pointing out in her December 2010 report that six communications had been sent to the Pakistan Government on this issue between 2004 and 2009. In her August 2010 report she stated, ‘…all violations of the rights of defenders should be investigated promptly and impartially and perpetrators prosecuted. Fighting impunity for violations committed against defenders is crucial in order to enable defenders to work in a safe and conducive environment.’ The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, urged the Pakistani government to investigate Afridi’s murder and promptly ensure that perpetrators are held accountable. She stated that women human rights defenders ‘are commonly perceived as challenging accepted sociocultural norms, traditions, perceptions and stereotypes about femininity and the role and status of women in society, while reclaiming their rights or the rights of their communities.’ Manjoo also stated that the killing of women is indeed a State crime when tolerated by public institutions and officials. Additionally, in the June 2008 report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review of Pakistan, Pakistan was called upon to ‘combat impunity for attacks on human rights defenders by effectively investigating allegations and by prosecuting those responsible.’

Civil Society organizations working in KP and FATA, including the Pakhtunkhwa Civil Society Network (PCSN) and Tribal NGOs Consortium (TNC) coalitions, have come together to express their deep concern about the threats and deadly violence inflicted upon human rights defenders. These organizations which are members of the End Violence against Women and Girls (EVAW/G) Alliance KP & FATA have created a Charter of Demands calling upon the government to take urgent measures to ensure the safety of human rights defenders, particularly women, working in the region, including by criminalizing intimidation, threats and attacks upon human rights workers and statements or decrees encouraging actual violence against activists. This Charter of Demands has received endorsement by women rights organizations and networks from all parts of Pakistan including FATA.

Source: Equality Now