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South Asia: Recent Killings, Violence Underscore Lack Of Progress In Gender Justice

Gender violence is present in every region of the world. But in some conservative societies in South Asia, it has not been considered an issue until recently. Stories of horrific rapes in Pakistan and India, murders in Afghanistan, and the desperate plights of other women in South Asia have all underscored how far the region has to go before women are treated with justice.

Prague, 11 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Twenty-six-year-old Shefali Begum recently advertised one of her eyes in a local newspaper in Bangladesh.

Abandoned by her husband, Shefali told Reuters Television that she was desperate to earn enough money to feed her 2 1/2-year-old daughter.

"I don't need much money. I just want to survive with my daughter," Shefali said. "I am not a greedy woman. I was looking for a job in houses and garment factories, but because of my daughter, no one would give me a job. I have also gone to beg, but everybody said I am a young woman, so why am I begging. So no one gave me a penny."

Shefali is one of millions of women in South Asia who are facing some sort of physical, psychological, or economic violence.

Speaking this week at an international women's rights conference, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said developing countries, especially Muslim ones, must challenge outdated customs and religious teachings that keep women largely poor and powerless.
"When a woman [in Pakistan] goes to the police station to report a rape case, if she does not have four [male] witnesses -- which actually is very difficult -- she is put behind bars for adultery."

In Afghanistan, the new constitution guarantees equality for men and women. However, discrimination and violence against women remain widespread. Many Afghan victims are silent due to social stigma, fear of persecution, and lack of legal protection.

In northern Baghlan Province, the bodies of three Afghan women were found on a roadside on 1 May. They had been raped and hanged. Their killers left a note warning other women not to work with aid organizations.

"In a context where violence against women remains too often unprosecuted and unpunished, it is particularly important that the authorities spare no effort to bring swiftly the perpetrator of this crime to justice," said Ariane Quentier, a spokeswoman for the United Nations.

In India, rights groups were outraged on 4 May when a court allowed a man convicted of raping and partly blinding a young nurse to offer to marry his victim. He was sentenced to life in prison after the woman refused her attacker's offer.

Pakistani newspapers recently highlighted the case of 17-year- old Nazish Asghar, who threatened self-immolation unless the government ensured her that she would be protected from men she has accused of rape. The student said she was abducted and gang-raped over 37 days, and then raped by police after being rescued.

Nilofar Bakhtiar, a special adviser on women's affairs to Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, said Islamabad still must review the Islamic criminal code governing rape.

"When a woman goes to the police station to report a rape case, if she does not have four [male] witnesses -- which actually is very difficult -- she is put behind bars for adultery," Bakhtiar said. "So this is the main issue which is very, very contentious and which we want to do away with."

Bakhtiar said she knows she faces a stiffer battle over the Islamic criminal-code ordinance.

Pakistan has recently introduced legislation to outlaw honor killings over stiff resistance from leaders of feudal rural communities.

Honor killings of women are prevalent in South Asia and the Middle East. In Pakistan alone, rights groups documented more than 400 killings for honor in the first nine months of 2004. In many cases, courts acquitted defendants or gave lenient sentences to those convicted.

Honor killings are a pre-Islamic practice in which a woman is murdered or punished corporally -- usually by male members of families -- for her actual or perceived immoral behavior. Such immoral behavior can take many forms -- marital infidelity, refusing to submit to an arranged marriage, demanding a divorce, flirting with a man, or even being raped.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, a former UN special rapporteur on violence against women, said changing laws is the easy part. Changing attitudes is something else, she said.

"There's a lot of law writing, standard setting, programs being planned," Coomaraswamy said. "But whether any of this is having a change on the ground situation, people working on the ground say, 'No.' So I suppose the challenge of the next decade, now that we have the standards, and the programs and the policies, is to implement them."

Coomaraswamy said she believes South Asian men feel threatened by social and cultural changes, partly spread by globalization and the mass media. And women are bearing the brunt of men's fears.