(New York) – South Asian governments should disregard populist death penalty rhetoric and listen to their own experts to prevent and end sexual violence against women, Human Rights Watch said in a video released today. Experts on sexual violence from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka address the growing protest movements across the region prompted by government mishandling of high-profile sexual violence cases.
“Women and girls across South Asia are fed up with their governments’ failure to tackle sexual violence,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “They have long watched their governments tolerate – or even facilitate – impunity for sexual violence, and they are taking to the streets and demanding change now.”
In Pakistan, a police chief criticized a woman gang-raped in front of her children because her car had run out of fuel. In India, police and government authorities denied that a 19-year-old Dalit woman was gang-raped despite her dying declaration – apparently to shield the accused, who allegedly belonged to a dominant caste. The state’s chief minister denounced protesters calling for justice as “anarchists.” In Bangladesh, the government failed to stop the viral spread of a video of a group of men attacking, stripping, and sexually assaulting a woman. All three cases led to protests in 2020 by women’s rights activists.
Women in the Maldives have protested endemic gender-based violence, including sexual violence, and government inaction. In Nepal, protests have been driven by several shocking rape cases, while the government has also failed to respond to a new wave on online gender-based violence. In Afghanistan, women caught between government failure to protect women from violence and the Taliban’s repressive restrictions on women’s freedom of movement and rights to education and work, are demanding their rights in protests and peace talks. In Sri Lanka, activists are demanding reform of the law on sexual violence, while a women’s protest movement seeking information about disappeared loved ones faces intimidation from the authorities.
In many countries in the region, activists have adapted a protest song from Chile, “A Rapist in Your Path,” translating it into local languages and performing it at protests. “Patriarchy is a judge who judges us for being born, and our punishment is the violence you don’t see,” the song goes. “The rapist is you. It’s the police, the judges, the state, the president. The oppressive state is a macho rapist.”
The experts interviewed by Human Rights Watch outlined key steps that governments should take to respond to sexual violence. Survivors often struggle to access services. “We need more health services geared towards survivors, we need more legal services, we need the police to be sensitized,” said Ambika Satkunanathan, a former human rights commissioner in Sri Lanka. “Hence, it’s not a short-term project as it were but something that requires long- term change to tackle the problem.”
Law reform is needed in some countries, but even more important is the gaps in enforcing the law, which deny survivors justice. “We do have laws and we do have certain procedures,” said Farieha Aziz, co-founder of the organization Bolo Bhi in Pakistan. “What is necessary is that they are implemented.”
When survivors seek justice, they often face insurmountable obstacles in the courts. Conviction rates for sexual violence are extremely low across the region. For example, in Bangladesh it is estimated that fewer than one percent of rape cases investigated by police lead to conviction.
“It's not only that the police register the case,” said Dr. Lhamo Yangchen Sherpa, an expert in Nepal. “You then have to go to the court, which might take years and years. … [The accused] have good lawyers, which means that the case either gets dissolved or the case goes on for a very long time. That’s why people don’t report or they are settled outside of the court.”
Survivors are often retraumatized by the legal process. “The judges still consider [the] victim as a criminal, and they ask a lot of questions that is against the human dignities,” said Shabnam Salehi, commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Most fundamentally, governments need to do more to prevent sexual violence, including by working to end gender inequity across society. “One thing that we have been advocating for and fighting for is comprehensive sexuality education to be made mandatory in all our schools,” said Umama Zillur, founder and director of Kotha, a feminist organization against gender-based violence in Bangladesh. Many children in South Asia receive little or no education in school about sexuality, consent, and healthy relationships.
Rather than do the work needed to make meaningful change, some governments in the region have responded to protests by making populist calls to execute rapists. Pakistan’s prime minister called for rapists to be executed in public. In 2020 Bangladesh imposed the death penalty for rape. Indian law permits capital punishment for repeat rape offenders or for rape of children under age 12.
The experts agreed that the death penalty is not a solution. Imposing death may further deter some survivors from coming forward, and experts expressed concern about weak justice systems wielding such power and the impact of weak judicial systems on procedural rights, including the right to a fair trial. “When our justice system is not so strong, a death penalty sentence may actually result in the death of an innocent person,” said Ikleela Hameed, founder of Voice of Children in the Maldives.
“[The] death penalty is not a deterrent for any crime,” said Vrinda Grover, a lawyer from India. “It lets the state off the hook from doing the work that the state needs to do in order to ensure that women and girls live free lives in this country.”