By Pamela Philipose
20 December, 2012
The statistics tumble out of conflict zones and bedrooms; street alleys and college campuses. Violence against women remains the most common, most persistent and the most ‘accepted’ form of human rights violations that take place in South Asia. Every day in Bangladesh, at least 40 women experience some kind of assault. In Afghanistan, incidents of violence went up by 30 per cent in 2012, according to one estimate; while in neighbouring Pakistan, abduction and kidnapping of women have emerged as commonly reported crimes. As for Sri Lanka, if sexual violence against women was systematically deployed during the Sri Lankan army-LTTE war, today violence within the home is a growing concern.
Many of those subjected to such attacks, who are assailed, set upon, violated, don’t have the words to express the treatment accorded to them, either because they are too traumatised to speak, too afraid of the consequences, too conditioned to remain silent or submit – or because they are dead.
But why does a crime that is so commonplace, that has featured in constitutions and brought people onto the streets time and again, continue to be so prevalent? Noted Pakistani lawyer and human rights activist, Hina Jilani, admits to a failure, “We have failed to persuade everyone in our societies that violence against women is unacceptable under any circumstance. We women activists didn’t involve men, didn’t involve the community in this effort.” She argues that today, more than ever, there is need for an activism that is well informed, grounded in a common understanding of what constitutes a violation of women’s rights, and which includes all sections of society including men and children. “We need to talk, not just to ourselves, but to everybody. This is why campaigns like One Billion Rising (OBR) are important. But if it has to be effective, it has to connect with ordinary people,” Jilani iterates.
A campaign that comes to speak for everybody and to everybody is not an easy project to undertake. Yet, those presently participating in the OBR campaign, whether they are based in the island nation of Sri Lanka or the mountainous stretches of Nepal and Afghanistan, are together seizing the moment to raise an old battle cry with renewed vigour, and in more vibrant, even funkier, ways.
In late November, for instance, 30 civil society organisations in Sri Lanka, staged a zany walk, entitled ‘Walk a mile in HER SHOES’, which ended in Colombo’s Galle Face Green. Many participating male processionists carried posters reading ‘Real Men Help Heal Wounds, they never cause them’, as they marched. Among the plays staged was one that depicted the violence faced by conflict-displaced families that was performed by a women’s group from Vavuniya, the site of pitched battles between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE a few short years ago.
Bangladeshi Mobasser Chowdhury also held out a poster – this time in Dhaka: “I do not want to be the man this society tells me to be, but the man this society needs!” Bangladesh saw an energetic mobilisation around the OBR campaign. In fact, it was the first country in the South Asian region to get off the block. Says Kushi Kabir, founder member of Nijera Kori, which is anchoring the campaign in Bangladesh, “Our call for action began in September. During that first public meeting we brought together singers, mountain climbers, even Bangladesh’s only woman train driver on to the stage! We see this campaign as cutting across barriers of community, religion and caste. So we held launches simultaneously in 30 districts of Bangladesh.”
Bangladesh has one of the strongest networks of civil society organisations in the world so the number of those participating in the OBR campaign runs into millions. This time, however, an effort was also made to include those outside this spectrum, like the corporate sector and trade unions. A radio partner, Radio Shadhin, was signed on to mobilise volunteers at Dhaka’s business hubs to offer strangers gift packages that consisted of a single rose, an OBR wristband and a letter talking about violence – the wristband was meant to be worn and the rose presented to a loved one!
Across the breath of the sub-continent, in Afghanistan, there were ripples too. Popular singer and youth icon, Wali Fateh Ali Khan, launched his song, entitled ‘Fifty One Percent Of The Population’, at an OBR event. Accompanying the song were visuals of a father celebrating his daughter’s birth – highly symbolic images in a country where women are often traded like chattel.
Shahbano Aliani, the Karachi-based activist, could well have been speaking for Afghanistan when she points out that in Pakistani districts like Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, that border Afghanistan, women are often used to settle local disputes. Explains Aliana, “What sometimes happens is that the family of a man who has been murdered now wishes to avenge this death by killing a male member of the murderer’s family. In such a situation, tribal elders asked to intervene may rule that a woman from that family be given as compensation to the aggrieved party.”
To counter such practices a pledge was taken at the launch of the OBR campaign in Pakistan. Reveals Anis Haroon, former chairperson, National Commission on the Status of Women, Pakistan, “Our pledge read: ‘No more shall Pakhtoon fathers forcibly give away their little daughter in slavery and forced marriage to save their own lives; no more shall our daughter and sisters be forced into unwanted marriages to save men’s dishonorable acts; no more shall religious bigots steal our daughters and forcibly convert them denying them the right to their religious freedom; no more shall our daughter need to run away from their homes to be hunted and killed like animals because they were denied their right to happiness.’”
According to Jilani, the central issue underlining violence against women is the core question of dignity. “In many parts of South Asia, there is little worth attached to a woman’s life, which is why incidents like acid throwing and wife beating are so common. The other issue is of impunity. We will not be able to transit to a better society unless we ensure transgressors get punished,” she observes.
While the attack on Malala Yousafzai, a schoolgirl from the Swat Valley, rightly made headlines around the world, Aliani points out there are hundreds of thousands of young girls in the region who face discrimination and danger at every turn. They are victims of child marriages and practices like watta satta, where brothers and sisters within two families are literally swapped in marriage. “These are the realities that a campaign like OBR must reflect. But it must as also capture the background violence that is taking place, like the drone attacks being conducted by the US military. Violence against women is also about peace and justice,” observes Aliani.
The more the activism, the more the articulation – and the more the articulation, the more the activism. The OBR campaign, given its open-ended, all-encompassing nature has been able to provide an unprecedented cross border platform for both expressions against, and resistance to, all forms of violence against women in South Asia, with its 1.65 billion people, 48 per cent of whom are women. All over India, OBR campaigns are playing out and even tiny Maldives is adding its voice.
Somewhere this is also about the “sister spirit” that Sri Lankan journalist, Dushiyanthini Pillai, acknowledges in her blog: “We in South Asia have a lot in common from our religions, languages, arts and trade. Many of us in South Asia have our roots and connections to other countries in the region in one way or another. Also as women we face similar concern… As feminists our sister spirit goes beyond borders to support each other and create deeper bonds of friendship.”
Women's Feature Service began in 1978 as an UNESCO-UNFPA initiative. Until 1991, it was a project of Inter Press Service (IPS) Third World News Agency. The only international women's news/features syndicate, Women's Feature Service produces features and opinions on development from a gender perspective. http://www.wfsnews.org/