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South Asia’s gender bias

South Asia has a women problem. Be it India with its spate of high-profile rape cases, Pakistan with its systematic disenfranchisement in several conservative regions of the country or Afghanistan with its tales of jirga-sponsored beheadings, many women in the South Asian region are still struggling for their basic human rights.

Despite having the requisite laws to penalise violence against women, such crimes are still under reported in these countries and prosecution often does not take place. The laws themselves come under attack from conservatives. While there appears to be some progress in India with mass protests and calls for change, it is still unclear if this will transform the attitude that give criminals a free pass and pressurises victims to forgive and forget.

Stubborn attitudes also remain a problem in Pakistan. Documents showing an unabashed agreement to ban women from voting and carrying signatures of representatives of all major political parties have surfaced following the 2013 election. This of course is a clear violation of Pakistan’s constitution and should be prosecuted.

But our laws have again been trumped by our chauvinistic mindset, making the presence of such agreements an ordinary occurrence rather than the shameful displays of misogyny that they really are.

As we struggle to implement existing laws, our neighbours to the west are debating whether to give parliamentary approval to the Law to Eliminate Violence Against Women that was signed by President Karzai in 2009. Though it did not require parliamentary approval, having been enacted by the president, women activists felt that this move would secure the law from attacks it might face in the future from the country’s future leaders who might feel less inclined towards protecting women’s rights. There was much opposition to this move, for the exact same reason. Many women’s rights activists in Afghanistan do not feel that the law will survive parliamentary scrutiny.

Unfortunately, their predictions appear to be proving right since the debate was halted following demands to scrap the law. In particular, changes were demanded to decriminalise rape within marriage. As long as the debate continues, the law will remain in force being sparsely used and yet still irritating the hard-line conservatives who prefer their women enshrouded and inconspicuous.

Yes, South Asia definitely has a women problem. Though we prefer to think of ourselves as wholly separate cultures, there is a pervading negativity towards one half of the population that transcends geographical barriers, language and ethnicity. It manifests itself in different ways depending on how far up the developmental ladder a country is, but it is there all the same.

It manifests itself daily, sometimes appearing as ‘relatively harmless’ heckling other times bursting out in a series of violent crimes. It appears as the permissiveness towards child marriages and the tendency to turn a blind eye towards domestic violence. It is what has made it acceptable for women to be coerced into voting for whomever their male guardians feel is an acceptable representative or for them to be barred from exercising their democratic rights at all.

The women’s rights movement has come a long way in our part of the world. Despite all the setbacks and obstacles, laws and procedures have been enacted to protect women even in the most conservative of countries. This has only been accomplished after decades of struggle and even now, all this hard won progress could be lost because age-old attitudes towards women have still not changed.

Many more lives will be lost, many more women will suffer in silence and many more debates will have to be won before the South Asian region overcomes its gender bias.

The writer is a business studies graduate from southern Punjab. Email: asna.ali90 @gmail.com

Source: The News

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