Rape laws across South Asia insufficient, inconsistent, and poorly enforced, leaving women and girls at heightened risk of sexual violence
21 April 2021
INDIA, New Delhi, April 21 – A new report reveals how laws on rape in South Asian countries, including the Maldives, are insufficient, inconsistent, and not systematically enforced, putting women and girls at heightened risk of sexual violence. Survivors and victims’ families frequently face further victimisation, 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 organisation 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.
In the Maldives, issues include: burdensome evidence requirements to prove rape; failure to criminalise marital rape; provisions which enable gender stereotyping and secondary victimisation; low reporting rates; lack of publicly available data on reporting, prosecution and conviction of sexual offences; long delays in rape trials; and lack of support services for survivors.
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 throughout South Asia; data from the Maldives government shows convictions in only 49 out of 364 cases of sexual abuse between 2015-2019;
● 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 South Asia, including in the Maldives;
● 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 rape is somehow linked to a victim’s “chastity”, “morality” or “character”, diverting focus from the criminality of the act of rape;
● 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 criminalised in all circumstances 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, counselling or other types of psychosocial care; poor provision of victim and witness protection schemes puts survivors and their families at risk of further harm.
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.”
Humay Abdul Ghafoor, a women’s rights activist in the Maldives and a co-founder of Uthema, a Maldivian NGO that advocates for gender equality and women’s empowerment, says: “Sexual violence against women and children in the Maldives is truly a shadow-pandemic – unseen, ignored and invisibilised. Despite the existence of laws criminalising sexual violence, in the patriarchal social context of the Maldives, the issue continues to be poorly addressed by the relevant investigative authorities, social protection services, healthcare services as well as the criminal justice system.”
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 offences
● Designing and funding holistic interventions to improve access to justice for survivors
● Reviewing laws and policies to ensure the specific needs of all marginalised communities are met.
“A concerted, integrated, whole-system response is urgently needed to address the pandemic of sexual violence, and ensure women’s and girls’ right to safety, security and a dignified life free from violence. We hope this report will be accepted as a helpful turning point to address the pandemic of sexual violence against women and girls in the Maldives, and across South Asia,” concludes Ghafoor.
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Tara Carey, Equality Now, Head of Media Manager
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About: Equality Now is an international human rights organisation that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world by combining grassroots activism with international, regional and national legal advocacy. Our international network of lawyers, activists and supporters achieve legal and systemic change by holding governments responsible for enacting and enforcing laws and policies that end legal inequality, sex trafficking and online sexual exploitation, sexual violence, and harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage.
Our campaigns are centred on four programme areas: Legal Equality, End Sexual Violence, End Harmful Practices, and End Sex Trafficking, with a cross-cutting focus on the unique needs of adolescent girls.
For more details go to: equalitynow.org and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
About: Uthema is a women’s human rights NGO registered in the Maldives in 2016. The organisation’s primary objective is to advocate for gender equality and women’s empowerment. Uthema seeks to understand the lived experiences of women in the Maldives using evidence-based research, and use that knowledge to advocate for positive social, cultural, economic and political change to improve the lives of women.
For more details go to: uthema.org and follow on Facebook and Twitter.