ASIA: A general view of the conditions of women in Asian countries 

International Women’s Day–2010

Today the world is looking to women for change in what remains a situation that offends human rights on a daily basis. In its work as a listener and voice to claims of human rights violations, the Asian Human Rights Commission regularly quotes statistics such as in Madhya Pradesh, India, 67% of the people live below the poverty line and 60% of the children are undernourished while 73.9% of tribal women are anaemic. In various statements and Urgent Appeals the AHRC has reported five women were buried alive in Pakistan and a girl was mauled by the dogs, in Thailand, there was impunity for the influential perpetrator of a rape and murder, and even crimes of a medieval nature; in Nepal police fail to charge those who accused a Dalit woman of witchcraft and forced her to eat human excreta. Out of the deluge of cases comes a clear pattern of abuse against society’s most vulnerable and they are kept vulnerable through lack of education, inequality and fair employment opportunities. In Sri Lanka where reports of forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, endemic torture and problems of displaced persons are common, the women remain the main victims directly or indirectly.

Malaysian women suffer lashings; Pakistani women suffer Jirga trials and honour killings; Bengali women suffer the abuses and sexual harassment of the Border Security Forces; in Myanmar women are conscripted to forced labour by the military, forced to carry heavy loads, do dangerous unpaid work, and to leave their children unsupervised. South East Asian women suffer trafficking and forced prostitution; in Indian and Sri Lankan women suffer a corrupt police force.

It is only worth generalising such abuses when a pattern is revealed that makes it clear to a government the areas in which they are failing. Patterns experienced in Asia include abuse of power by the police and societal suppression in reporting crimes. Both of which indicate an entrenched mindset based firmly against the female and her fundamental rights.

The World Economic Forum’s ‘Global Gender Gap Report,’ is a framework for understanding the magnitude and depth of gender-based disparities between countries. The Index benchmarks national gender gaps on economic, political, educational and health-based criteria and provides rankings that allow for comparisons across the 134 countries. According to this report, Asian countries, particularly South Asian countries, fared poorly. In comparison to the other countries involved in this report, Bangladesh ranked 93rd, with economic empowerment coming at 121, health at 127 and political empowerment at 17. Nepal fared similarly poorly, coming in at 110th overall, with economic empowerment at 116, health at 123 and political empowerment at 35. India was ahead, but not by far, at the 114th rank. India’s economic empowerment ranking came in at 127, health at 134 and political empowerment at 24. Pakistan fared worst in Asia, with an overall standing of 132. Economic empowerment also stood at 132, health at 128 and political empowerment at 55.

With these statistics in mind, we must concede that although the International Day of Women began as one in which women are reminded of the battles they have fought, the achievements that have been won, and the small, but certain, steps that have been taken, it is clear that it is still just the beginning. Women in the Asian countries still suffer under the hands of their families and wider society, including state officials and police officers. It is clear that a revolution of values from both the ground up and the top down is utterly essential if the situation is to change. Without an unlearning of denigration, empowerment and dignity will have no space to flourish in these societies.

A further obstacle for the fate of women in Asia is poor rule of law and the failure to implement legislation. Pakistani legislation already in existence makes domestic violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, arranged marriage, and honour killings illegal. Yet all are common practice as laws remain in word only as Parliament fails to alter the mindset of the people. On the other hand, accepted Sharia law such as the Zina Ordinance allow single men and women to be flogged for adultery and married men and women to be stoned. In many cases, a woman who makes an allegation of rape is convicted for adultery while the rapist is acquitted.

One of the indicators for food security in a country is child malnutrition and maternal mortality. According to the Global Hunger Index 2009, most of the developing countries in Asia, particularly South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, have a high rate of child malnutrition and child and maternal mortality. These high numbers can be culturally interpreted in an Asian context and linked to other social problems.

The social groups that are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity are low caste and tribal or indigenous people living in rural areas who do not have regular income sources such as farmland. Women in rural areas engage in often physically taxing labour, while also taking primary responsibility for the care of their homes and children. Women are often excluded from various social activities which would allow them to increase their standing in society, such as education. Wives eat less food than their husbands do, while female children eat less than male children do. As reported by the AHRC Hunger Alerts, mothers and their daughters suffer visibly from this gender inequality in food security.

The exclusion of women from activities, in education in particular, has an effect on increasing hunger and malnutrition. Women’s participation in education and other social activities, including various economic activities, can play a significant role to reduce child malnutrition and poverty. The Gender Gap Index 2008 shows large gaps in South Asia particularly Pakistan, which has the 87th biggest gap among 90 countries, proving a correlation between food insecurity and gender inequality.

The women of Bangladesh are vulnerable to governmental, familial and political forces and face violence at the hands of their families, work colleagues and government officials, regardless of the strata of society that they inhabit. Violence against women that takes place within the family is mostly related to a culture of forcing women to pay dowries to their in-laws and husbands. Failure to pay the demanded dowry often results in brutal beatings and even death at the hands of the woman’s in-laws and her husband.

Neither are the lives of women secured in society. Women frequently become the victims of acid attacks and unlawful arbitration, which is widely known as “fatwa” in the country, by uneducated so-called religious leaders of the Muslim community. Such illegal arbitration interferes into the events of marital or extra-marital relationships of couples in urban areas and for the most part, victimizes women. As a result of the failure of law enforcement agencies to protect and uphold citizens’ rights, women, particularly poor women, suffer greatly. For example, Ms. Reshma suffered an acid attack in her home under Koyra police station in Khuna district. The One-Stop Crisis Centre (OCC) of the Khulna Medical College Hospital (KMCH) examined Reshma and ascertained the identity of the perpetrator. But, the Investigating Officer of the Koyra police, Sub Inspector Abul Hashem, insisted that Reshma withdraw her case and marry her attacker. The police officer was also allegedly seen having refreshments and gossiping with the alleged perpetrator as well as his associates who had connections with the leaders of the country’s ruling political party. For more details, please see the following link:

Later, the police submitted an investigation report claiming that the complaint of an acid attack was false. Once again, it is clear that such attacks are a concrete representation of the denigration of women in Bangladeshi society. The AHRC calls upon the government of Bangladesh to stringently enforce their laws on acid attacks, so that perpetrators such as Ms. Reshma’s attacker are not able to use political clout to escape their sanctions.

There have been a few legislations criminalizing violence against women, including dowry and acid throwing, however, the situation remains unchanged due to loopholes within the laws as well as an attitude of negligence by the state officials to improve the situation. For around two decades now, the position of Prime Minister or the leader of the Opposition in the Parliament has been occupied by women. This, along with the presence of a few dozen female parliamentarians, due to the government’s policy of reserving seats for women in those institutions, has led to the idea that the status of women in Bangladeshi society is improving. However, not enough of the women who are in positions of leadership challenge the patriarchal systems which the country runs upon, but instead replicate and serve to validate the oppression of other women.

According to the Asean Inter Parliamentary Myanmar (BURMA) caucus on the general situation of women in Burma, the women continue to organize and fight for their rights. Women’s publications and documentation of human rights abuses have brought international attention to their situation.

The Asean inter parliamentary caucus points out that the women are conscripted to forced labour by the military, forced to carry heavy loads, do dangerous unpaid work, and to leave their children unsupervised. Military personnel continue to rape women without fear of retribution. They are unprotected from physical and sexual violence at work, in public places, and in their own homes. The women and girls are being forced into exploitative sex work, unprotected from violence and sexually transmitted infection. The girls are leaving school to take care of younger siblings, and working to help feed their families.

While the regime has signed up to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), women are getting hungrier, sicker and dying younger.

Medical malpractice is a hot topic in Burma these days after a teenage girl died due to a misdiagnosis last year. The public hospitals are chronically under-funded and understaffed and complaints of personnel demanding money for services are common. According to speakers on a short-wave radio station following this case, the hospital concerned also has a reputation for denying patients treatment unless they pay up; even pregnant women in danger of miscarriage have reportedly been told to pay large sums or go elsewhere. Staff at the hospital are also alleged to steal supplies and sell them on the black market.

Most of the political prisoners have no legal right for self protection such as not being allowed to have lawyers and no opportunity to meet and consult with legal advisors. On 15 August 2009 two police officers took 46-year-old Ms. Ma Mar Mar Aye from her house and on August 17 they lodged a charge against Mar Mar Aye for allegedly causing fear and alarm in the public. They also confiscated items from her house, including T-shirts to vote ‘No’ in the 2008 referendum on a new constitution, and some with Aung San Suu Kyi’s picture. She was not represented by a lawyer, was unable to call any witnesses in her defence, and was sentenced to two years imprisonment after a perfunctory hearing.

As regards the educational situation, girls are leaving school to take care of younger siblings and working to help feed their families. Three girls in Burma have been sentenced to a year in jail with hard labour for allegedly selling illegal lottery tickets. When the case against them came to court, the judge reportedly ignored evidence given that the three girls were not yet 16 years old, and should have been tried in a juvenile court.

In India the situation is depressingly similar. The constitution and legislation may be as convincing as in any developed nation, but in a system of selective justice, those laws in place to protect women do not work. And, in the wider terms of social engineering, legislation is one small shuffle towards change.

The case of Sharmila of Manipur, India is by no means symbolic of all the struggles faced by women in India, Sharmila’s struggle is symbolic of the unswerving force of the government to silence women who speak out against the unspeakable violence it enacts on innocent civilians everyday. Sharmila has been on an indefinite fast since November 2000 protesting for the withdrawal of the martial law, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) from the Indian state of Manipur. She began her fast after the Malom massacre when ten innocent people were gunned down by the personnel of the Assam Rifles, a para-military force operating in the region, as they were waiting for the bus at the Malom bus stand.

On the third day of her fast, failing to admit defeat but fearing adverse political repercussion, the government arrested and detained Sharmila. Their reasoning for this is Section 309, a provision in the Indian Penal Code that penalizes any attempt to commit suicide. The government of Manipur is now force-feeding her through a nasogastric tube in her nose. For the past 10 years Sharmila has remained in this state, confined under police custody in her small room in Manipur. The government has not changed their position and Sharmila has refused to stop her fast.

In Nepal the systematic oppression of women at the hands of state officials is a particularly pressing problem. When the powers that are obliged to protect women, and have promised to do so in their Constitution, are continuously involved in the appalling denigration and degradation of women, it is clear that there must be a re-education and revitalization of governmental and civilian values and attitudes towards women. One case which speaks to this is that of Maina Sunuwar. Four military officers were accused of having illegally arrested, raped and tortured this 15-year-old girl to death on 17 February 2004. Despite the enormous national and international attention this case has received and the recent repatriation of one of the accused from the UN Peacekeeping operations in Chad, the perpetrators have not yet undergone prosecution. The AHRC has been reporting regularly on this case since 2005 and since that time, little progress has been made in obtaining justice for the victim’s family. This case has become emblematic of the malfunctioning justice and police system in Nepal, and of the complete absence of accountability of those who committed human rights violations during the conflict with the Maoists. Furthermore, it speaks to the lack of worth that the government places on a young woman’s life. If this young woman is being treated as expendable, and is still, despite her case receiving national and international attention, being ignored by state officials, it is clear that there are countless women disappearing through the cracks of this country’s justice system.

In Pakistan the enforced disappearances of women were introduced by the military government of General Musharraf. According to the missing person’s list around 148 women are missing after the aerial bombardment during the 2005 military action in Balochistan. The women are also run as sex slaves in military torture cells. The case of Zarina Baloch who was abducted from Balochistan province and kept in a military torture cell at Karachi, capital of Sindh is one such example. Please see the link:

The case of acid attacks in Pakistan, which the AHRC covered in 2010, is violence against the concept of womanhood. The acid, often targeted at the face, aims to take away the very face of ‘woman’. While the landmark January 26th, 2010, bill (Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act) submitted to the National Assembly of Pakistan, calls for harsher punishments for attackers and a regulation of the sale and purchase of acid, the reality remains that a legislative process takes years to pass, and fails to address the embedded cultural gender issues.

Laws are not sufficient to protect women against centuries-old traditions. This can be changed only through a comprehensive process that includes the disassembly of Jirgas, the effective implementation of the rule of law in every region of the country and the reform of the judiciary and the police to stop impunity. This requires a strong political will. Structural changes also have to be made, such as a better representation of women in state and public offices. These are just some of the measures that could be taken in order to deliver Pakistani women from old tribal traditions. For the report on Pakistani women please go to this link:

Sri Lanka today is a land of forced disappearances, large scale extrajudicial killings, endemic torture and every kind of violence. In all acts of violence it is the women who are the direct or indirect victims. What is worse is that there is no one to hear their cry. Added to the lawlessness that creates violence is the collapsed system of justice which fails to investigate or to provide redress for the cruelties, injustices and endless crimes.

Sri Lanka is essentially a land without redress. The judicial system is a powerless one. An executive presidential system in which the chief executive enjoys absolute power like a feudal monarch has reduced the judiciary to an onlooker’s role. The parliament has been subordinated to this overall system of presidential power. The policing system no longer carries out its role of law enforcement and the responsibility to uphold the rule of law. While all women in the country suffer helplessly within this situation the worst to suffer are those of the minorities. In the north and the east today there is hardly any kind of governance and the type of warlord-like behaviour has reduced the population to powerlessness. The kidnapping of children for ransom is a symbol of the lawlessness in these parts of the country.

Thus, in the midst of overwhelming violence with no possibilities of legal redress the rights relating to women remain only a pious hope. Large numbers of women migrate to other countries mostly to do menial work as domestic helpers so as to sustain their families. They are among the persons who contribute most to the country’s foreign exchange resources. However, their rights are not recognised within the country and the government takes no responsibility for their protection while they are abroad. Some have faced criminal charges in foreign courts often for no offense on their part but the Sri Lankan government take no responsibility to provide legal protection for them. The International Women’s Day is a reminder of the state’s failure to protect any of the rights of women.

For further information please refer to the article SRI LANKA: Cry of three women and water canon in the streets which may be seen at:

International Women’s Day is as much about honouring women of courage and conviction as it is about giving voice to their suffering. The theme for the International Labour Organization’s 2010 celebration is “What’s working for working women?” this is a theme worthy of profound reflection by everyone.