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Sexual Violence in South Asia: Legal and Other Barriers to Justice for Survivors

Protection gaps in rape laws and barriers to accessing justice continue to lead to effective denial of justice for survivors of sexual violence in South Asia. Recent and widespread public protests in response to high profile rape cases in the region have shone a spotlight on the need for action.

This report, jointly authored by Equality Now and Dignity Alliance International, calls on the governments of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, India, and Sri Lanka to take urgent action to address sexual violence and improve access to justice for survivors.

Survivors of sexual violence are denied justice

Analysis of laws, policies, and practices related to sexual violence, alongside focus groups and in depth discussions with survivors, activists, and lawyers actively engaging with survivors of sexual violence, found that rape laws across the six South Asian countries studied effectively deny justice to survivors of sexual violence due to protection gaps in the laws. The report also uncovered severe barriers to accessing justice and implementation gaps within the criminal justice system, particularly:

  • Limited definitions of sexual violence
  • Failure to criminalize marital rape in all circumstances
  • Discriminatory or overly burdensome evidence requirements; Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, and Sri Lanka all permit the introduction of evidence on the past sexual history of the rape victim.

“I often wonder if my life would be different if I was a Bangali woman, not a marginalized Adivasi woman. I see young people from my community being rejected from jobs just because of their identity, our women and girls are raped every day and the culprits walk around with impunity.” 

Prabha, Bangladesh

In addition to the gaps in the law, the report uncovered severe barriers to accessing justice and implementation gaps within the criminal justice system, including:

  • Long delays in the police investigation, medical examination, prosecution, and trials, with perpetrators often out on bail, are a major barrier to accessing justice.
  • The two finger test, a traumatizing and unscientific vaginal examination, continues to be conducted as part of the medical examination of rape survivors in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka
  • Across all 6 countries, pressure is put on the survivor or her family to enter into an extra-legal settlement or compromise with the perpetrator. In Bangladesh, India, and Nepal over 60% of the survivors interviewed reported facing pressure to settle/compromise the case.
  • Conviction rates are low across the region, ranging from 3% in Bangladesh to 64% in Bhutan (though from an extremely low reporting base), resulting in impunity for the vast majority of perpetrators. Survivors and stakeholders across four countries (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka) highlighted that the susceptibility of justice system officials to bribery and corruption was a severe challenge to accessing justice.
  • Lack of quality support services for survivors like victim/witness protection schemes, safehouses/shelters, and psychosocial care compromises the safety of survivors, across all six countries.

Survivors of sexual violence from socially excluded communities face specific barriers to accessing justice based on their caste, tribal, ethnic, or religious identities in addition to gender discrimination. 

Governments must take comprehensive action 

We’re calling for comprehensive action from governments to holistically address sexual violence and intersecting discrimination faced by women and girls across the region to live up to their commitments to protect and promote the human rights of women and girls. Specifically, the governments of the six South Asian countries must: 

  • address protection gaps in the law 
  • improve police responses to cases of sexual violence
  • ensure survivor-friendly medical examinations in rape cases
  • improve prosecution procedures and trials of sexual offenses
  • design and fund holistic interventions to improve access to justice for survivors

Read the perspectives of survivors across South Asia

Dr. Debarati Halder expert interview – India

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Ruchira Gupta expert interview – India

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Radhika – India

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