Silent violence

Entrenched social norms in Asia complicate efforts to combat problems from spousal abuse to child marriage.

Earlier this month, a secret marriage between an 11-year-old Thai girl and a 41-year-old Malaysian Muslim sparked a public outcry when a picture of the ceremony went viral.

Rubber scrap dealer Che Abdul Karim Che Abdul Hamid was marrying the girl as his third wife; he already has two wives and six children aged between 5 and 18. Shariah law permits men to have four wives and allows Muslim girls under the minimum legal marriage age of 16 to enter a union.

Human rights activists seized on the story as an example of one of the many forms of violence against women and children, which is the most pervasive human rights violation worldwide, taking a heavy toll on their health, safety and well-being.

In Asia, deeply entrenched social norms and traditions in many countries create a climate that allows various forms of violence to be perpetuated.

From deeply rooted patriarchal systems to weak social safety networks, limited awareness and inadequate or corrupt criminal justice systems, perpetrators of violence often enjoy impunity. Most incidents are significantly underreported due to shame, fear of reprisal and prevailing attitudes that serve to excuse attacks on women by domestic partners.

Especially when it comes to domestic violence, Asian women tend to keep the abuse secret, having been conditioned to accept that a man is sometimes justified in using violence against them and the children. Abuse can be physical or psychological and often persists throughout their lifetimes.

"Violence against women and girls is rooted in the gender-based discrimination, social norms and gender stereotypes that often give women and girls lower value and create an expectation or acceptance of violence against women. … Using violence remains a common and socially accepted way for men to assert and defend their gender identity as 'real men'," said Melissa Alvarado, Regional Ending Violence against Women programme manager of UN Women for Asia and the Pacific.

Male violence, she added, is closely associated with the power, privilege and control associated with masculinity.

Ms Alvarado sees the increase in violence as linked to a growing sense of crisis in masculinity as political, social and economic changes undermine men's traditional power and privileges.

"Men's use of violence against women is part of a complex interplay of factors at the individual, relationship, community and greater society levels. These factors cannot be understood in isolation and should be understood as existing within a broader environment of pervasive gender inequality," she added.

Diana J Arango, a gender-based violence and development specialist with the World Bank Group, agreed that unequal gender norms, gender inequality and the acceptability of the use of violence against women and girls underlies the continued pandemic seen in Asia and around the world.

"The root cause of gender-based violence against women globally is gender inequality and persistent, pervasive power imbalances between women and men," added Barbara Rodriguez, associate director of the Women's Empowerment Programme at The Asia Foundation.

The trend is projected to worsen as widespread urbanisation has the potential to increase the risk of various forms of gender-based violence, including domestic assaults.

"Weakened social safety networks and limited awareness of available services, a frequent consequence of rural-urban migration, can increase vulnerability and reliance on an abusive partner," said Ms Rodriguez.


One of the most prevalent forms of violence against women and children in Asia is child marriage. It is most pronounced in South Asia due to entrenched male supremacy rooted in culture, tradition and religious beliefs. More than half of all girls in the region are married or enter into an informal union before age 18.

According to Unicef, South Asia is home to almost half (42%) of all child brides worldwide. More than 700 million women alive today were married before they were 18 and more than one in three (about 250 million) entered into a union before age 15.

Bangladesh has the highest rate of child marriage in South Asia at 59%, followed by Nepal (37%), Afghanistan (35%) and India (27%), according to statistics from Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of civil society groups.


Percentage of women aged 20-49 who were married before ages 15 and 18*

- South Asia: 56%
- East Asia and Pacific: 21%
- Least developed countries: 52%
- World average: 29%

*Combined total of those married before age 15 and after age 15 but before age 18

Source: Unicef

Early wedlock usually leaves girls vulnerable to various forms of domestic violence throughout their lives as it diminishes their opportunity to stay in education and limits employment opportunities. This forces them into a confined life of servitude dependent on a husband.

In Bangladesh, almost three-quarters of women who have ever been married say they have experienced violence at the hands of a spouse, according to the Bureau of Statistics in 2015. The most common form of intimate partner violence was controlling behaviour (55.4%), followed by physical violence (49.6%). Nearly one-third said they had experienced sexual violence by their spouse.

Earlier last year, Bangladesh took a step backward by introducing a law that sets no age limit for child marriage in special cases that are seen as the "best interests" of the adolescent.

"We are concerned that this new act could lead to widespread abuse, legitimise statutory rape, allow parents to force their girls to marry their rapists, and further encourage the practice of child marriage in a country with one of the highest child marriage rates in the world," Girls Not Brides said.

There have been no examples, the group said, of "special cases" that would make child marriage acceptable. Nor are there other measures that would serve their future such as education and economic opportunities.

In Afghanistan, 87% of women reported experiencing at least one form of domestic violence, and over 60% experienced multiple forms of violence, according to the 2008 Global Rights survey.

The most common forms of violence against women, as reported by Human Rights Watch, are battery and laceration (33.6%), followed by domestic violence (10.8%) and murder (6.5%).

The dowry system is another form of violence prevalent in South Asia. The tradition, under which a bride's family offers durable goods, cash and property to the groom's family as a condition of the marriage, has resulted in offences including physical, emotional and economic violence, as well as harassment as a means to exact compliance or to punish the victim.

One consequence of the dowry system is that India has a high incidence of female foeticide and female infanticide among families that do not want to bear the expense of raising a girl. Also common are "dowry deaths", when women are murdered or commit suicide when their dowry does not match the expectations of her husband-to-be.

Between 2009 and 2013, there were an average of 8,400 dowry deaths per year in India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. The most common crimes against women are torture by a husband or his relatives (38.4%), followed in frequency by abduction, physical harassment and rape.


In Asia Pacific, there is a lack of adequate national legislation, reform and sensitisation of legal institutions to eradicate violence against women and children. Few countries have laws or policies to prevent or address the violence, and even where laws exist, enforcement is inconsistent.

Currently, only 20 countries in the region have laws that criminalise domestic violence: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

The Philippines is seen as having one of the most comprehensive and advanced set of laws and policies protecting women against violence. Since 1995, the country has adopted six laws to ensure protection against sexual harassment, rape, trafficking, violence against women and children and access to services.

Some other noteworthy measures are the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act (2010) in Bangladesh, which is one of the few that offers protection against all forms of domestic violence, including physical, sexual, psychological and economic violence.

In Vietnam, the Law on Domestic Violence Prevention and Control (2007) is intended to protect unmarried intimate partners. In Cambodia, the Law on The Prevention of Domestic Violence and the Protection of Victims (2005) covers other domestic relationships, such as dependent children.

Though many Asian countries have made some progress, underreporting and weak justice systems mean that many perpetrators enjoy impunity.

"In most cases, the implementation of legal commitments has been far too slow. Too often, the very infrastructure of justice – the police and law enforcement, the courts and the judiciary – fails to provide women and girls facing violence with adequate protection and justice," said Ms Alvarado of UN Women.

"One of the most significant factors in limiting the implementation of domestic violence laws is notorious under-reporting. Barriers to reporting include social stigma and societal pressure to keep domestic violence private, fear of retaliation from the perpetrator or family and community members," added Ms Rodriguez.

Access to formal reporting mechanisms is also limited by factors such as cost, mobility, language and expectations, or prior experience of weak law enforcement and impunity for perpetrators.

In addition, many Asian societies regard domestic violence as a private matter or a taboo subject. Victims fail to come forward as it would bring shame on their families. Women abused by their spouses are sometimes blamed for causing such acts.

In Japan, for instance, a study by Ryukoku University reveals that victims tend to refrain from reporting domestic abuse to the police, which means that such physical and sexual violence by family members is often hidden.

"It has something to do with our culture as well as the lack of understanding among victims that domestic abuse actually is a crime," said Ryukoku University professor Masahiro Tsushima.

"In the survey, some victims said they were the ones to blame. Some also said they thought the violence was not serious enough to be reported to the police, even when they were physically injured."


Ending violence against women requires a holistic approach from attitude changes to preventive intervention. This requires a response from every level of society, from the legislative and political level to the community and the individual level, say experts.

"There are various factors that may increase the risk of violence taking place, but without transforming the gender-inequitable attitudes and behaviours that shape societies in Asia and beyond, gender-based violence will not be eradicated," said Ms Rodriguez.

Services that protect women and help them recover after experiencing violence are essential, according to Ms Alvarado. In this regard, related health, legal, security and justice services "should be of high quality, with specially trained staff and survivor-centred", she said.

As well, she said, studies have shown clear benefits from prevention that focuses on challenging harmful gender norms, or interventions that provide skills that can lead to behaviour change and the use of less violence.

"Working with couples on healthy parenting, non-violent conflict resolution and the elimination of corporal punishment are all promising practices that can be replicated and adapted to societies around the world," she said.

"Comprehensive services must be accessible to all women who experience violence, including medical and psychosocial support, safe housing and legal advice."

In Cambodia, for instance, about one about one in five women in Cambodia aged 15–64 has experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner at least once in their lifetime. The government together with UN Women is working to support a project to improve survivors' access to good quality and coordinated services such as police, justice, health care and social services.

Ms Rodriguez said comprehensive legislation is a crucial part of addressing domestic violence, but must be accompanied by the leadership and resources necessary for enforcement, and complemented by legal and social efforts to address violence against children, early and forced marriage, sexual harassment, and other manifestations of gender inequality.

"It is critical to work with everyone to transform attitudes and beliefs that condone or tolerate domestic violence. Inequitable social norms are not unique to any one sector of society, so working with all community members throughout their life cycle is essential for large-scale, sustainable change," she said.

The economic cost of violence against women is also significant, as various studies in 13 countries in Asia have shown.

Studies in Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia and Vietnam have demonstrated that providing a minimum package of essential services can be affordable and the benefits of preventing and stopping violence against women and girls early are magnified for women, their families and societies.

In Cambodia, 20% of the women who experienced domestic violence reported that they missed work and their children missed school, according to a study by UN Women. In Laos, the cost of providing a minimum package of essential services has been estimated to 0.25% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). In Vietnam, total productivity loss and potential opportunity costs associated with such violence represent as much as 3% of GDP.

"Considering the importance of ending violence against women, its drag on women, their families, businesses and the whole society, many countries in the region have taken steps to address domestic violence," said Ms Alvarado.


Domestic violence against women and children has a spillover effect on the world of work, says Joni Simpson, senior specialist for gender, equality and non-discrimination with the International Labour Organization (ILO).

"It's not just a family issue, since it has social and economic repercussions. Some companies are taking action by putting in place policies regarding flexible work and counselling for victims of violence," she said.

In addition, workplace violence is not uncommon against women who are employed in homes as domestic helpers, Ms Simpson noted. But many countries don't cover domestic work under their labour laws so it becomes difficult to find recourse and justice for these victims.

Further, when the domestic worker is also a migrant, her migrant status may put her in a more vulnerable position.

In Ms Simpson's view, eradication of domestic violence is part of upholding human rights and creating a fairer and more equal society where both women and men can go about their daily lives, both at home and work, feeling safe.

Eliminating violence would have profound impact on women in their ability to work and move about freely and safely, she said. There will be an increase in the value of women's contributions to the economy and society and more gender equality, by eliminating practices that undermine their ability to work and participate freely in the public sphere.

For companies, there will be increased productivity and an increase in the talent pool. Safer workplaces and better work environments also lead to better wellbeing of all employees, she added.


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