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Conflict related sexual violence (CRSV) is defined as any sexual violence that transpires directly or indirectly during a conflict. These include rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilization, forced marriage and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated  against people. Though CRSV mainly targets women and girls, men and boys are also victims.

In recent years, CRSV that include major geopolitical powers like the USA, Japan , Russia and Ukraine have received extensive media attention. Examples include exposés on:  ‘comfort’ women of WW2; CRSV in the Rwandan genocide; sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers in Somalia and CRSV in the Russio- Ukrainian war. In comparison there is a staggering lack of acknowledgement of CRSV in South Asian conflicts by both international actors and national governments. This blog piece hopes to shed some light on the under-recognized plague of CRSV in South Asia. Additionally, the challenges in addressing CRSV and its mapping will be discussed.

What are the functions of CRSV?

CRSV aims to humiliate and demoralize a population, and to invisibilize women. It forcibly removes women from the public sphere and limits their participation in decision making. Moreover, it tears the social fabric through forced impregnation to create a new generation of ‘enemy’ babies. Furthermore it creates social cohesion in militias among fighters from varied backgrounds, a rite of passage for boys , establishes hyper masculinity and reinforces gender roles.

CRSV for the longest time was understood as a by-product of sending men to war for long periods of time. Sexual deprivation and lust have been commonly used as justifications. However, this discourse is considered simplistic by feminist scholars who have successfully highlighted the strategic and planned nature of CRSV in many conflicts like the Rwandan GenocideBosnian WarDarfur Genocide to name a few.

Why is mapping CRSV more challenging in South Asian Conflicts?

South Asian conflicts are heavily coloured by their colonial pasts and post-independence nation building. Through this tumultuous process, women’s bodies have become symbols of national identity and community honor in South Asian countries. Conflicts in the region range from interstate conflicts, settler conflicts or ethnic and religious conflicts.  The latter have been allegedly state sponsored to a great extent considering recent reports on ethnic violence like Manipur: case Against Fact-Finding Team. Some South Asian conflicts include: the  Sri Lankan Civil war, the Nepalese civil war(1996-2006), or Bhutan’s Lhotshampa Expulsion (1990).

Lack of Acknowledgment and Documentation

One of the biggest hurdles is the South Asian governments’ reluctance to acknowledge the issue of CRSV. Due to this, independent feminist researchers, non-profits, and survivors, bear the burden of documenting and reporting CRSV cases. This results in inadequate support services and promotes a culture of impunity for the perpetrators. Survivors hesitate to report incidents leading to ineffective policy-making. The absence of justice and accountability further traumatizes survivors, hindering their recovery and reintegration into society. Credibility of victims is questioned if they lack physical proof- a mandatory requirement for seeking justice in most South Asian countries. Additionally, existing justice mechanisms like India’s two-finger test have been known to re-traumatize victims and was banned only in 2014.

This has resulted in lack of relevant CRSV databases and low accountability. Without proper categorization of CRSV types, accurate data is challenging to establish which severely impairs policy making. Institutional barriers, like the limited reporting timeframes (for instance, the 35 day mark observed in Nepal) and lack of access to medical facilities further complicates mapping CRSV trends.

Social stigma and gender inequalities

In the region, sexual violence is surrounded by stigma, cultural taboos, ostracization and even communal retaliation making it difficult for victims to report their experiences. Gendered power dynamics, fuelled by patriarchal norms and inequalities, further inhibit survivors from speaking out. The fear of punishment /consequences pose additional obstacles to addressing and mapping CRSV. The intersection of economic class and caste could further limit a survivor’s access to reporting and justice mechanisms.

Under reporting

The patriarchal narrative of communal honor being vested in women also contributes to the under-reporting. For instance, CRSV rates of the Sri Lankan Civil war were never disclosed publicly and were regarded as isolated instances fuelled by lust. Its strategic nature was only highlighted later by women survivors, both combatants and civilians, anecdotally. The stigma associated with women being active members of the militant organization also explains why the CRSV suffered by LLTE women militants is rarely discussed.

Militarized areas in India, including the northeast, significantly underreport CRSV due to support from authorities or its justification as counterinsurgency measures. Women are raped and murdered to ‘teach’ the communities a lesson. For instance , in  the case of Manorma Thangjam, a 32 year old woman brutally assaulted and murdered in 2004. Most recently, two women were paraded naked and gang raped during the Manipuri ethnic violence, 2023.

Difficulty in accessing areas of conflict and subsequent lack of coverage

In cases like Sri Lankan civil war and Kashmir’s Kunan Poshpora 1991 incident of mass rape by the Indian Army, it has been noted that the media was unable to report these incidents due to lack of access to these heavily militarized areas. The restricted access contributes to the lack of comprehensive data needed to accurately map CRSV and its trends. It also indicates that these areas receive less attention and services from humanitarian organizations, researchers, and investigators further exacerbating the lack of survivor oriented policy actions toward curbing CRSV.

Considering these intertwined and exacerbated consequences, it is essential for Governments and Civil Society Actors (CSA) to come together to recognize and address CRSV in South Asia. Currently, CSAs and non profits play a major role in drawing attention to CRSV. They have engaged in advocacy toward gender sensitive policies, lobbied for more women judges in the judiciary and have suggested rehabilitation and reintegration mechanisms of victims. Addressing CRSV in South Asia is critical in upholding human rights and promoting gender equality, and will facilitate justice and mitigate the risk of it resurfacing in the future.

Written by Treesa Shaju 

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About the Author

Treesa Shaju is a Conflict Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) scholar from India. She works as a Programme Associate at Council for Strategic and Defense Research, New Delhi, and a Research Assistant at Writers Q. Her research interests include CRSV, GBV, reproductive justice and gendered impacts of historical events and disasters.

Linkedin handle : https://shorturl.at/auLNU

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