New Insight into Sexuality, Gender Issues, and Gender-based Violence in South Asia

Interest in sexuality, domestic violence, and gender inequities in South Asia has surged over the past 15 years, partly due to several high profile cases of rape and other gender-based violence. However, many aspects of these complex topics—from men’s and women’s concepts of masculinity and sexuality to changing patterns of gender roles and the nature of violence—are still only partially understood.

A new compilation of studies published by the Population Council—Sexuality, Gender Roles, and Domestic Violence in South Asia—adds vital new evidence to the growing body of literature on these issues. Conducted by researchers from more than a dozen institutions, their work collectively suggests that gender dynamics in the region are evolving and that there are opportunities in the current environment to reduce sexual and gender-based violence.

"This book offers novel insight into what is seen as 'typical' behaviors in South Asia," explains M.E. Khan, Senior Program Associate at the Population Council in India and lead editor of the publication. "We need to do everything we can to help reduce instances of violence and move in a positive direction, but programs to mitigate gender-based violence will only succeed if policymakers understand the root causes."

Sexuality, Gender Roles, and Domestic Violence in South Asia acknowledges the large variations in attitudes and practices across the region and within countries. The book outlines further research needed to reduce gender-based violence in India and Bangladesh, as well as successful interventions that could be taken to scale. It is meant to shape the efforts of policymakers, researchers, clinicians, and program staff working on health and development programs in South Asia.

The Roots of Sexual and Gender-based Violence in India and Bangladesh

The authors state that the prevailing pattern of physical and sexual domestic violence against women in Bangladesh and India can be attributed in part to the male-dominated culture in the region. Many men feel driven to prove their masculinity, both physically and sexually. They believe that "real men" have power and must dominate their relationships. Even minor challenges, real or imaginary, to this authority may be settled with scolding or physical violence. In the words of a male respondent from Bangladesh: "Manliness should be in a real man’s every attitude. He should control his wife and maintain strict discipline in his family. He should have the ability to make everyone respect him."

Men in South Asia largely believe that a man’s wife cannot refuse him sex. Many men (and some women) believe that husbands have the right to become angry if rebuffed sexually, and when persuasion does not work, they can force sex. "My wife once refused sex," said one 24-year-old male respondent from Gujarat. "I got angry and forced her to have sex. After that my wife never refused me. What is the point in marrying if one cannot have sex with his own wife?"

A large proportion of women in Bangladesh reported having been abused physically, emotionally, mentally, or sexually at some point in their lives. Almost half of the women in a Bangladesh study had experienced forced sex during the past 12 months; indeed, almost all reported that they were forced to have sex against their will on their wedding night. Women reported being abused mainly for not meeting a husband’s expectations in matters such as managing the household, cooking, and taking care of children or because they argued with their husband. Most women remain in the abusive relationship because they do not have the economic security to care for their children outside of the relationship. Almost all of the women interviewed believed that some violence is normal in married life, and many that it is a "sin" to disobey their husbands. A female respondent in Bangladesh explained, "Some women consider violence like scolding and beating to be a normal part of married life, because they do not have a choice." 

Opportunities to Gradually Shift the Environment for Men and Women 

Studies in the book suggest that "masculine" attitudes driving gender-based violence are not fixed: in India researchers found that men’s ideas about what constitutes masculinity are fluid and highly affected by socio-economics and work experiences. In fact, men who have consistent employment and higher earnings are likelier than others to believe that "real men" are honest with a strong character and do not engage in risky sexual behavior. This study demonstrates that masculinity can be decoupled from sexual risk-taking behavior. Interventions offering men basic sex education and skills to increase their chances of consistent employment may successfully reduce gender-based violence.

A study included in the volume shows that during pregnancy husbands are relatively less aggressive and the incidence of violence declines. The authors argue that pregnancy provides a window of opportunity during which it may be possible to raise men’s awareness about the harms of gender-based violence and to reduce violence after childbirth.

There are signs that the power balance between men and women in South Asia is shifting. A new generation of Indian women is finding power through knowledge: greater educational opportunities and improved access to information about sexuality empowers these young women to communicate with their husbands about sex. In Bangladesh and India, women are finding a degree of sexual and financial security through paid employment outside the house. A female garment worker in Bangladesh explains, "I have become financially as well as mentally strong."

The researchers in this book contend that to build upon this incremental change and shift the male-female power balance, policymakers must focus attention on interventions that increase accurate knowledge about sexual and reproductive health and rights, improve spousal communication, and expand educational and employment opportunities for women and men. 

Looking Ahead: Gender-based Violence is Widespread but not Inevitable 

While gender-based violence in South Asia is widespread, research by the Population Council and others has shown that there are also women not experiencing violence. Researchers generally agree that greater gender equity is required to reduce domestic violence and that promoting gender equity will require long-term interventions. However, studies in this publication suggest there may be some effective shorter-term interventions. 

"A small number of interventions have shown considerable promise," says Ubaidur Rob, Population Council country director in Bangladesh. "We need to focus on the lessons of these innovative programs." 

The data suggest that young women who marry later experience less violence, so finding successful ways to increase the age at marriage might reduce domestic violence. In addition, formal education for girls and women, educational campaigns to inform women about their rights and legal protections, and access to contraception for women could be effective measures to reduce gender inequities and domestic violence.

Some programs for men have been well received and led to changes in men’s sexual attitudes and behaviors. For example, programs offering men counseling and sexual health services increase male participation in family reproductive health matters, including antenatal care and decisions about family planning. 

However, many of these interventions have been relatively small, and have not been scaled up to cover major populations. A mixture of qualitative and quantitative research in connection with expanded programs of behavior change needs to continue to improve gender relations and reduce domestic violence and related problems. This research and programming should not take the place of long-term efforts at promoting widespread gender equity, but should be implemented simultaneously for the greatest impact. 

Ethical Considerations in Sexual and Gender-based Violence Research 

There are significant ethical issues to be considered when conducting research on gender, sexuality, and domestic violence. Participants’ autonomy, privacy, and right to make an informed choice about whether or not to participate in the research need to be protected. Both the researcher and participant must have the opportunity to weigh the risks and benefits of the research. Researchers must recognize that they are working with a vulnerable population and have a responsibility to protect those they interview. Research must also have a sound methodology, be ethically justifiable, conform to accepted scientific principles, be likely to lead to useful knowledge, and be used for the benefit of the community.

Although most of the ethical focus in research is on the protection and welfare of the participants, the safety and welfare of researchers, particularly those who collect data directly from the survivors of violence, are also a concern. Researchers dealing with issues of sexual and gender-based violence can be emotionally traumatized by the violence they learn about and this trauma must be addressed.

"Gender-based violence is unacceptable, but not inevitable," states John Townsend, Population Council Vice President and Director of the Reproductive Health program. "With the right combination of thoughtful, research-based programs and education, we believe there is an opportunity to meaningfully change the environment for women and men in South Asia."

M.E. Khan, John W. Townsend, and Pertti J. Pelto (eds.). 2014. Sexuality, Gender Roles, and Domestic Violence in South Asia. New York: Population Council. 
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