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

Population Briefs, December 2014 | Go to article overview

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. …

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