Recent histories and contemporary political developments in the various countries in South Asia have shown an exponential increase in sexual violence, particularly mass violence. Even as the incidence of sexual violence – whether during the Partition of India in 1947, or the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971, or more recently in the internal and cross border conflicts in all South Asian countries, or indeed in insurgent movements across the region – has increased, so has the ever deepening and deafening silence around it.
Silence is not the only issue here, for crucial to maintaining the silence is the active collusion of the State in providing impunity to perpetrators, sometimes under the guise of protective laws, sometimes under the guise of nationalism. So heavily are the odds stacked against women here, that very few dare to speak out, especially in a context where culturally the odds are in any case stacked against women. Backed by culture, and strengthened by the State, and often with the active collusion of non-state actors, the state of impunity then, remains largely unchallenged.
As feminist activists and academics we have been concerned not only at the growing violence but also at the serious and continuing lack of accountability on the part of States and governments, the failure to address the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators, the absence of effective mechanisms to provide justice and reparations, and the virtual indifference to the psychological damage suffered by victims, survivors and their families and communities. We feel that our collective inability and unwillingness to address the profound impact of such violence is a serious impediment to peace in our region.
The Sexual Violence and Impunity (SVI) project is an attempt by Zubaan, a feminist publishing house based in New Delhi, to study both the history and current prevalence of mass sexual violence in South Asia. Our assumption is that although there is a general awareness that such violence not only exists but is on the increase, there is very little knowledge about it. Knowledge gaps relate not only to the histories of such violence, but also to their impact on society, their economic and social costs, as well as to the difficulty of gathering evidence (for example medical and forensic), of implementing legislation where it exists, or providing justice, and indeed of finding ways and means to acknowledge the suffering caused by violence, and ensure that it is not repeated.
Further, the project is premised on the fact that while South Asian countries have all too often remained divided because of geo-political considerations, the women of South Asia have often come together to share experiences and knowledge and to discuss a wide range of issues. By collaborating on this subject and bringing our collective and comparative knowledges to bear on it, we hope not only to learn from each other but also to show a way towards beginning a dialogue of peace, on a difficult subject, albeit an important one.