This week, the World Bank South Asia Office gathered government officials, civil society, parliamentarians, academics and journalists from around the region in Kathmandu to discuss the issue of violence against women. This is the first time in the bank’s 60 year history that it has joined the global cause to end gender-based violence.
Violence against women has been long recognised as a serious issue on the global development agenda. The United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 1993 and since then international community have unanimously agreed on gender-based violence as a serious human rights issue and public health priority.
However, despite the international spotlight and years of support from UN agencies to advance women’s rights, the number of women and girls killed, beaten or raped around the world remains astoundingly high.
South Asia world’s “most gender-insensitive region”
Opening the panel discussion on gender-based violence at the annual spring meeting in Washington last April, the World Bank Vice President for South Asia Isabel Guerrero said “we cannot keep silent” in the face of such “horrific acts”.
“We have to add our voices,” she emphatically noted.
She was referring to the gang rape of a 23 year-old in India and the shooting of 15 year-old Malala Yoosuf by extremists in Pakistan. Both incidents are a striking reminder of the pervasiveness of violence against women in the region.
According to a 2003 UNFPA report, South Asia is the world’s most “gender-insensitive” region with one in two woman found to be a victim of physical and sexual abuse in their homes. Other forms of violence are also rampant.
In India a woman is raped every 22 minutes, 22 women are killed each day in dowry related violence, and 50 million women are ‘missing’ due to sex selective abortions.
In Nepal, 7000 women and girls are trafficked for sex every year, while in Bangladesh every week more than 10 women are attacked with acid. In Pakistan more than 450 women and girls die every year in so-called ‘honour killings’ while in Sri Lanka, 78 percent of victims of grave sexual abuse are women and girls.
Because of these atrocious forms of violence, the South Asian women’s fundamental right to health and bodily integrity has been severely eroded. They live less, work less and even eat less.
According to an OXFAM 2004 report, gender based violence has severely limited women’s choices in practically all spheres of life and explains the uniformly poor gender-related development indices of South Asia in crucial sectors like health, nutrition, education, political participation, and employment.
Ending the pandemic levels of violence against women remains one of the key challenges in achieving development in the region which has more than 500 million people living in extreme poverty.
So can the World Bank’s entry into the fight to stop violence against women make a real difference?
The bank’s leverage
At the Kathmandu discussions, several participants asked the bank what it could do to stop violence against women.
Undoubtedly, the World Bank is one the most influential global players with the power and resources to prompt changes.
Tahseen Sayed, Nepal Country Manager for the World Bank, acknowledged the bank’s lack of presence on issues such as gender-based violence, and described the conference as an effort to show its determination to change this approach.
Sayed revealed that the bank would be “leveraging our role as one of the largest development partners with the countries we are working on, at the policy level”, in addition to advancing research to identify the economic and social costs of violence and expanding funding to related projects.
However, she stopped short of explaining how exactly the bank will use its leverage as a development partner.
“I cannot tell you how precisely we are going to do this,” Sayed pointed out.“But the fact that we have two of our vice presidents here, and managers here at the World Bank in this room, we will be taking this forward and see how best we can bring this into our discourse on the concrete areas we work on whether it is assistance to the countries, whether it is regional dialogue or global dialogue.”
This is a critical announcement as the World Bank, similar to the IMF, has the power to deny assistance to countries that do not meet its conditions or requirements.
Feryal Ali Gauhar, political economist and feminist writer from Pakistan believes that denying bank’s assistance to countries where the state is deliberately neglecting to protect the the most vulnerable groups can certainly be effective in creating change.
“When the bank is the agency to deny or grant a loan, it can use data provided by credible institutions, which would indicate whether the state is fulfilling its responsibility to end gender-based violence or protection of most marginalised and vulnerable groups in society.” Gauhar noted.
“If [the World Bank] can make decisions to extend or not extend loan on political issue, why cannot they exercise or exert that same kind of pressure for other loans they are extending?” she asked. “Certainly money would a ring a bell.”
Flogging in the Maldives
The Maldives, despite its admirable progress in the areas of education, health and reduction of poverty, still continues to be plagued with widespread physical and sexual abuse of women and children. One in three woman aged between 15-44 the victim of sexual or physical abuse.
There is little or no access to sexual and reproductive health education and as a result,, unsafe sex, early marriage, unwanted pregnancy, abortion and a lack of reproductive health rights are highly prevalent among young people. These realities are reflected in the gender indicators which show low female enrollment in the higher education system, double the rate of unemployment among females, and under-representation of women at a decision making level.
The World Bank recently granted US$10 million in aid to expand the higher education system in the Maldives. The decision came just weeks after Maldivian authorities were slammed for sentencing a 15 year-old rape victim to 100 lashes on charges of pre-marital sex under the country’s Sharia-based legal system..
Ninety percent of those flogged for fornication or adultery in the Maldives are women and underage girls. The United Nations and international human rights organisations have called for the Maldivian authorities to end this degrading form of punishment disproportionately meted to towards women and girls.
Other strict Sharia penalties such as capital punishment and amputation were suspended half a century ago.
But despite the calls from United Nations, human rights group such as Amnesty International and a global petition with over two million signatures, the Maldivian authorities have consistently shied away from changing their stance on imposing a moratorium on flogging. Much of this is due to their fear of voter backlash from rising conservative groups and their supporters in the country.
“It would be political suicide,” said a parliamentary member currently overseeing the revision of penal code, which includes flogging as a punishment. “We want to remove it as well. But, our hands are tied. Only public pressure can stop it.”
However, there is little visible support from the Maldivian public. In contrast, conservative groups are staging mass protests calling for flogging, beheading, stoning to death and amputation to be reinstated. The few who dare speak against these extremist views are slammed as “Laadheenee” (un-Islamic) and harassed online and on the streets.
So in this politically polarised climate, can a global player such as World Bank pull the plug on flogging in the Maldives by denying assistance to the country, unless it stops degrading and discriminatory practices such as flogging?
A civil society activist from Sri Lanka also highlights a recent case in which the world bank’s partner, International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a US$2.6 billion loan to Sri Lanka despite the widespread accusations of human rights abuses committed during its civil war.
“There are several reports and evidence of women and girls being raped during the conflict. Several more civilians, including children have been killed” he noted. “But the IMF still approved the loan, against the calls from human rights organisations because Sri Lankan government has done little to investigate these abuses and protect the rights of Tamil minority”
So can the bank, and IMF use its leverage as a donor to push negligent governments into taking meaningful action to guarantee the rights of women and other vulnerable groups?
A South Asian diplomat is skeptical.
“Unless we can shift the society’s view at grass roots level, no sanction is strong enough to stop violence against women,” he said, on condition on anonymity.
“If Maldivian public doesn’t want to stop flogging, how can the World Bank stop it?”