Understanding Sexual Violence: 3 years, 50 scholars, 5 countries

Zubaan Books

A three year research project on Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia, led by Zubaan Books and supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), culminated in the release of 5 books today, in New Delhi… with three more to be released next month. The project brought together 50 researchers and scholars across Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India.

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I attended part of a day-long program at the Goethe Institute/ Max Mueller Bhavan in Delhi, and was quietly astounded at the full house, not to mention powerful accounts shared by panelists.

Urvashi Butalia, Laxmi Murty, Navsharan Singh

Urvashi Butalia, Laxmi Murty, Navsharan Singh address a packed house to discuss findings from the ‘Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia’ project

We were given broad findings of the project, including that the ‘policy response to sexual violence is inadequate’, that sexual violence is widespread across South Asia, and that while attention needs to be paid to the conditions that allow for ‘impunity’ of perpetrators, there is also a need to work on medical textbooks and forensic/ medical procedures. 

While explaining why the project isn’t looking at the phenomenon of violence against women inside the home, which is also extensive, Urvashi Butalia (Zubaan Books) said, “The levels of the kind of public sexual violence that perpetrators got away with, the impunity with which they got away, signalled many collusions inside places of power…and places that were meant to protect their citizens.”

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Butalia also remarked on the “deep silence” around sexual violence. (She also said they were unable to cover sexual violence in the work-place, caste-based sexual violence, or sexual violence inflicted on transgender people, partly because they were able to find enough writers and researchers.)

Zubaan Books

Packed house for the Zubaan Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia sessions in New Delhi


Deputy coordinator of the project Laxmi Murty said it’s no surprise that sexual violence is really widespread and not talked about, the challenge was to get people to talk about it and document it in a way that is rigorous, not sensational. “It is not just uniformly that sexual violence exists (across the region),” she said, “but that it’s allowed to be used as a tool of subjugation, of war… This came out so clearly as a regional finding.” She also identified the need to look at systems that perpetrated injustice, saying the state comes in for heavy criticism.

Navsharan Singh (IDRC) spoke of the antecedents of the project dating back to an earlier project around 2007 which looked at undertaking the context of impunity and sexual violence in South Asia, in conflict regions. This was an empirical study that include 180 testimonies from conflict regions on specific topics: custodial deaths, torture, sexual violence, summary executions, and forced disappearances. It was while going through field notes that they realised there was a systematic and deep silence on the questions of sexual violence, with interviewees going back on permission for interviews, once rape was brought up.

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The need was felt, she said for a group of feminist researchers and resources to uncover the layers of impunity. (In a short question and answer session, she referenced the legal definition of impunity as the impossibility of bringing perpetrators to account, and spoke of the layers of impunity residing in social structures.)


If there’s any doubt in your mind as to why we all should care, that was brought home in the following panel discussion, where we heard from Warisha Farasat, a lawyer who was previously with the Centre for Equity Studies, on how the scars from the mass communal violence in 1989 in Bhagalpur still remain. The official figures of the number of people, mostly Muslim, who were killed were 1000, she noted, saying that unofficial number is much higher, as the commission of inquiry didn’t take into account the number of ‘disappeared’, whose bodies were never found. Returning in 2011 to start a local team, she found the impact of communal violence in dividing Bhagalpur remains even decades on, with several generations affected.


Urvashi Butalia, Founder of Zubaan Books

She also commented on the silence around sexual violence, with witnesses in cases of murder withstanding massive pressure to testify, in the search for justice, but not in the case of sexual assault (except for one family, where a group of girls was brutally violated and murdered).

 The moderator Kavita Panjabi raised the question on why in terms of war it’s the men who get killed and the women who get sexually violated. 

Guneet Ahuja spoke about the forms of sexual violence in Bastar, which is targeted sexual violence against those suspected of being Naxal cadre or being sympathetic in ideology, and those perpetrated by security forces or police or militias. The delays in the justice system/ bureaucracy of justice leads to the “glorification of the perpetrators”, she contended, and also means the system is stacked against victims, who are still vulnerable.

The burning question also remains as to how do you start a reconciliation process — of particular importance in Chhattisgarh, she said, where the population is stuck between the state and the Nasals, targets of violence or getting killed as suspected Nasals on the one hand and police informers on the other.

She highlighted the role of womens’ rights groups and activists like Soni Sori in raising the dialogue on sexual violence in the first place, but warned that war has escalated, with a resurgence of civil militias.


The time to discuss this is now, you can’t help but agree. There is clearly a lot more to encapsulate than can possibly be done in one blog, but suffice it to say that there is clearly compelling material for anyone interested in the issue of human rights, in South Asia. Eight books in the series, and multiple issues triggering conversations, and hopefully some sort of action.

As Murthy said, the point was also not to do “research for research’s sake”, she said, “but to act”. 

The team is welcoming ideas on how to take the discussion forward — they are already looking at translating the work into regional languages and using some of the research to create performance art. Do check out www.zubaanbooks.com for more.