There is an exponential increase in the incidence of sexual violence – which is often used as a tool of punishment, for revenge and to teach other communities a lesson – in areas of conflict in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. These are the findings of a three-year long project exploring sexual violence and impunity in South Asia, which were discussed during a conference in New Delhi on Saturday.

Fifty scholars across these five South Asian nations gathered evidence for this project, which was initiated by Zubaan, an independent feminist publishing house, in 2012.

The research addresses issues relating to “accountability, state involvement and complicity in strengthening impunity for perpetrators, legal regimes and their understanding of the rights and needs of survivors and victims of sexual violence”.

A public secret

“Sexual violence is used as a tool of subjugation in the region whether it is in Balochistan in Pakistan, or North Eastern India, Kashmir or Nepal,” said Laxmi Murthy, co-ordinator of the project. “It is used as a way in which minorities are kept out of the political system.”

In India, the researchers explored sexual violence in areas suffering from violence for years such as Kashmir, Chhattisgarh and the North Eastern states. They also studied areas that suffered from communal violence such as Delhi in 1984; Bhagalpur in Bihar, in 1989; Gujarat in 2002, and Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh in 2013.

“The sexual violence is both visible and unknown,” said Urvashi Butalia, the director of the project. “It is like a public secret, which nobody acknowledges. The impunity is taken for granted and signals many kinds of collusion with spaces of power.”

Warisha Farasat, who conducted research into the Bhagalpur riots in 1989, in which more than 1,000 people, the majority of them Muslims, were killed, said that two commissions constituted to investigate the riots did not write a word on sexual violence or rape.

“Only one family in one village spoke of sexual violence,” said Farasat. “They described several women who were tricked into going to a neighbour’s house, who were raped and killed brutally. They did not file a police report earlier, but wanted justice now.”

Farasat added that she couldn’t help but wonder if that family was now talking about the incident only because the women had been murdered. This meant that there was no rape-related social stigma involved.

The case of Kashmir

On the other hand, in Kashmir, sexual violence against women isn’t suppressed but there are community protests whenever a woman accuses armed forces personnel of sexual violence. Women even come on camera to talk about it.

“One woman told her husband that if he does not announce that his daughter and wife had been raped by an Army officer on the loudspeaker, she would do it,” said Gazala Peer, who conducted the research in Kashmir. Despite that, an FIR is not registered unless people pour out onto the streets and protest about it.

In such cases, rape is seen as an issue that can be used to fight larger battles, said Kavita Punjabi, professor and head of the department of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. “Rape then is not as stigmatised, but protesting against it is seen as a political act.”

No justice or reparation

The project also discusses the absence of a lack of accountability by governments, the failure to address the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators, and the absence of effective mechanisms to provide justice and reparations.

In Chhattisgarh, for instance, women thought to be involved in combat are usually brutally tortured and raped over a period of days, and then killed, said Guneet Ahuja, who worked with the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, representing Adivasis in Bastar.

In 2011, the Supreme Court ordered an enquiry into sexual violence in Chhattisgarh on a writ petition filed by Nandini Sundar, professor at Delhi School of Economics. The enquiry found six serious cases of rape.

Ahuja narrated how rape accused who belonged to the police or paramilitary forces often get away, or are even rewarded. For instance, in Chhattisgarh, the statue of a special forces officer accused of rape, who was killed in an attack, now stands in the village where he was accused of rape.

Similarly, “the current Inspector General of Bastar, SRP Kalluri, was accused of rape in Tadmetla,” said Ahuja. “He was then the superintendent of police but was made the IG. Another policeman accused of rape was given the presidential medal.”

In the Muzaffarnagar cases, the Supreme Court ordered compensation for seven women who filed rape cases.

But that is no solution, said Vrinda Grover, lawyer and human rights activist who appeared for the women. “While it was commendable that compensation was provided before a trial, it was also a way in which the state was getting off the hook,” said Grover. “The possible condemnation towards the state was purchased. Their role for allowing this kind of violence to be perpetrated was not recognised in a way it should have been.”

She aded that the delay in the trial in the Muzaffarnagar cases had proved costly. “Of the seven women, one is willing to give testimony,” she said. “Two have turned hostile, and four are negotiating. The everyday-ness of life takes over. They probably feel – what are they fighting for and what are the risks?”