By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI, June 15 (TrustLaw) - South Asia may boast a number of women leaders and be home to cultures that revere motherhood and worship female deities, but many women live with the threat of appalling violence and without many basic rights.
From forced marriages in Afghanistan and "honor killings" in Pakistan to feticide in India and trafficking in Nepal, South Asian women face a barrage of dangers, experts say, but add growing awareness, better laws and economic empowerment are bringing a slow change in attitudes.
"It is true that South Asians don't, in general, value their daughters, which for instance is apparent in the dwindling gender ratio in India," said Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch's (HRW) South Asia director.
"Domestic violence is rampant and various forms of sexual assault often remain an untold horror that women endure. To a large part it is cultural, stemming from a feudal tradition where sons were the inheritors as well as caregivers in old age. But since then, it has become embedded in attitude, where women are simply considered inferior."
Ganguly cites the high-profile case of Mukhtaran Mai -- a Pakistani women gang-raped by 14 men in 2002 to settle a matter of village honor -- as a sign of how age-old attitudes have not changed.
Six men were sentenced to death for Mai's rape, but earlier this year Pakistan's Supreme Court upheld a decision to acquit five of them and commute one sentence to life in prison. Mai now lives in fear that those who raped her will return.
Such injustices against women in the region are widespread, experts say.
In insurgency-wracked Afghanistan, 16-year-old Bibi Aisha had her nose and ears cut off -- a punishment by the Taliban for running away from a forced and abusive marriage.
While in Bangladesh, Nurun Nahar was attacked in her home by a group of men who pinned her down and poured acid over her face, disfiguring her for life. Her crime? Rejecting the advances of one of the attackers.
Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are in the top five countries deemed most dangerous for women in a poll of gender experts carried out by TrustLaw, a legal news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation (www.trust.org).
Yet the region has an impressive record of women reaching the highest political echelons.
In India, one of the most powerful figures in the country's political history was former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, now leads the main party in the coalition government, while three other top political positions -- the president, speaker of the house and leader of the opposition -- are all held by women.
There is also Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Pakistan's former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who was assassinated in 2007 and Sri Lanka's Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who became the world's first elected woman prime minister when she took office in 1960, to name a few.
But generally speaking this part of the world remains conservative and patriarchal and progress to protect ordinary women has been poor.
Every three minutes an act of violence is perpetrated against a female in South Asia, according to U.N. Women. Crimes such as domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, incest, acid attacks and dowry deaths are "just the tip of the iceberg", say gender experts.
But violence is not the only problem. Women also face discrimination and continue to have little say over their lives.
More women die in childbirth in South Asia -- 500 for every 100,000 live births -- than any other place in the world except sub-Saharan Africa. And more than half the women in the region cannot read or write, according to the United Nations.
These and other statistics indicate less visible discriminations such as a lack of access to resources including finances, land, inheritance rights, education, employment, justice, healthcare and nutrition.
"I believe that the most widespread and silent killer of women and girls is a combination of poverty and the low status awarded to women," says Maria Joao Ralha, team leader for South Asia at the European Commission's humanitarian aid arm (ECHO).
"Consequently women and girls are always the last to eat at home. They will most of the time not have enough to eat. They are more likely to become ill and often there's no money to take them to the doctor and they are more likely to die early."
Experts say attitudes are slowly changing, partly due to the region's growing economy, the advent of satellite television in even remote communities, exposure to western values and the percolation of social benefits to rural women as countries like India notch up near-double-digit growth.
But the dangers to women remain starkly evident and in some countries the risks start even before birth.
A major issue confronting the region is the skewed sex ratio and the increasing number of "missing" girls, a euphemism for the murder of female fetuses.
Recent studies suggest up to 12 million girls were deliberately aborted in the last three decades in India, due to a strong preference for boys in some parts of the country.
The discovery of nine female fetuses dumped in a drain in western India on Saturday is further proof, analysts say, that while South Asian nations like India have laws and policies in place, implementation on the ground is very weak.
There is a lack of political will, money and human resources for gender policies and laws.
"It's not enough to have a law. The implementation needs to be resourced well enough for it to work," says Mona Mehta, who is leading Oxfam's "We Can" campaign against violence against women in South Asia.
"Also, a lot depends on the attitudes of local officials charged to implement (change). They come from the same communities, have the same patriarchal biases that the community has ... they don't think it's important, they don't think it's relevant."
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)