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Realizing Women's Sexual Rights: Challenges in South Asia

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image of Nordic Journal of International Law

Sexual rights are a new category of human rights still in the process of being clearly articulated subsequent to the debates at the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994) and the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995). In South Asia this process is fraught with obstacles, among which are taboos concerning the meaningful public discussion of sexuality, and negative attitudes towards women's sexual autonomy. It is also affected by the negotiations of, and contests for, political power among the different ethno-religious communities in a South Asian state, which in turn can constrain progressive law-makers from developing and implementing legislation favorable to the realization of women's sexual rights. Using the 1995 parliamentary debates on reforms to the Sri Lankan Penal Code, this paper explores the challenges to realizing women's sexual autonomy in a multi-ethnic South Asian society. It highlights how the fear of female sexuality can be manipulated by state-level actors, serving certain political exigencies, to justify the denial of sexual autonomy and even to validate sexual violence against women. It also reflects on the implications for the movement for women's rights in South Asia, premised increasingly on the universality of human rights norms, when its advocates collide with ethno-nationalist proponents of `group rights' which are rooted in a cultural specificity whose markers are frequently assumed to be embodied by the female members of the group.

Affiliations: 1: Associate Director, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo, Sri Lanka


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