From kidnapping, physical assault and sexual harassment to threats, abuse and character assassination, women politicians in India, Pakistan and Nepal face hostility and aggression as they fight to be heard in the political arena, a United Nations-backed study said on Wednesday.
The study, the first of its kind in South Asia, said the attacks came not only from opposing parties' candidates but also from colleagues in their own party, demoralising budding female politicians so much that many are put off joining the male-dominated profession.
"What we found was shocking. Even though all three countries guarantee strong constitutional rights to equality, women face terrible forms of violence," Rebecca Reichmann Tavares, head of UN Women in India, told a news conference.
"What's more - physical violence, verbal abuse and threats of violence were higher for women in politics in India than in Pakistan or Nepal."
The study, conducted by the Delhi-based think-tank Centre for Social Research (CSR), surveyed 800 people in the three countries, mainly serving politicians or women who had lost elections at federal, state and village levels from 2003 to 2013.
Researchers also interviewed political party campaigners, police, election commission officials and family members of female politicians.
Gender experts say that among many women's issues that need to be addressed in South Asia, one of the most important is to ensure that women have a voice in the highest seats of power.
Gender equality in Parliament and village councils would empower women in general, they say. A stronger women's voice at the top would have a trickle-down effect, leading to laws and policies that would help grassroots women fight abuse, discrimination and inequality.
While the percentage of registered female voters and women candidates fielded by political parties has increased in all three countries, the percentage of female representatives in national bodies has decreased, the study said.
Women hold only 11% of the seats in India's lower and upper houses combined, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) - half the global average of 21.4%. Female representation in Pakistan and Nepal is higher at 21% and 29.9% respectively.
Molestation, Photoshopped images
The study found that across the region, most victims were women who were young, new to politics, or first generation politicians, and the commonest experience was that of men expecting sexual favours - for example, in return for being selected as a candidate for a particular constituency.
Character assassination was used to damage the reputation and achievements of women in politics with the aim of reducing their popular support.
"When men fail to find fault in women's activities or progress, they raise questions about women's chastity," the study quoted the former Nepali male politician Netra Prasad Panthi as saying.
Threats, kidnapping, and emotional and sexual harassment were among the other forms of violence cited by women candidates. Forty-five percent of women candidates in India faced physical violence and threats, it said, compared with 21% in Pakistan and 16% in Nepal.
In India, few women have spoken publicly about the forms of intimidation they face, but media reports on the current general election have given examples, researchers said.
Women on the campaign trail have complained of being pawed by fellow politicians as well as crowds, of sexual slurs and of being forcefully kissed as they canvass for votes.
Despite being surrounded by bouncers, Nagma, a female Congress Party candidate, was grabbed and kissed by a fellow party member and molested by another man in the crowd whom she slapped on camera.
A candidate from the Aam Aadmi Party, Gul Panag, had her picture photoshopped and her party emblem placed in a provocative position.
The study said that in Pakistan, several senior women politicians such as Nilofar Bakhtyar, Hina Rabani Khar and Sherry Rehman have had negative rumours spread about their character - and have had no statement of support or condemnation of the rumour-mongering from their party.
Not supported by police, judiciary
Overall, the hostility to women politicians stems from the patriarchal mindset in their countries, where women are expected to be subservient home makers and child bearers rather than equals making important political decisions in what men see as a male bastion.
This situation has been made worse by poor implementation of laws, lack of support from the police and judiciary and the absence of political education, the study said.
The result is that women are becoming afraid of going into politics, researchers said, adding that almost 90% of women surveyed felt that they had lost their desire to enter or continue in politics.
The study called on the Pakistani and Indian governments to pass a law guaranteeing women at least 33% of the seats in state and national assemblies.
Laws must be passed and those abusing women politicians should be punished, it said, and political parties should set up mechanisms to punish members responsible for any form of violence against women candidates.
"Violence against women is institutionalised through family structures, wider social and economic frameworks and cultural and religious traditions and is a widely accepted method for controlling women," said CSR Director Ranjana Kumari.
"Moreover, it is largely overlooked by law enforcement agencies and is ignored by those in power."