Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 174, 15 October 2020

Bangladesh: Protests intensify against sexual violence
Sheetal Prasad

 In the news
On 10 October, Bangladesh erupted against the sexual violence against women with a call for "Hang the Rapists" and "No mercy to rapists." During the recent weeks, there have been a series of protests on multiple incidents of violence against violence and State failure. As government data combines violence against women with "women and child repression" with no clarity on rape statistics, Rights group Ain o Salish Kendra, revealed 975 women have been raped till now in 2020 with one-fifth of them being gang rapes. 

The protests have increased after the revelation of a series of rapes in the recent past starting from 25 September when a person from the student wing of the ruling party was alleged for gang rape in Sylhet. On 2 September a gang rape of a girl from Noakhali was recorded who was also subjected to extortion later. A furore followed when this video went online on 4 October and protests ensued. An Advocate from Barisal was arrested who has been reported of raping a transgender from 5 February to 2 October this year.

Issues at large
First, a tradition of impunity where the country has exhibited a deep underlying structural, social and behavioural misogyny. Rape has become an expression of the socio-political power relation. The idea of consent is misconstrued, and women's dress is blamed as evident in the popular actor Ananta Jalil's recent statement. A criminal lawyer, Faruk Ahmed, recently blamed unemployment and lack of red light areas for the rising trend of rapes in Bangladesh. The police force being male-dominated and ill sensitized refuse to accept the incident as a serious offence to the extent of not even filing the case and victim-blaming. 

Second, gaping loopholes in the legal framework in Bangladesh. Culprits evade the law due to long drawn cases which only adds to the victim's stigmatization and humiliation due to section 155(4) of the Evidence Act 1872, which blames her for an immoral character. This ends up in the trial of the victim rather than the culprit. Quite unsurprisingly, the conviction rate stands at 3 per cent. 

Police statistics state that 10.57 daily rape cases had been filed on an average between 2014 to 2018, while the actual figures continue to be evasive due to under-reporting. Section 365 of the colonial-era Penal Code of 1860 narrowly defines rape as gender-specific and criminalizes marital rape only if she is under the age of thirteen. Despite three subsequent reforms of 1983, 1995 and 2000 by three different governments of Ershad, BNP and Awami League respectively, rape laws continue to be archaic, and the statutory age of consent stands at sixteen. Moreover, after a gang rape incident in a microbus in Dhaka in 2015, Bangladesh High Court in 2018 issued guidelines for handling rape cases which is still rarely followed.

Third, call for a social overhaul. Mobilizing against rape in a morally bankrupt society is a challenge, but systemic changes are required for a long-term change. Though the government on 12th October 2020 approved the death penalty for rape offenders through an ordinance, activists are far from satisfied as they believe this would only increase murders after rape keeping the conviction rate as it is.

In perspective
There is an urgent need for government interventions like gender sensitization among government officials, sex education in schools, ensuring psychosexual support to victims and constituting a Commission for rape as mandated by the High Court in January 2020. 

Clamours are to pass long-awaited sexual harassment and witness protection bills. Moreover, a societal dialogue has to begin for a radical restructuring of the social order facilitated by civil society organizations in the long run.

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