The government needs to overhaul the systemic problems in rape trials and address the cultural taboo around sexual assault.
Last week, the Bangladeshi government announced that it would introduce the death penalty for rape cases. This was a reaction to the anger of protesters at the viral video of the repeated sexual assault of a 37-year-old woman in the Southeastern Noakhali district. Outrage had been simmering since last month when members of the governing party’s student wing, Bangladesh Chhatra League, were arrested and charged in a separate gang rape case. The 8 men involved with the Noakhali case have been arrested and two days after the amendment of the law, 5 men have been sentenced to death for the 2012 gang rape of a 15-year-old.
While the issuing of the death penalty for rape is a milestone in rape law reform and signifies that the state considers it a serious crime, the death penalty in itself is not the real solution to violence against women in Bangladesh. Several human rights activists and groups including Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged the government to ‘improve access to justice and reparations for victims and ensure prompt criminal investigations and prosecutions of perpetrators.’ Furthermore, Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement,”there is no conclusive evidence that capital punishment curbs any crime, including rape, and it could end up deterring reporting or even encouraging rapists to murder their victims to reduce the likelihood of arrest.”
Capital punishment will not bring the justice that survivors in Bangladesh need. Instead, the government needs to address the systemic problems in rape trials. There needs to be a widespread overhaul of a justice system in which survivors are ignored, as cases are not properly investigated or prosecuted. A 2013 survey conducted by the United Nations found that among men in Bangladesh who admitted to committing rape, 88% of rural respondents and 95% of urban respondents said they faced no legal consequences.The government needs to protect victims and witnesses by removing barriers to justice as well as providing services, as there is a shortage of free legal support, crisis centres, counselling, women’s shelters and DNA testing facilities available to survivors, especially in rural areas.
There also needs to be a fundamental cultural shift in the conversations we have about violence against women and how society perceives sexual assault. Over the last weekend, Ananta Jalil, a prominent Bangladeshi businessman, actor, producer, and director posted a video in which he said women who wore revealing dresses were inviting rape. He later issued a statement of clarification which appeared to further emphasise his initial remarks. There is a cultural discomfort around the issue of sexual assault, which creates societal stigma and further silences women, preventing them from speaking out for fear of being blamed. Victims are worried about ostracisation, their honour, reputation, and what their communities would think about them. By addressing the stigma, survivors could hopefully be able to access better support from their communities and gain access to the proper resources that they need.
The cultural conversation also needs to expand to include and discuss other forms of violence against women, such as domestic violence (in all its forms: physical aggression, threats, emotional abuse, economic deprivation, and so on), sexual harassment in the workplace, fatwa-instigated violence, acid throwing, and dowry-related violence. According to Caroline Wiegand, these harmful acts all contribute to the exploitation, deprivation, and oppression of women in Bangladesh, and are violations of the fundamental Human Rights.
The Rape Law Reform Coalition drafted a 10 point to-do list that the Bangladeshi government could act on today. It aims to identify gaps in the legal and institutional framework that prevents justice for rape victims and survivors, as well as to formulate reform proposals. Their demands include: changing the definition of rape to include all victims, regardless of gender identity or marital status, prohibiting the use of character evidence in rape trials, enacting witness protection law, training police and court officials on sexual and gender-based violence, and introducing consent classes and sex education in schools.
As summarised in this article, ‘Gender violence embedded in gender norms, and gender norms are also constructed through violence against women.’ Therefore in order to effectively tackle violence against women we need to address the gendered social structure and prevailing attitudes that permit and encourage male violence.
As a Bengali woman, I am saddened by the persistent issues of inequality and injustice. I hope that the Bangladeshi government will take tangible steps with the guidance of human rights experts and women’s charities to fulfil its duties and obligations to the women of the country. Until then, we must stand in solidarity, amplify the voices of Bengali women, and call for an end to gender-based violence.