Since November 2019, protests demanding the elimination of violence against women have received broad media attention due to the by now well-known Chilean protest chant “The rapist is you”. The movement’s provoking lyrics and symbolic choreography have succeeded in inspiring feminist protests around the world. While the performances have brought the problematic situation of women in South America back into the focus, other regions have not received the same amount of press coverage. Yet, women in the South-East Asian Region have the highest risk of intimate partner violence worldwide. In particular, the situation for women and girls in Bangladesh within their own four walls is characterized by violence committed by their partners and families.
The numbers, which try to describe the occurring domestic violence in Bangladesh are terrifying; a recent Human Rights Watch Report shows that over 70% of married women or girls have faced some form of intimate partner abuse, and at least 235 women were murdered by their husband or his family in just the first nine months of 2020. The most vulnerable women are those with no education and with a low-income background, especially young women and girls. More than 40% of women had their first experience of forced sex aged 14 or below, and over 70% are married as a minor, with most of them already being married by their 15th birthday. In addition, human trafficking booms in Bangladesh, with about 400 women and children, most of them between 12 and 16, falling victim to trafficking each month.
Official estimates like these figures only capture a small part of the actual number of women at risk, thereby underestimating the severity of the crisis. National data on violence against women does not exist in Bangladesh, because there are no official surveys and the majority of assaults go unreported.
Besides the larger socio-economic factors, one of the main reasons for persistence of gender-based violence in Bangladesh is its social acceptance, which is particularly high in impoverished communities. There is a strong correlation between lack of education and domestic violence. Violence against women within the family setting is the norm, wherein young children witness and internalise oppression against the women of the household. It is believed to be a husband’s responsibility and prerogative to shashon (discipline) a woman, and she can be easily threatened with divorce in cases of misbehaviour. Women are socially, and often financially, dependent on their husbands: Divorce naturally translates into social exclusion and economic destitution. Additionally, women are under social pressure to endure the abuse and fear physical retaliations by their husbands if they complain. Patriarchal structures and strong religious beliefs in Bangladesh support and justify this discrimination of women. In 2014, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women reported that more than a third of men and women in Bangladesh believe that wife-beating is justified in specific circumstances.
Even in the cases where women find the courage to report their husbands, they encounter so many obstacles that their efforts are mostly in vain. Besides the general scarcity of adequate female officers, law enforcement authorities lack the institutional know-how to deal with gender-based violence. Instead of conducting proper investigations, police officers and prosecutors are often putting pressure on the victims, blame and harass them for what had happened, or are refusing to even take a report. Victims are rather shamed than being taken seriously.
Challenges facing the Government
Bangladesh is a member state of all the important international human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and its Optional Protocol. Although the country opted out of the inquiry procedure which enables the Committee of the Convention to investigate situations of “grave or systematic violations” of women’s rights, its state actors are still required to take all possible steps to provide women with equal and effective protection against violence.
The Bangladeshi Government has demonstrated its commitment to eliminating violence against women already back in 2000, when it enacted the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act and in 2002, when the Acid Offense Prevention Act and Acid Control Act followed. These pieces of legislation have proven helpful against acid attacks, which decreased by more than 75% after the enactment. In 2010, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act was finally introduced. It defines domestic violence against women to include physical, psychological, sexual, and economic abuse, but only within a legal marriage.
Finally, the Multi-Sectoral Programme on Violence Against Women (MSPVAW), a jointly operated program by the governments of Bangladesh and Denmark, developed the National Action Plan 2013-2025. This plan incorporates a number of measures focusing on legal protection, social awareness, improvement of women’s socioeconomic status, protection services, rehabilitation services and inter-sectoral cooperation. The establishment of One-Stop Crisis Centres in the nine major hospitals, of 67 One-Stop Crisis Cells in each district, a National Trauma Counselling Centre and a 24-hour national helpline have been the most important improvements so far.
Despite these legal efforts initiated by the government, the overall response to violence against women remains deeply inadequate. Out of almost 43,000 cases recorded by the Multi-Sectoral Programme on Violence Against Women until July 2020, less than 11,000 women filed a case and only in 160 cases a penalty was actually imposed. In other words, less than 1.5% cases reported through the government’s One-Stop Crisis Centres have ended with a penalty for the perpetrator. This data reveals the deep structural issues within the criminal justice system in Bangladesh when it comes to women’s rights.
Besides obstacles within the legal justice system, Bangladesh has a worrying lack of support services: Human Rights Watch estimates 36 shelters are run by the government and NGOs for a population of over 80 million women and 64 million children. Moreover, most victims and, alarmingly, also people within the justice system are unaware of the laws in place and the rights contained therein.
In the beginning of October 2020, large-scale protests demanding an end to the violence against women broke out after the appalling gang rape of a woman went viral. The government failed to acknowledge this political momentum to consider structural reforms. Instead of focusing on support services for survivors, the government chose a convenient path and approved measures to allow for the death penalty for rape. This amendment, changing the highest possible punishment for rape from life imprisonment to the death penalty, is supposed to work as a deterrent. However, there is no proven link between the presence or absence of the death penalty and crimes. The introduction of the death penalty, condemned as a punishment by human rights activists, will certainly not help victims in overcoming their trauma and seeking help. More importantly, it does not prevent violence against women in their own homes as the threat of death penalty could potentially deter the victim from going against her close family members.
Furthermore, since the outbreak of coronavirus, Bangladeshi women, just like their counterparts across the world, face additional risk from rising domestic violence. It is a well-known fact that the impacts of the pandemic hit low-income homes disproportionately, as they have meagre or no savings to rely on and are more likely to lose their work. Economic challenges put additional stress on families and women have even less opportunities to report and escape violence, when they are told to stay at home. Hence, it is not surprising that Covid-19 related lockdowns have led to an increase of domestic emotional, physical and sexual violence against women.
Moreover, most court proceedings have been suspended this spring due to the pandemic, which added to the existing backlog. Although courts are operating again and online proceedings have since been introduced, the immense build-up of over 3,6 million cases still needs handling. Without a well-functioning court system, there is a high risk of impunity for perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence. Providing efficient access to judicial procedure is therefore essential to ensuring justice for victims and encouraging others to report.
The silent acceptance of gender-based violence in Bangladesh is no longer tolerated, as can be seen by the latest demonstrations. These protests, challenging conventional gender norms and demanding an end to the systemic discrimination against women both de jure and de facto, have put pressure on the government to act. However, instead of providing populist answers, such as introducing the death penalty, the focus needs to shift to feasible solutions that can actually bring relief for women. This includes, first of all, enforcing the human rights obligations Bangladesh is bound by, and ensuring that perpetrators are held accountable for their crimes. Secondly, the assistance for victims needs to be improved by strengthening the legal aid for survivors to enable them to achieve justice and by distributing accessible shelters, as well as mental and physical health support services throughout the country. Lastly, internalized gender hierarchies that favour men have to be tackled. It is necessary to empower women, educate them about their rights and provide them with information about steps to take for prevention and protection against violence. Projects in this regard, like the Joint UN programme to address violence against women in Bangladesh are a step in the right direction. However, Bangladesh still has a long way to go until prevention, investigation, and punishment of violence against girls and women is adequate and appropriate assistance for survivors is provided.
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