She could not tell her parents about the first time she faced sexual harassment. It was by one of her relatives at her home. The HSC student thought that had she spoken up, everyone would have misunderstood her and blamed her instead.
Women’s rights activists claim that in Bangladesh, most perpetrators of sexual harassment are the victims’own family members, and in most cases, the victims refrain from sharing the matter with anyone.
According to the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association, almost 90% of girls aged 10-18 who are victims of sexual harassment are usually harassed by known people, and most of the abusers go unpunished since the incidents are never reported.
Rehana (not real name) shared with the Dhaka Tribune her experience about her uncle who is only four years’ senior to her. “When I was 13 years’ old, my uncle touched me which made me uncomfortable. He continued to abuse me physically and I could not tell anybody about it since he was well-accepted in my family.”
She tried to avoid her uncle whenever he came to the house. And after two years, when she told her mother about her concerns, the housewife told her to keep mum.
Observers say they do not have any statistics on how many girls are actually molested or raped within their homes. These victims usually do not go to trauma centres, or contact any consultant to get rid of the psychological pressure or guilt they undergo following sexual abuse by known people. They keep mum mainly because they fear being stigmatised by the patriarchal society.
Therefore, such repeated harassment at home as well as in public places hit them so hard that it impedes the girls’ emotional growth.
Rights campaigner Khusi Kabir said: “We need to break the silence now. There is no formal institution where the victims can share their feelings and get remedy. They may get some assistance only if they file cases with the National Trauma Counselling Centre.”
She said: “Since most victims do not file cases and are not vocal about their harassment, they feel shaky and are forced to bear the torture all by themselves.”
The counselling centre is a joint initiative of Bangladesh and Denmark governments, under the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, and aims at providing mental health support to the women and children who are victims of violence. It identifies, assesses and manages the psychological problems of women victims of violence through individual and family counselling.
Under the same programme, the government in 2012 introduced a national helpline number “10921” to record complaints of women and children facing any sort of violence including sexual harassment.
President of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association Salma Ali said the rights bodies prepare statistics on violence based on newspaper reports. “When the media reports on sexual harassment, we come to know that these things are happening. And when not, it does not mean that such incidents have stopped; rather it implies that the victims are not filing formal complaints.”
She thinks that the number of women and girls facing sexual harassment at home and outside is much higher than the reported incidents. To change the scenario, the girls must come up with the complaints while the government authorities concerned and the organisations working on sexual harassment should provide necessary assistance.