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OP-ED: To be a woman in Bangladesh

  • Published at 10:26 pm October 6th, 2020
Anti-rape protest
Change is long overdue MEHEDI HASAN

Targeting the root of the problem is the only way to break the vicious cycle of violence against women

BCL man sued for raping schoolgirl in Sylhet

Man sent to jail for raping two sisters-in-law in Dhaka

70-year-old woman raped in Munshiganj

Chhatra League leader held over sexual harassment in Satkhira

80-year-old rapes physically challenged girl in Rangamati

Following the MC College gang rape case, these are just a few out of an array of disturbing headlines that have been surfacing online.

The victim of the MC college gang rape was visiting the campus with her husband.

The old woman who was allegedly raped by a 38-year-old man when she stepped out of her house to do wudu (ablution) for night prayers in Munshiganj was 70 years old.

Incidents of infants and pre-pubescent children getting raped have never been more pervasive, neither have those of family members sexually harassing young children.

So, what really is the trend?

The truth is -- there is no trend. Women in our country have no safety net against sexual and physical assault; being old, being ill, being young enough to not even be aware of such atrocities, being in a trusted man’s company, being home -- nothing guarantees a woman’s safety.

Are sexual harassment and rape the only forms of violence that women in our country are becoming increasingly used to?

Sadly, the answer is no; apart from sexual violence, in Bangladesh, women from all walks of life have been facing physical, psychological, and economic violence each passing day of their lives. Many of them, in silence.

These are enacted under many different manifestations, the most widespread forms being intimate partner violence (IPV, interchangeable with domestic violence), blackmailing, workplace violence and harassment, human trafficking, unequal pay, child marriage, forced early marriage, and acid attacks.

Looking at the statistics

The number of rape victims in the country doubled in 2019 compared to the number in 2018; four women are raped every day on average amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The rates of IPV in Bangladesh are also high, with half of all women aged 15 or over who have ever been married reporting to have endured physical and/or sexual violence during their lives (BBS, 2016).

Some 59% of women in the country are married before the age of 18, and 22% are married before reaching the age of 15. Bangladeshi women suffer greatly from psychological violence by their husbands, as over 80% have reported having experienced it in their lifetime, with 72% in the past 12 months.

About 50% of never-married women have experienced economic violence some time in their lifetime, while one-third experienced it during the last 12 months from the time the survey was conducted.

By the same token, the country is ranked 119th in the Gender Inequality Index and 72nd in the Global Gender Gap Index. With gender-based violence (GBV) being one of the most notable human rights violations in all societies, the high rates of GBV against women in our country paint a morbid yet accurate picture of the ingrained male-dominant psyche prevalent in our patriarchal society.

Even though women from all socio-economic backgrounds face such violence, it is increasingly turning into a problem skewed towards women from working and lower-income families.

Laws and loopholes

As we buckle up to fight against a plague as such, it’s imperative that we have a vision of what changes we want to see in the coming years. Currently, there are numerous laws and acts in place to protect women against such offenses, including, among many others, Sections 375 and 376 of the Penal Code of 1860, The Prevention of Oppression against Women and Children Act, the Dowry Prohibition Act 1980, and the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2010.

Yet, there is little implementation. To make things more detrimental, there are many gaps in the policy framework which continue to stand in the way of prosecuting perpetrators. Section 375 of the penal code, which rules that non-consensual sexual intercourse between a married couple (provided that the wife is above 13 years of age) does not constitute to rape, must be amended to acknowledge marital rape, one of the most common forms of IPV in Bangladesh.

Problematic wording used in laws such as Section 509 of the Penal Code of 1860 and Section 10 of the Prevention of Oppression against Women and Children Act, which puts focus on the plaintiff’s “modesty” need to be modified to eliminate such a focus, as they invite a stream of irrelevant, humiliating, and unwarranted discussions about the victim’s character, which further traumatizes them and discourages other victims from coming forward with their complaints.

Moreover, there is no specific law on sexual harassment in the workplace, except a directive in the form of a guideline; this void must be filled by passing an effective law, such as the draft “Sexual Harassment at Workplace Prevention Act, 2018,” proposed by a platform of nine organizations at a press conference held at the Jatiya Press Club in October 2018.

A glimpse of hope

For a very long time, we have focused on trying to mitigate GBV against women by introducing new policies that promise stringent punishment to offenders, needless to say, without much result. In order to annihilate this ongoing social epidemic, it’s time we focus on the root of the problem -- the unequal gender relations and patriarchal authority that boys and girls witness (and are subjected to) at home and in their communities from an early age.

These experiences are what shape their tendencies of inflicting violence and tolerating violence in later years.In Bangladesh, younger men who had witnessed male-on-mother IPV in their childhood were two to three times more likely to justify IPV, control family decisions, and perpetrate physical IPV in young adulthood (BDHS, 2007).

The only way to tackle this problem is to ensure the provision of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in public and private educational institutions at all levels around the country. Comprehensive sexuality education is a rights-based and gender-focused approach to sexuality education, whether in school or out of school. It is taught over several years, providing age-appropriate information consistent with the evolving capacities of young people.

Currently, the UNFPA works with governments and partners to develop and implement comprehensive sexuality education programs that meet international technical standards. Bangladesh could benefit greatly from such a partnership.

In order to ensure the feasibility of this proposition, investments in decentralized training facilities coupled with technical and financial support from the UNFPA could be used to devise a plan which is most relevant in our country’s context. This minimizes the resistance that would follow while challenging certain belief structures -- especially in the rural areas of the country. This could mean introducing small, incremental changes in the school curriculum to avoid active resistance from families.

Targeting the root of the problem is the only way to break the vicious cycle of transgenerational patriarchal values that promote violence against women and girls from being passed on to every “next generation.” If successful, it will cultivate, in the minds of the next generations of people, positive notions of equality void of male supremacy, a better understanding of consent, and the courage to speak up against violence.

For a country that has gained its liberation over the bodies of hundreds of thousands of women who fell victim to a dehumanizing, systematic campaign of genocidal rape, actual change to safeguard women from this relentless violence is long overdue.

Raisa Chowdhury is a freelance contributor.

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