Bangladesh’s Cabinet recently approved instating the death penalty as the maximum punishment for those convicted of rape and sexual assault. Previously, a life sentence served as the maximum punishment a convicted person could receive.
In an effort to stand against the “government’s failure to provide security for women and the surge of rapes,” Bangladeshi lawmakers have passed this statute in response to recent protests across Bangladesh. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the protests began after a video of a group of men attacking, stripping and sexually assaulting a woman went viral.
This is not the first time the Bangladeshi government is responding to the nationwide rise of sexual violence. In January the Bangladeshi government formed a commission in response to the growing number of rapes and sexual violence in the last year. Bangladeshi human rights organization Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) estimated that 975 women were raped from January to September of this year.
According to HRW, More than nine months after the order [forming the commission], it is unclear whether the commission is functioning, and it has not produced recommendations. In the meantime, the [Bangladeshi] government has yet to pass long-promised sexual harassment and witness protection laws. Survivors continue to face stigma, and do not have adequate access to psychosocial services when they seek help. The attackers are rarely held to account. The conviction rate for rape in Bangladesh is below 1 percent.
Last month, footage of a young woman being violently assaulted and gang-raped by a group of men in the south-eastern Noakhali district went viral on Facebook, after the video was released by the attackers to blackmail and shame the victim. Eight people have been arrested in connection with the case. It led to an eruption of protests in the capital, Dhaka, and other cities at the failures to tackle the endemic problem of sexual assault and rape in Bangladesh.
“This truly disturbing footage demonstrates the shocking violence that Bangladeshi women are routinely being subjected to. In the vast majority of these cases, the justice system fails to hold the perpetrators responsible,” said Sultan Mohammed Zakaria, south Asia researcher at Amnesty International. Outrage had already been mounting after several members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League, the student wing of the governing party, were arrested and charged with gang-raping a woman in the northern town of Sylhet a few weeks earlier.
Many of the protesters on Dhaka’s streets had called for stricter punishment, including the death penalty, and the crowds carried placards bearing messages such as “Hang the rapists” and “No mercy to rapists”. However, Amnesty pointed out that the issue in Bangladesh was not the severity of punishment for rape, but a failure of the courts to bring convictions in rape cases and the victims’ fear of coming forward.
Naripokkho, a women’s rights organisation, found that in six districts between 2011 and 2018, only five out 4,372 cases resulted in a conviction. Overall, only 3.56% of cases filed under the Prevention of Oppression Against Women and Children Act have ended up in court, and only 0.37% have resulted in convictions.
The problem appears to be worsening. Between January and September 2020, at least 975 rape cases were reported in Bangladesh, including 208 gang rapes, according to statistics gathered by human rights organisation Ain-o-Salish Kendra. In over 40 of the cases, the women died. The UN also released a statement last week expressing its concern at the escalating cases of sexual violence against women: “The recent case of the woman from Noakhali that was circulated through social media has yet again underlined the state of social, behavioral and structural misogyny that exist.”
The statement said urgent reform was needed to “to the criminal justice system to support and protect victims and witness, and to speed up the slow trial process”. In January, after a student at Dhaka University was raped, the government was ordered by the courts to form a commission to address the rise in sexual assaults and put together a report by June. The commission has yet to be formed.
In a justice system that fails to hold perpetrators responsible, Bangladeshi lawmakers are changing the laws to hold more sexual abusers accountable. With mounting pressure from protests and civil unrest, Bangladesh is forced to acknowledge that the country’s history of disregarding victims of sexual assault must end, and begin to ameliorate its treatment of survivors.
–LC Core Team