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FOCUS June 2005 Volume 40

Violence Against Women: Bangladesh Context

Salma Kahn*

* Salma Khan is the Chairperson of NGO Coalition on Beijing Plus Five - a coalition of 626 NGOs and former Chair of UN CEDAW.

"He strangles me and takes me into the backyard and tells me, "Now you're going to die." He has one hand on my throat and pulls back the other one to slap me in the face, with his fist in the air, he looks straight in my eyes and says, "You want to die." ....
Testimony of a 34 year old victim of violence
"Acid might be a cheap commodity one can get easily, but a person's life is not cheap. Punishment of the perpetrator is necessary and acid should not be that easily available."
Munira, 12 year old acid survivor from Tongi

Despite the remarkable success in the health and family planning program in terms of reducing mortality rate for infants or those under 5 years old and countrywide success in immunization and contraceptive prevalence rate, Bangladesh still remains as one of the few countries where female life expectancy at birth is lower than males and more than 14% of pregnant women's deaths are associated with injury and violence. About 70% of women suffer from nutritional deficiency and about 67% of pregnant women do not receive antenatal care as a result of gender discrimination.

Health Ministry sources estimate that iron-deficiency anemia among women alone causes losses in agricultural production to the tune of 5 billion US dollars over a period of 10 years, which is the result of social practices based on lower value placed on a girl's life, discriminatory food distribution, and systematic violence against women. Most women in Bangladesh do not enjoy their reproductive right to make decisions concerning their fertility and sexuality free of coercion and violence. Social insecurity and family pressure lead to early marriage and repeated pregnancy, and often force them to keep unwanted pregnancies or to have unsafe abortions.

Health Ministry sources add that near absence of skills and facilities to cope with obstetric emergencies is matched by negative attitude of the family members in terms of low value attached to women's life and survival.

There is also an increasing recognition that HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are often a consequence of sexual violence and prostitution, are having a devastating effect on women's health (particularly the health of young women and adolescent girls subjected to sexual and gender-based violence), trafficking and other forms of violence which place them at high risk of trauma, disease, and unwanted pregnancy.

Public health policy should provide a comprehensive range of services to high-risk group, including information, health screening and medical care.

Legal interventions and support services

The Penal Code of Bangladesh contains provisions that protect women from various forms of violence, although it does not specifically define 'sexual assault'. However, offences related to rape, kidnapping, abduction of women, acid throwing or attempt to cause death or grievous injury because of dowry are treated as specific crimes of serious nature. The Penal Code prescribes capital punishment for kidnapping, abduction, acid throwing and rape.

The government promulgated a number of laws reflecting the provisions of the Penal Code with some modifications necessary to address the specific crimes, including the following:

  • Dowry Prohibition Act 1980 and its amendment in 1986 make dowry practice an offence punishable by fine and imprisonment.
  • Prevention of Women and Child Repression Act 2000 provides for effective and efficient way of dealing with cases of violence against women such as rape, acid attacks, forced prostitution and trafficking.
  • The Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act 1933 provides for detention of women under 18 years of age if found in a place where prostitution is being carried out.
  • The Family Court Ordinance 1985 provides for the exclusive jurisdiction of the court on matters relating to marriage, dowry, maintenance and guardianship, and custody of children.
  • The Cruelty to Women (Deterrent Punishment) Ordinance 1983 amends relevant section of the Penal Code and provides the penalty of life imprisonment for kidnapping, abduction, trafficking in women, cruelty because of dowry, and rape as well as abetment of such offenses.
  • Trafficking in Women and Children Act 1993 provides a maximum penalty of up to three years for forced prostitution and its abetment.
  • Recently the government enacted a law primarily to restrict import and sale of acid in open market and death penalty for acid attack offences.
  • A law has recently been enacted to address the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.
  • Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have prepared a guideline to be followed by universities to protect women-students from sexual harassment.
  • The government has also signed the SAARC Convention on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Women and Children.

The government created a permanent Law Commission to review all laws related to protection of women's rights and to provide recommendations wherever required. The Ministry on Women and Children Affairs has undertaken multisectoral projects to eliminate violence against women including setting up One-Stop Crisis Centres (OSCC) in Dhaka and Rajshahi Medical College Hospitals mainly to help acid-throwing and rape victims secure quick Formal Investigation Record (FIR) and other services. In addition, some police stations have Special Cell for Women. At the national, district and thana levels, Committees for the Prevention of Violence against Women have been formed. Violence prevention cells also exist in the Department of Women's Affairs and the Jatiyo Mahila Sangastha. Shelter homes for abused and tortured women and for women under safe custody have also been established both by the government and NGOs - though far too inadequate to meet the needs.

Limitations of government interventions

The most common causes of the failure to protect women's rights are poverty, lack of proper understanding of the rights of women, weak enforcement of the laws, and above all widespread corruption within the justice system itself.

According to a study carried out by the Policy Leadership and Advocacy for Gender Equality (PLAGE) project of the Ministry of Women's Affairs, legal measures and other support services undertaken by the government have not been able to address the issue of violence against women effectively. Due to many lacunae in the investigation and charge sheet procedures, 88% of the offenders were not brought to court. Violence-related issues such as custodial rape, illegal fatwa and other kinds of violence at the community level perpetrated by local religious leaders or arbitration bodies continue to be unresolved without any visible government intervention.

Most sources indicate that the mechanisms to enforce and administer the relevant laws are inadequate and ineffective. Unusual delay in court procedures and trial proceedings allow accused persons out on bail to intimidate victims and tamper with evidence.

Corruption in the law enforcing agencies is a critical obstacle to eliminate crime and violence against women. According to a Transparency International survey conducted in Dhaka in 1997, 63% of the 2,500 households questioned reported that they had to bribe court officials. Hiring witnesses was reported by 18.7% of the households.

With the open market economy and globalization, trafficking in women and children has turned into a rapidly growing trade with the involvement of international organized crime groups and require very sophisticated investigation and follow-up mechanisms that Bangladesh lack.

Medical care, short-stay-homes or shelters are far too inadequate and girls and women who suffer from family problems often are left with no option but to fall prey to new exploiters. There are no facilities to treat trauma victims, or to provide occupational therapy, education-cum-vocational training or recreation.

Conclusion

Gender-specific violence against women and girls is now internationally recognized as an impediment to the holistic social, economic, civil, political and cultural advancement of women. The seriousness and endemic nature of the issue has placed it as a priority agenda in all international conferences and workplan of UN development agencies. The issue of violence against women and girls was reviewed extensively in the Fourth World Conference and was highlighted in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995). In the light of the international commitments, the government of Bangladesh has adopted its National Plan of Action for the empowerment of women including elimination of violence against women.

Effective solutions to comprehensively address violence must recognize certain established and underlying dynamics based on the complex social, cultural, religious and economic ideologies that serve to maintain the unequal relationships between men and women.

Although violence is part of every society and has existed since time immemorial in various degrees, some countries like Bangladesh have conditions which are more favorable to a culture of violence that include poverty, avarice and patriarchy. Female subjugation and inequality are related conditions that propagate violence.

To eliminate violence against women in Bangladesh, one needs to challenge the vested 'rights' and 'roles' of men and the social control mechanisms that reinforce the superiority of men and subordination of women. The unequal power relations often result in the dominance exercised through violence. In such countries, feminization of poverty is a key factor that is not just a state of deprivation but also a process of vulnerability, physical weakness, isolation and powerlessness. Consequential unemployment, wage discrimination and structural adjustment policies exacerbate violence against women and children both by increasing its incidence and by making women and children more vulnerable. Greater public awareness to change gender-biased attitude is the most important precondition to enable solutions to materialize. Along with a more gender- sensitive socialization process, legal remedies have to be in place. Training of police, judicial and law enforcement officers on gender sensitivity and domestic violence is crucial. Facilities for the counseling of victims of violence and their families need to be enhanced. The economic empowerment of women needs to be addressed with related training for essential skills. Support services for the victims of violence and their families should be approached on an interdisciplinary basis inclusive of employment opportunities, housing facility, legal aid and day care facilities.

For further information, please contact: Salma Khan, 'Panshee', House 7, Road 78, Gulshan, Dhaka 1212, Bangladesh, ph (8802) 988-8696; 989-6322; fax (8802) 882-3100; e-mail: humana@gononet.com


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