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FOCUS June 2001 Volume 24

Reflections on Women and Violence in Bangladesh

Saira Rahman

Like many women around the globe, women in Bangladesh have had to face violations of their human rights year after year. These acts of violence are both public and domestic - rape, acid throwing, fatwa1, violence due to non-payment of dowry, etc. Social reasons and legal loopholes are sources of violence against women in Bangladesh. The so-called religious and cultural norms, discriminatory and defective laws, denial of appropriate property rights of women, non-implementation of international instruments relating to women's rights, and other related factors have created a negative environment for women. These factors consequently rendered the women vulnerable to various forms of violence and exploitation.

Bangladesh has several laws specifically protecting women's rights to life and safety and severely punishing offenders. The Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code, Dowry Prohibition Act, Repression of Violence Against Women and Children Act 2000, among others, all contain provisions punishing those who dare commit any sort of crime against women. There is no separate legislation for domestic violence. The implementation of these laws is getting weaker in the past few years. No measure has been taken to strictly implement laws protecting women. As a result, crimes perpetrated against women have increased.

Cases of Violence against Women in the Year 2000

Odhikar, a human rights organization documenting specific issues relating to violence against women, has the following information on the situation of victims in 2000.

Acid Throwing

In 2000, Odhikar recorded (from reports of eight national daily papers) 186 incidences of acid throwing. In 1999, there were 178 such incidences reported and 101 in 1998. According to Odhikar's documentation, 33 of the victims in 2000 were between the ages of six and fifteen. In a majority of the cases the main reasons for the crime were jealousy, refusal of sexual advances and revenge after an argument.

Rape

Rape is probably one of the most common forms of violence against women in Bangladesh to date. Unfortunately, despite the fact that in most of the cases the violator is known to the victim, nothing is done to bring the former to task. Usually money and muscle are the reasons why the crime goes unpunished. In most of the investigations conducted by Odhikar, the victim's family was too poor and ignorant of the law to seek legal recourse. In one case, the victim's father, a rickshaw puller, told Odhikar that he did not know the lawyer's name, but knew what he looked like. In another case, the lawyer has been demanding payments for every court appearance while asking the court for more time.

Case Study: K is a fifteen-year-old girl from Munshiganj, who now resides at a shelter home, with her three-month-old son. She has a mother and three young brothers. Her father deserted the family a long time ago. A neighbor's son raped K on a night when her mother was away. K managed to keep the incident from her mother for three months - then her pregnancy became obvious. On learning of the incident, her mother accosted the father of the boy, who obviously denied that his son could commit such a crime. When she threatened to call a shalish (informal, village mediation), he told her that he would accept K as a daughter-in-law and the child if the child resembled his accused son. However, when the shalish gathered, he organized a gang to break it up by using violence and money. It never reconvened. Meanwhile, a lawyer was found to represent K. But it soon became obvious that he was taking advantage of a poor woman and her daughter by taking money from them and doing nothing in return. The Munshiganj chapter of the Bangladesh Mahila Porishod2 was contacted by Odhikar and requested to take up the matter. K was brought to Dhaka a week after the birth of her child and now resides in a shelter home. A new lawyer has been assigned to her case.

Rape by Law Enforcement Agents

The protectors of society have become the violators, as members of the law enforcement agencies - police, army, etc. continue to rape women while the government continues to do nothing in the way of punishment. Of all the cases of rape in police custody brought to light so far, very few of the offenders have been held accountable. One reason for this could be the fact that members of the police carry out investigations regarding crimes allegedly committed by their own colleagues. Furthermore, government investigation and inquiry commissions take months in producing a single report, which is not made public. Thirteen women were raped by members of the law enforcement agencies in the year 2000, the youngest being a girl of six who was raped by a police constable in Panchagar.

Dowry Violence

Demanding, giving and accepting dowry are illegal in Bangladesh. The practice, however, still prevails in many sections of the society. A major reason is the rising unemployment among young males, especially in rural Bangladesh. Often, the bride's parents cannot contribute the whole amount of dowry at once. They pay some of it at the wedding ceremony. Later on, the demand for the rest of the dowry becomes intense. Delayed payment causes the use of violence against the young wife. The issue of dowry is probably the most common source of domestic violence in rural Bangladesh, where the husband along with his parents and relatives remind the wife that the remaining payment is still due. Incidents of murder or attempted murder for dowry- related reasons are regular items in the country's daily papers.

The following case study documented by Odhikar clearly shows how far such illegal demands of money can go.

Case Study: R, an 18-year-old woman, married W four years ago. W drives a rickshaw van and is a habitual gambler. He sold the little property he had to pay his gambling debts. After he began stealing to pay off the debts, his father threw him out of the house. He took his wife to live on the homestead of his brother-in-law and sister.

R was constantly pressured by W to bring dowry from her father's house. This nagging took the shape of beatings and other forms of physical and mental violence. Soon this violence became a common part of her daily life. Her sister-in-law and her husband even joined in the verbal and sometimes physical abuse. At one point, her father, a poor farmer, managed to scrape together ten thousand taka for his son-in-law, leading to more demands.

In October 2000, after a severe beating from her husband, R took her six-month-old daughter to her father's house. The next morning, her father sent her back home after giving her some rice and fifty taka. But W, upon seeing her, beat her again. He pushed her out of the house and told her to go back to her father's house. He forcibly kept their young daughter with him. R had no choice but to return to her father's house. The next day, W's younger brother came to her bearing the news that her daughter had died. Fearing that she may be harmed, the head of the village and local elders restrained her from seeing her daughter. Her sister's husband went instead and found that the child had been buried.

Within the same month, R's father filed a case against W. Immediately on hearing the news, W with the politically influential Chairperson (elected sub-district Representative), along with the same village head who prevented R from seeing her child, began to pressure R's family to retract the case. A shalish was arranged and W was made to give R one thousand four hundred taka as compensation and her family was told to withdraw the case. R told Odhikar investigators that her family did not have the economic support to carry on a case and thus decided to withdraw the case filed. Nor does she want to return to her husband's home. She is afraid that she will meet the same fate as her six-month-old daughter, who is believed to have been murdered.

Women in the Political Process

Reserved seats for the women sector were introduced in the National Parliament, so that women could take part in policy planning. But the reserved seats for women have become vote banks. In reality, the thirty selected women legislators have no opinion other than what their leader says. It may be a relief to totally end the system. It is due to last till this year (2001). What is needed is positive discrimination in respect of women's empowerment and access to actual power. Political parties should give one third of their total nominations to women candidates in the national elections.

Conclusion

The increase in crimes against women and acts of violence against them raises serious questions regarding the effectiveness, transparency and accountability of those responsible for maintaining law and order in Bangladesh. It shows to what extent the law and order situation has deteriorated - especially in the case of the inhuman crime of rape perpetrated on children. It is also disturbing to note that even acts of violence against women, perpetrated by persons who are known and thus identifiable, slip out of the grasp of the supposedly long arm of the law.

The newly introduced Women and Children Repression (Special Provisions) Act 2000 is a small improvement on the Ordinance of the same name of 1995 - now repealed. It provides for stringent punishment for offenders and considers their offences non-bailable. But what good will the introduction of new laws do, when the whole infrastructure is shaky with pockets of corruption and non-implementation of laws? New laws are not needed. What is needed is a more realistic identification of genuine acts of violence against women, which have no remedy or punishment yet. In order to improve the situation, various state mechanisms need to address the realities of indifferent police, corruption, criminalization of politics and poor participation of women in policy-making spheres, and then revise the existing laws.

Saira Rahman is a Project Coordinator on women issues in Odhikar, a human rights organization.

For further information contact: ODHIKAR, 3/6 Shegun Bagicha, Dhaka-1000 Bangladesh, ph (8802) 9560173; fax (8802) 9567280; e-mail: odhikar@bangla.net

Endnotes

  1. Fatwa is, originally, a decision made by a Muslim cleric in simple, non-criminal disputes. In Bangladesh today,what is termed as'fatwa' is a misuse of this process, since village mediation bodies (shalish) which involve Muslim clerics decide on various mattersand the punishments they mete out have ranged from stoning to burning alive. Many women who have fallen victim to so-called fatwa have committed suicide, in order to save the family honor. The real fatwa process cannot give a death sentence. A Bangladesh High Court recently ruled that a fatwa must be in accordance with law. Though this ruling is being appealed to the Supreme Court by so-called 'religious groups', it is a proof of how the institution of fatwa has been abused.
  2. The Bangladesh Mohila Porishod is one of the oldest women's rights organizations in Bangladesh. It also has a shelter home.

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