As protests rage across the country against sexual violence in general and rape in particular, it still remains too early to say whether the outpouring of public anger constitutes a moment that can serve as a turning point, or another one of those lost opportunities during which we let off some steam at some outrage that gnaws at our collective sensibilities, without turning our attention at any point to real measures that can achieve lasting change.

People from different walks of life, including students, staged demonstrations across the country for the 4th consecutive day on Thursday as anger mounted over the growing incidents of rape and sexual harassment of women. According to reports reaching our sister newsagency UNB's newsdesk, people in different parts of the country took to the streets and raised their voices demanding that rapists be given stringent punishment. The public fury mounted in recent days after the recent gang-rape incident at Sylhet MC College and housewife's molestation in Begumganj of Noakhali district.

In Dhaka, the students of Viqarunnisa Noon School and College took positions in front of its campus on Thursday and staged demonstrations demanding toughest punishment of the rapists. Several hundred students thronged in front of the campus with placards and chanted slogans demanding steps to bring the rapists under the ambit of law. They also formed a human chain and left the place after one and half and hours, said Monirul Islam, officer-in-charge of Ramna Police Station.

Besides, several hundred activists of different organisations, including Chhatra Union, Ahsanullah University of Science and Technology and Bangladesh skateboarding community took positions at Shahbagh intersection demanding exemplary punishment and speedy trial for all the convicted rapists.

The protesters shouted slogans 'Hang the rapists', 'Break the hands of rapists'. They were carrying placards with different messages - "No mercy to rapists" and "Please tell me, am I next?"

Some students of left-leaning student bodies started protests in front of the National Museum at Shahbagh around 11.30am. The protesters also demanded the resignation of Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal for his failure to stop rape across the country. They announced that a mass rally will be held on Friday afternoon at Shahbagh to press home their demands.

In Gazipur, Gazipur District Mohila Awami League, BNP and different organisations staged protests and brought out processions protesting the recent rape incidents and torture on women. Besides, a group of students, under the banner of 'General students' brought out a protest procession and formed a human chain in Rajbari area.

In Lalmonirhat, students from different colleges in Lalmonirhat district took to Lalmonirhat-Burihat highway in front of Kakina Sheikh Fazlal Karim Library and staged protests.

They also formed a human chain at noon. They also demanded that the culprits be brought to book and put the rapists under crossfire.

In Faridpur, district unit of Jubo Dal on Thursday formed a human chain on court premises in the district town protesting the recent incidents of rape and sexual harassment on women and children. In Sunamganj, Sunamganj Reporters Unity on Thursday formed a human chain at Traffic Point in the district town.

In Bhola, a group of citize under the banner of 'Sacheton Nagorik Parishad' formed a human chain in front of K Zahan Market in the district town at noon, protesting the recent rape incidents. They also demanded the highest punishment of the rapists.

In Jashore, Jashore Democratic Lawyers Association formed a human chain in front of the District Bar Association building around 12 noon. They also vowed not to provide any legal assistance to rapists.

In Bagerhat, different organisations, including Asian Mother Child and Safety Foundation, Bagerhat Blood Bank formed a human chain in front of Bagerhat Press Club demanding death penalty for rapists.

Emphasis on exemplary punishment

What was notable through the public engagement and protests over the issue this time was an emphasis on remedies sought through the judicial system. A pitifully low number of cases filed over sexual crimes actually result in convictions. Experts too called for ensuring exemplary punishment of the culprits and their abettors through prompt trials since 97 percent of perpetrators now get off the hook in many ways.

They said sexual harassment has turned out to be the most dangerous menace in the country as perverted men from 20-year-old youths to 80-year-old ones are indulging in such crimes due to a culture of impunity, moral degradation and political backing, leniency of law enforcers, prolonged trial process and improper police investigation.

Prof Ziaur Rahman of Dhaka University's Criminology department, former Executive Director of Ain o Salish Kendra Sheepa Hafiza and ActionAid Bangladesh Country Director Farah Kabir said the recent incidents like gang-rape in Sylhet and sexual harassment in Noakhali are a wakeup call for the government which needs to act fast to address the problem.

According to Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), a rights body, 975 women were raped, including 208 subjected to gang-rape, from January to September 30 this year. Of them, 45 were killed after rape and 12 others killed themselves. It said 161 women were subjected to sexual harassment and 12 of them took their own lives during the same period.

ASK also said three women and nine men were killed for protesting the incidents of sexual harassment. Besides, 627 children were raped and 20 boys were molested while 21 women fell victims to acid attacks. Sheepa Hafiza said rape, sexual harassment and violence against women are gradually increasing mainly for the culture of impunity and the state's apathy to control it. She said the number of such acts has increased as the offenders have got an impression that they will go unpunished.

"I think the state is not considering the rape and sexual harassment as a serious crime. Politicians are not still saying they're ashamed of such brutality and not assuring the victims of justice. The rapists are not properly punished by the 150-year-old law," Sheepa observed.

To address such social menace, she said, the law must be amended and make it a time-befitting one and enforce it properly.

Sheepa said police should change their attitude towards the victims of any rape and sexual harassment, and a women-friendly atmosphere needs to be ensured at police stations.

"Whenever a victim of rape and sexual harassment goes to the police, she is harassed again through various indecent gestures and unwarranted questions. So, many victims don't get encouraged to go to the police and to seek legal action," she pointed out.

The human rights activist said political parties always try to avoid their responsibility by expelling rapists from their parties and branding them as infiltrators. "We're now seeing incidents mostly committed by ruling party men. But ruling party leaders are not much vocal against it and not taking steps to prevent their followers from committing such inhuman acts. Zero tolerance must be shown against rape and sexual harassment."

Farah Kabir said male-dominated society, family, the judiciary and the politicians are not sincere in stopping heinous and inhuman acts like rape and violence against women.

"Is there any guarantee that the rapists will be punished? Is there any guarantee that the state, society, family and politicians will stop pampering rapists? How will we check rape if the rapists are not given exemplary punishment and if they're given shelter by politicians, police and their families?" she questioned.

Farah criticised the Home Minister for his recent comment that 'rape incidents happen everywhere in the world', saying he made such a remark to avoid his responsibility and pamper the offenders.

"Playing a responsible role by all is necessary in addressing this serious menace. Where is our administration, the rule of law, morality, social, family and religious education? The assaulters have become so desperate that they themselves are posting videos of their heinous acts. How do they dare to do it? We must think of it and act fast to ensure the safety and dignity of women."

Ziaur Rahman said failure to contain sexual urge, rise in drug abuse and pornography, patriarchal attitude towards women, and very weak criminal justice system are the main reasons for which the violence against women is growing in the country.

"Our existing legal system is so week that only 3 percent criminals indulging in rape and other sexual violence are getting punished while 97 percent get off the hook in many ways," he observed.

In Bangladesh, he said, law enforcers have a history of improper dealing of cases and clearing offenders through underhand dealings. More worrying is that rape cases filed with police stations across the country are much too low, Ziaur Rahman added.

Seeking the right reforms

Against this backdrop, the UN this week came out with a strong recommendation for urgent reform of the criminal justice system to support and protect victims and witnesses, and to speed up the slow trial process expressing 'serious concerns' over the increasing violence against women in Bangladesh.

"United Nations (UN) expresses serious concerns over the increasing violence against women in Bangladesh. These are heinous crimes and grave violations of human rights. One rape is one too many," said the UN in a statement on Wednesday in the wake of the recent rape cases.

The 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, said the UN through its Bangladesh office. UN Resident Coordinator in Dhaka Mia Seppo tweeted with the statement.

"While UN stands with the public and civil society groups in calling for justice, we recognize that these are not isolated incidents. We promote a systematic approach to strengthen protection of women's rights," the statement reads.

The UN said they stand ready to support the government to undertake a comprehensive review of the handling of rape cases and violence against women and children, to improve and create a gender-responsive justice system. Further, the UN said, there must be transparency and accountability in reporting on how the numerous laws and actions plans to protect women and girls are being implemented.

The UN continues to work hand in hand with all partners to reinforce a systematic approach to address gender discriminatory social norms and toxic masculinity through prevention programmes and build a society where women and girls are free, safe and can thrive.

"Global statistics are alarming. They affirm that violence against women is the most pervasive, yet least punished, of all crimes. This must stop," said the UN.

Previously the UN has acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked "a pandemic within a pandemic" of gender-based violence and discrimination against women that requires urgent action. As countries imposed lockdowns to fight the health pandemic, the world saw "dramatic increases in cases of domestic violence, including violence by intimate partners, sexual violence and femicide," seven UN experts said in a joint statement in July.

The rates of intimate partner violence (IPV) are high in Bangladesh, with 1 in 2 women aged 15 or over who have ever been married reporting that they have endured physical and/or sexual violence during their lives, and 1 in 4 reporting such violence in the past 12 months (BBS, 2016).

According to the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based development think tank, the prevalence of IPV remains commonplace in Bangladesh "despite the extensive legal framework that is in place...and numerous non-governmental programmes and women's activist organisations that focus on IPV." By far one of the biggest obstacles to justice is the fact that the overwhelming cases of IPV, justr like other forms of sexual violence including rape, go unreported. And in such a situation it becomes difficult to seek the remedy through the judicial system, despite what the experts say.

While attention must be given towards bringing the cases that are reported to justice, there is also a need for more holistic solutions that are channeled through social and cultural settings. Engaging with men and boys to better tailor programme interventions by identifying entry-points where different groups of men and boys are most likely to be receptive to messaging - including religious institutions (e.g. mosques), schools, youth groups, cafes and sports, is essential. This could also be achieved by influencing curricula development, and working with role models of positive and progressive masculinities, including celebrities or progressive religious leaders.

That makes the increased tendency that has been noted during the current protests of a number of male and female role models and celebrities to speak out against rape an encouraging sign. Although a case could also be made that not enough of them are male. Shakib Al Hasan and Mushfiqur Rahim were the most notable ones.

Interventions also need to be designed to allow for better socialisation patterns for men and women. The sheer range of violent crimes being committed against women suggest a process of dehumanisation that men seem to take advantage of, by way of having evolved as physically stronger creatures. As proposed in our editorial last week, we must turn our attention to measures that aim to instil more deep-rooted change, such as coeducation in the state schooling system. That can help to break down the boundaries between the two sexes from a very young age.

Instead, as we file this story, the news has come in of yet another simplistic, knee-jerk reaction from the government that is unlikely to achieve anything: it is going to amend the law so that the highest punishment for rape is the death penalty and not just life imprisonment. A proposal for amending the Nari O Shishu Nirjatan Daman Ain (Women and Children Repression Prevention Act) to this effect will apparently be placed before the cabinet as early as next week, according to Law Minister Anisul Huq. If that is as far as we are able to go this time, we can rest assured that there will have to be a next time.

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