Despite robust legislation already in place in the country to safeguard rape survivors and ensuring justice for them, the ground realities are very different - of long, drawn-out struggle and ultimately injustice. What they are left with is the unbearable aftermath of rape for those who survive it: character assassination by society, no chance of justice, financial crisis, psychological trauma, social ostracisation and so on.

Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), the advocacy group with a focus on women's rights, recently analysed 25 rape cases, filed between 2012 and 2017, to shine a light on the situation. The findings were disclosed at a press conference on December 31.

MJF found that the accused in all of the cases had managed to secure bail within a maximum of 15 days of their arrest by the law enforcement agencies. Though police submitted charge sheets against them within six months in 22 cases, no verdict has been delivered in 21 of the cases yet as not much progress was made regarding trial proceedings.

Dates of hearing were scheduled from 8 to 23 times in 20 of the cases, where the charge sheet was submitted. The medico-legal test of one case has not been done yet.

MJF found that hearings of these cases had been postponed due to the non-appearance of most of the witnesses. Parents of the rape survivors are frustrated and do not want to go to court. Poor parents are reluctant to sue due to financial hardship.

Of the 25 incidents of rape, two rape survivors who gave birth to two children were physically challenged. The government is yet to identify the rapists or take any steps to provide the children's alimony.

MJF said two of the accused were never arrested as they had strong political support. On the other hand, at least eight of the accused either threatened the rape survivors and their families to withdraw the cases or threatened witnesses in the cases. In six cases, family members faced tremendous pressure from influential quarters of society for out of court settlement. Two cases are currently stalled in court.

Due to the delay in investigations, the investigation reports are not being submitted within the time limit of 90 days. Besides, the public prosecutor did not take any initiative to produce rape survivors and witnesses in court on the dates of the cases.

After observing the legal and trial process of the 25 cases, MJF also noticed that all rape survivors were blamed by society.

There were instances where rape survivors had to face misbehaviour from lawyers. They were cornered by being asked abusive questions and subjected to character assassination in the courtroom by lawyers.

Of these 25 cases, two cases are inactive and the documents of four cases are not available.

Victim-blaming harms court case

MJF Executive Director Shaheen Anam said that the country needed to stop the culture of victim-blaming first.

"Women and children will not get a safe country until we make a positive change to our mindset first," she said, adding in the legal process, the main focus should be providing rape survivors with accurate justice as soon as possible.

Speaking at the conference, Advocate Elina Khan drew attention to the shortage of judges at the courts where rape cases were being tried.

She said that there were no 24-hour forensic lab facilities in the country, which were necessary to provide prompt support as delay in forensic tests distorts evidence.

She said that district headquarters did not have DNA testing facilities at hospitals to examine the age of the victims as well as the accused persons, which often benefited the accused during the trial.

The MJF placed a set of demands at the press conference, including reforming rape laws, enacting witness protection laws, completing investigations and trials in a timely manner, instituting strong monitoring to ensure legal provisions are properly followed, and taking swift action against those responsible or compromising rape cases.

It also suggested amending relevant laws to ensure persons with language and hearing and intellectual disabilities could testify in rape cases. Another demand was that making any errors in the medical report should be regarded as a punishable offence.

Rape and violence against women were more frequent in 2020 than in the previous years, rights body Ain O Salish Kendra reported on the last day of 2020 - not quite the news you want to start a new year with.

It mentioned that incidents of gang rape, murder after rape, sexual harassment and domestic violence all witnessed disturbing spikes.

At least 1,627 women were raped or gang raped across the country, of whom 53 were killed after rape and 14 died by suicide. The number of rape victims was 1,413 in 2019 and 732 in 2018, ASK mentioned in its annual report.

The numbers are based on reported cases in the media, and so it can be readily assumed that the real numbers are much higher. Interestingly ASK also reported a total of 160 rape incidents were reported till December 31 from October 13 - a day after the government had approved the death penalty as the highest punishment for rape.

From bad to worse

Some people were surprised to learn just how things have deteriorated for women even during the pandemic and its associated lockdown, but even before ASK released their numbers at the end of the year, Bangladeshis, we dare say have been frequently disturbed throughout 2020 by worrisome trends reported by credible organisations who have practically nothing to gain from portraying Bangladesh society in a poor light.

Women and girls in Bangladesh are facing increased domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic, highlighting long-term systemic barriers to legal recourse, protection, and social services, Human Rights Watch said in a report released in October, when the entire country was being roiled by the issue. The release of the report was meant to coincide with the country entering the final phase of a national plan to build "a society without violence against women and children by 2025."

In spite of this goal, Bangladeshi women and girls face endemic violence in all facets of their lives. As one women's rights lawyer said in the report, "Society thinks domestic violence is silly violence, that it's something that normally just happens in the family."

The 65-page HRW report, "'I Sleep in My Own Deathbed': Violence against Women and Girls in Bangladesh," draws on 50 interviews to document the obstacles to realizing the government's goal of a society without violence against women and children. Human Rights Watch found that despite some important advances, the government response remains deeply inadequate, barriers to reporting assault or seeking legal recourse are frequently insurmountable, and services for survivors are in short supply.

"The uptick in violence against women and girls during the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as recent protests against sexual violence, are a bellwether to the Bangladesh government that urgent structural reform is needed," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government should take concrete action by creating accessible shelters across the country, ensuring access to legal aid, and removing obstacles to reporting violence and obtaining justice."

Human Rights Watch interviewed 29 women from six of the eight divisions of Bangladesh who were survivors of gender-based violence, including acid attacks. The government has made addressing acid violence a priority, but these cases shed light on the underlying systemic barriers that still prevent even these survivors from gaining legal recourse and protection. We additionally reviewed case files and interviewed women's rights activists, lawyers, and academics working on acid violence, violence against women and girls, and legal reform in Bangladesh.

Most women and girls in Bangladesh are affected by some form of gender-based violence. According to a 2015 Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics survey, over 70 percent of married women or girls have faced some form of intimate partner abuse. About half said their partners physically assaulted them, and yet the majority said they never told anyone and fewer than 3 percent took legal action. At least 235 women were reportedly murdered by their husband or his family in just the first nine months of 2020, according to media reports collated by Ain o Salish Kendra

Bangladesh also marked the anniversaries of two landmark pieces of legislation on gender-based violence: the Nari-o-Shishu Nirjatan Daman Ain (Women and Children Repression Prevention Act), 2000 and Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act, 2010. But Human Rights Watch found that women and girls often cannot seek meaningful legal remedy under these laws, and abusers are rarely held to account. According to the Multi-Sectoral Programme on Violence Against Women, of the over 11,000 women who filed legal cases through one of the government's nine One-Stop Crisis Centers for women and girls, only 160 resulted in conviction - about 1 percent.

It is in the context of that 1 percent conviction rate that we need to view the government's simplistic, knee-jerk reaction last October, to bring in the death penalty for rape. You really don't even need a lawyer to tell you it's a bad decision, not only because capital punishment is inherently inhumane and should be abolished, but because it is not a real solution to sexual violence. There is no conclusive evidence that it curbs any crime, including rape, and it could end up deterring reporting or even encouraging rapists to murder their victims to reduce the likelihood of arrest.

The easy way out

Bringing in the death penalty is easy. What takes work - and is urgently needed - is to overhaul a justice system in which survivors are systematically ignored and maligned, and to ensure they have access to health services and legal support. Sexual assault crimes are underreported, but even when survivors take the brave step of reporting the crime, their cases are rarely properly investigated or prosecuted. In Bangladesh, the low conviction rate for rape gives rapists every reason to be confident that they will get away with their crimes.

Earlier in 2020, the High Court ordered the Law Ministry to form a commission within 30 days to address the troubling rise of sexual violence. Over 9 months later, the commission still hasn't been created. Activists are also calling on the government to pass a witness protection law which the Law Commission first drafted almost 15 years ago. Women's groups helped draft a sexual harassment law years ago, but this too hasn't moved forward.

The Rape Law Reform Coalition - which brings together many women's rights groups, and explicitly opposes the death penalty for rape - drafted a 10-point to-do list that the Bangladesh government could start on today. This includes changing the definition of rape to include all victims, regardless of gender identity or marital status, prohibiting the use of character evidence in rape trials, training police and court officials on sexual and gender-based violence, and providing sexuality education to all children.

The real question is whether the government will keep taking refuge in a legislative move with no practical consequence, or will it finally get serious about beginning the process of real reform.

Legal recourse

Women's rights lawyers say that the police often refuse to file a report or simply leave a case in open investigation for years. Often when a woman or girl reports an assault to the police, they demand that she describe the abuse over and over again to multiple officers, risking re-traumatization and encouraging survivors to give up on seeking justice.

Compounding this problem is the fact that with a backlog of some 3.7 million cases, trials are often delayed or drawn out for years. The financial and emotional toll of continuing in courts, combined with fear of, or threats from, abusers without any witness protection law or measures, means survivors are often pressured to negotiate out of court for a resolution that does not adequately reflect the harm they suffered.

Public prosecutors are poorly trained, often not invested in the job, and at times corrupt. A lawyer who had worked as a court observer said that when she was in the court, she observed instances in which the abuser's family handed money directly to the public prosecutor as a bribe to lose the case. "It's an open secret," she said.

In Bangladesh, women seldom have proper access to information and legal counsel, leaving them particularly vulnerable to such corruption and abuse. Obtaining legal assistance is particularly hard for women who are financially dependent upon a husband - who may be her abuser.

The government needs to take seriously its obligations under international law, its own constitution, and domestic laws to prevent, investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible for violence against girls and women and assist survivors, Human Rights Watch said. This includes effectively weeding out the incompetence and corruption endemic throughout the criminal justice system.

The authorities should also undertake serious prevention efforts, such as comprehensive education and awareness raising campaigns, and provide accessible services, such as psychosocial support, safe shelter, and legal assistance.

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