Women’s Safety: Ghosts on the Prowl

Mahfuzur Rahman
Thursday, January 26th, 2012


A husband in Narsingdi cuts off wife's fingers because she pursued college study without his permission. Photo: Internet

Though Bangladesh is making all-out efforts to emerge as a middle-income country with marked economic growth in recent years, the safety of its residents remains a concern, especially its women. The majority of women in the country do not feel safe while moving on the streets alone as they have to grapple with various problems. Lewd comments, molestation, sexual harassment and even rape have become common.

 

Like many women, Sanjida Akhter (not her real name) has experienced her fair share of harassment, even assault. “We just bury our bitter experiences. We cannot speak about…we don’t have the confidence or the ability to register protest. Even we have to escort our young daughters on their way to school and back home.”

 

According to Odhikar’s 2010 Human Rights Report, crimes against both women and children are at an all-time high in the country. Safety and security of women in moving from one place to another is a right, but unfortunately that has become much riskier in Bangladesh due to deteriorating law and order. Acts of violence occur more in rural areas than they do in urban areas.

 

“Fewer than half of married women in Bangladesh and Pakistan feel safe moving alone outside their villages or settlements, even during the day,” says a World Bank survey conducted during 2006-2008. Lack of security is one of the reasons why girls drop out of school after puberty and especially when secondary schools are located a long walk away, is the fear of violence en route. There are more women joining the labour force in the dynamic service sector in big cities. But the challenges still remain huge.

 

Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based rights watchdog, in its World Report 2012 observed that violence against women, including rape, dowry-related assaults, acid attacks and sexual harassment, continues in Bangladesh for lack of proper preventive measures.

 

“The government’s inaptitude in handling the situation, corrupt practices in police department, judiciary and all the rest of the factors joined together to give rise to such a morbid situation in the country. I think this should be enough to open the eyes of the relevant authorities to get down to work,” says Barrister Ahsan Habib who practices law in London.

 

Yasmin Murder

 

The murder of 18-year-old Yasmin on August 24, 1995 could be recalled as a case in point. A maid in capital Dhaka, Yasmin was her on way to her mother’s house in Dinajpur. It was quite late at night when she reached Dinajpur town and missed the last local bus. As she was looking around for help, a group of policemen came forward and assured her of dropping her home safely. But they took her to a desolated spot, where they raped and killed her. They left her body alongside a road only to be found the next morning.

 

The incident in the northern town of Dinajpur had triggered angry protests across the country by women and human rights groups, forcing the authorities to arrest the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

 

On August 31, 1997, a Rangpur judge sentenced the three men to death by hanging. But their executions were delayed because they had appealed to the High Court against the verdict, and petitioned the president for mercy.

 

“Yasmin Akhter’s case represents one of the most shameful moments in Bangladesh’s history. The public protests ignited by Yasmin’s rape and murder made her a symbol of violence against women, of the violence of the powerful perpetrated on the powerless. But at the same time, public protest and women’s movement in reaction to Yasmin’s murder also became a means of social resistance to such violence,” wrote a writer at that time.

 

Badhan Case

 

On the night of December 31, 1999, a group of 10-12 youths molested Shawan Akhter Badhan and almost stripped her at Milon Chattar on the premises of Teachers and Students Centre (TSC) where she had gone for millennium celebrations along with her three friends who were also assaulted and driven out from the scene. After being informed by the victim’s friends, police rushed in and rescued her from the hands of the unruly youths.

 

As the incident sent a wave of shock across the country, police forced Badhan to file a criminal case against the perpetrators who were identified in the photographs published in different national dailies the following day. On January 6, 2000, Badhan filed a case with Ramna police station and identified the three accused from newspaper photographs.

 

Police arrested eight people in this connection and the investigation officer, inspector Rezaul Karim of the detective branch, submitted a charge-sheet on May 14, 2000 against two outsiders —Tutul, Chandan and Rassel, discharging six others. But unfortunately all the accused in Badhan molestation case were acquitted.

 

We often forget to ask what gives a man the licence to harass, molest or rape a woman no matter where she has gone and when, and how she was dressed. The question is not about time and place, not even the dress. It is in fact about a deep-rooted mentality that runs into many centuries of an extremely sexually repressed society.

 

Female Garment Workers

 

There are reasons for the women living in a male-dominated society to be worried about their safety while walking to work and returning home at night. This is of more concern for those working in the country’s garment factories because they are largely unprotected. More worrying is that these women are often treated as prostitutes and exploited in many ways both by their employers and their landlords. Having a safe shelter is not an easy task for them because ghosts are always on prowl.

 

Foreigner’s Experience

 

After spending a few months in the capital, a female foreigner came up with a slew of suggestions for women to move in Dhaka alone. Here are her suggestions:

 

Females should not travel alone in Dhaka around at night by rickshaw, after 9-10pm. If they must travel, it is best to go in groups.

 

Be vigilant while travelling/walking and be aware of your surroundings. An alert-looking person, whose head is up and is watching the environment around them, presents less of a target than someone who is lost in their own world.

 

Bags should be kept off the shoulder, so that if a bag snatching does occur, there is no risk of being dragged, which has actually caused the more serious injuries in these incidences. A common myth is that poverty spawns these crimes, but in reality bag snatching crimes are often committed by people with vehicles, which people in poverty cannot afford. It is theorised that it is actually young men, some of whom may be addicted to drugs, who commit these crimes and have the means to do so.

 

If travelling out of the city at night, it is best not to accept food or drinks from strangers at train stations or bus stands, unless you see the drink being made or the food being prepared. In a recent theft, we heard of a drugging that knocked a single female unconscious. It would be a mistake to proclaim that all hospitality offered by strangers is malicious, especially in Bangladesh. But, by being aware of where food or drink comes from, you can protect yourself.

 

Expectation

 

Safety of women is a big issue even in developed countries. The difference is that they hardly hesitate to swing into action well before things start spinning out of control. But that does not happen here. In Bangladesh, it is the non-enforcement of laws that puts women at risk. It is the inaptitude of the authorities that reinforces women’s lack of mobility both socially and physically, and often makes them powerless to determine their course in life. Laws are passed here to protect the rights of individuals, but cultural practices and traditions limit the safety of women. We will feel safe only when we see more women on the street walking, cycling and experiencing city spaces without hazards.

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