2020 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence

As representatives of the international community in Dhaka, we are deeply moved by the October demonstrations calling for an end to rape in Bangladesh. While this is a serious issue worldwide, with no nation immune, the groundswell of people from all walks of society demanding justice for rape survivors and meaningful action to combat sexual violence and to support survivors sends a strong and determined signal to the world that impunity for sexual assault perpetrators in Bangladesh must end.

According to some estimates, the conviction rate for rape in Bangladesh is below one percent. The 10 Action Points plan, developed in a national dialogue during last year's 16 Day of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign, is an excellent starting point in our fight to end gender-based violence.

While these latest protests were triggered by a particularly egregious incident, they also reflect growing concern over the rising numbers of gender-based violence against women and girls during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2019, UN Women reported 243 million women and girls (aged 15-49) across the world were subjected to sexual or physical violence by an intimate partner. As the pandemic took hold here in Bangladesh, BRAC documented a nearly 70 percent increase in reported incidents of violence against women and girls in March and April 2020 compared to the same time last year. The Manusher Jonno Foundation canvassed female and children respondents across the country between April - July, with 20-40 percent of survey respondents reporting having experienced physical and/or mental violence for the first time. Even before COVID-19, accountability for sexual assault in Bangladesh was lacking. A 2013 UN multi-country survey found that among men in Bangladesh who admitted to committing rape, 88 percent of rural respondents and 95 percent of urban respondents said they had faced no legal consequences.

The reported increase in violence against women during COVID-19 is not exclusive to Bangladesh. It reflects global trends. UN Women reports that the number of women and girls subjected to sexual and/or physical violence would likely increase during the pandemic as security, health, and money concerns heighten tensions at home.

Eradicating the scourge of rape requires a whole-of-society effort, men and women, activists, and other citizens alike. That dialogue led by the UN and the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs brought together more than 250 government and civil society experts, academics, development partners, and survivor advocates to discuss the root causes of sexual violence and measures to stop it. This national dialogue developed the 10 Action Points.

The set of 10 Action Points is a meaningful and thoughtful plan. These Points call attention to discriminatory laws that discourage rape survivors from reporting incidents of rape, advocates for the amendment of character evidence provisions, and keeps a survivor-centered approach when developing intervention responses. We continue to support its full implementation and re-emphasize the need to establish a human rights- and survivor-centered, inclusive and multi-sector coordination plan to respond to sexual violence, including health, legal, livelihood, and psychosocial support.

As emphasized in the 10 Action Points, discriminatory laws need to be amended and existing sexual violence legislation and policies improved. Bangladesh legal experts and human rights advocates have observed that various definitions of sexual offenses in Bangladesh's current penal codes are both antiquated and overly narrow in scope. For example, there is no legal framework to discuss gender-based violence against men and boys since, according to current legal definitions of rape, men cannot be raped. We consider this a massive legal loophole and call greater attention to this issue.

The lack of a witness protection system, and challenges with the judicial process in prosecuting gender-based violence remain the biggest barriers to justice for sexual assault survivors. We encourage the Government of Bangladesh to build judicial and law enforcement agencies' capacity to deliver justice for survivors, including prompt investigations, trials, and proportionate punishments.

To bring real reform and eliminate rape, men and boys must be engaged more prominently on this issue. We must engage both men and women. For far too long, rape has been categorized as an isolated crime. We must begin to view sexual violence through a gender lens, one that situates rape as an extreme version of inequality on a fuller spectrum of gender stereotypes. Gender stereotypes and discrimination are the leading causes of gender-based violence, and the violence itself reinforces discriminatory attitudes, creating a vicious cycle.

Actions to stop rape must begin at home as parents show and teach their children they are equally loved and respected, boys and girls alike.

These actions, in turn, engender greater respect for all people, both men and women. Patterns of victim blaming and the normalization of violence can both be addressed by transforming social norms and the way women and men think and behave. Sexual violence cannot be blamed on the survivor.

Finally, as Bangladesh prepares to graduate from Least Developed Country status in 2024, we believe it behooves Bangladeshis to consider how rape and other gender-based violence limits women's full economic potential, as well as their equal standing in society. Gender-based violence incidents incur medical costs and takes a mental toll on survivors, limiting women's full participation in the workforce and preventing Bangladesh from reaching its highest growth.

Gender-based violence is an urgent issue that requires us all to immediately act, globally and locally. As members of the international and development community, we remain committed to partnering with Bangladesh at all levels in developing a strong response to combat sexual and gender-based violence and supporting Bangladesh to achieve its complete social and economic aspirations.

Jointly written by Earl Robert Miller, U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh, Robert Chatterton Dickson, British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Harry Verweij, Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Bangladesh, Jean-Marin Schuh, Ambassador of France to Bangladesh, Alexandra Berg von Linde, Ambassador of Sweden to Bangladesh, Espen Rikter-Svendsen, Ambassador of Norway to Bangladesh, Winnie Estrup Petersen, Danish Ambassador to Bangladesh, Benoit Préfontaine, High Commissioner of Canada to Bangladesh, Nathalie Chuard, Ambassador of Switzerland to Bangladesh, Simon Flores, Acting Australian High Commissioner to Bangladesh and Rensje Teerink, Ambassador/Head of EU Delegation to Bangladesh.

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