Human rights groups and NGOs are calling for more action to be taken to prevent a spate of abductions and rapes of women who have reportedly been forced to convert to Islam as part of a “carefully-planned” strategy to reduce support for victims from their communities after the crime is perpetrated.
Prima (not her real name), a sixth grader from Gazipur’s Tongi area, was abducted on her way back from school on April 6 this year.
Law enforcers found her 55 days later at a hotel in Cox’s Bazaar. She had been raped repeatedly by some boys from her locality during the period. She was forced to convert her religion from Hinduism to Islam and marry one of the perpetrators, Rabiul Hossein Manik.
Experts say Prima’s traumatic experience was not an isolated case, but part of a new phenomenon where men kidnap and marry 10 to 16-year-old girls from minority communities by forcing them to sign declarations that they are adults and wish to convert to Islam.
Experts have termed the forced changes of religion as a “carefully-planned” step designed to ensure that the victims do not receive support of their communities and to leave scope for the criminals to get away without punishment.
“It is only natural that the perpetrators of such crime would want to ensure that the victim cannot go back to her community or get its support, so they have devised this strategy and by forcing her to change her religion, they effectively ensure the victim cannot escape and go back and that no steps are taken by her community to free her and take her back,” Advocate Salma Ali, executive director of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association, explained to the Dhaka Tribune on Wednesday.
However, there is no sign of concrete steps being taken by the government or social organisations to curb these attacks or to rehabilitate the victims.
The distress of the victims is evident in a letter sent by Kakoli Haider (not her real name) to her father. The 13-year-old was asleep in her bed when five Muslim men invaded and vandalised their home a year ago. She screamed and fought back only to be easily overpowered by the criminals, who took her away.
Three months later, she communicated with her parents through a letter to her father in which she said she felt like dying as the criminals had forced her to convert to Islam and one of them had married her in a ruse to "legalise" their crime.
Ranu Saha (not her real name), a 16-year-old Hindu girl, was also victimised in a similar incident last year. She was abducted from where she was staying with her brother in Patuakhali’s Bauphal area and was similarly forced to convert by the criminals.
In recent years, the alarming rate of increase in violence against women has forced the government to enact stringent measures via the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act 2002 (amended 2003), Acid Control Act 2002 and Domestic Violence (Prevention & Protection) Act 2010.
However experts feel that the situation has barely improved and are calling for the government to put more effort in training law enforcers to deal with these types of crimes.
“We can never overstate the relevance of legislation for control of crime and violence. However, on its own, legislation will have no bearing if it is not enforced,” Action Aid Bangladesh Country Director Farah Kabir said in her reaction to the attack on Prima.
She pointed out that law enforcers initially refuse to accept kidnapping charges in such incidents and try to tag such crimes as love affairs. They overlook the issue of forced conversion which is “very unfortunate.”
Bangladesh Mohila Parishad President Ayesha Khanam said enacting more laws would not address the problem. “We, therefore, need to identify the root causes first and then formulate a better strategy to overcome the problem.”
When questioned about why the parishad has not taken any steps yet, Ayesha said, “We are trying to observe the situation. We will take effective steps.”
State Minister of Women Affairs Meher Afroz Chumky said gender sensitisation and issues of women's rights and equality should be included in the present education system. She added that the media could play an important role in creating awareness and in calling on law enforcers to properly attend to the victims. “We will communicate with the home ministry to solve these problems.”