When will our legal system stop failing victims of rape?
Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated and impoverished countries in the world with some of the highest levels of rape in the world, and most rapes are committed by groups of men.
In the most extreme cases, rape leads to murder. Most rapists go unpunished or are rarely investigated, lending them impunity to commit their crimes again.
Recently, at least 47 children were either raped or subjected to attempted rape and sexual harassment in the last 15 days before April 2. According to the statistics provided by Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), at least 189 women were raped across the country in the first three months of this year alone.
Three years ago, a girl named Jahan Tonu was raped and murdered, and no initiatives were taken by the authorities. This incident led to outrage across the country -- numerous rallies and protests were held demanding punishment of the killers. However, no one was arrested.
This year, an 18-year-old girl named Nusrat Jahan Rafi was set on fire by a group of four unidentified persons. They poured kerosene on her, allegedly because she refused to withdraw a case against the principal of Sonagazi Islamia Senior Fazil Madrasa for sexual harassment.
There had been reported allegations against Sonagazi Madrasa Principal Siraj Ud Doula of sexual assault on female students, but the governing body of the institution did not take any actions against him.
The High Court Division iterated that, if the governing body acted at the right time, Nusrat Jahan Rafi would not have faced such a cruel fate.
Although the offenders have been taken into remand, it is highly likely that they will be able to find a loophole in the system and will be released on bail.
The suspects have previous criminal records and yet they always get out on bail.
Section 375 of penal code (Act XLV of 1860) states that a man is said to commit “rape” who has sexual intercourse with a woman under circumstances falling under any of the five following descriptions:
• Against her will
• Without her consent
• With her consent, which has been obtained by putting her in fear of death, or of implied harm
• With her consent, when the man knows that he is not her spouse and that her consent is given because she believes that he is another man to whom she is or believes herself to be lawfully married
• With or without her consent, when she is under 14 years of age
According to section 376 of penal code 1860, punishment for rape is imprisonment for life or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 10 years and shall also be liable to fine.
It is evident that the state of our law and order has deteriorated significantly. However, amidst all this, a ray of hope exists as a circular was passed by the Supreme Court recently as per section 22 of the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act 2000 -- which states that only female magistrates would record the statements of female and child victims who suffered rape or any sort of sexual harassment, to ensure fair investigation, procedure, and justice.
Victims hesitate to narrate traumatic incidents of rape or sexual assault before male magistrates and their testimony is essential evidence when it comes to rape or sexual harassment. Victims do not speak out of shame or due to fear of humiliation. Some are even pressured by their communities to not tarnish their family’s honour.
How many teenage girls, children, and women are going to have to pay by giving up their lives for the system to realize the depth of such a hideous crime like rape? In Saudi Arabia, the convict is sedated and beheaded in public within five days of trial. In Iran, the punishment for rape is the death penalty. The same goes for China.
Our culture of rape portrays men as powerless against their violent sexual urges. It directs women to police their behaviour and clothing to avoid being the centre of attention.
No one should have to live like this, and it is time that we as a society shed such backwards cultures.
Maisha Maliha is a lawyer at Bangladesh Environmental Lawyer’s Association (BELA).