Sexual harassment has become a major cause for concern in Bangladesh, with an alarming rise in reports of women and girls being sexually harassed in public places – sometimes in broad daylight. In the first instalment of a four-part series on sexual harassment, the Dhaka Tribune looks into what female commuters put up to when travelling on public buses
Victims of sexual harassment on buses continue to suffer as the painstakingly slow trial process and case backlog at courts delay justice.
Few incidents are reported and very few alleged offenders have been detained.
Those who have defied the fear of social stigma and hassles and courageously filed cases are losing hope as trial proceedings drag on.
For example, a Dhaka University student who was sexually harassed on a moving bus in December 2015 by the driver’s assistant while coming to campus from Manikganj filed a case over the incident, but the trial has yet to begin.
“The last thing I know about the case is that Mamun (the offender) was released on bail after three months in jail. He has fled,” the victim said, adding that she doubted she would get justice.
In the charge sheet, police said the victim’s version was accurate and named 11 witnesses. But the court could not start the trial proceedings as none of the witnesses came to testify.
Dhaka’s Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal 5 has so far fixed 11 dates for recording witness depositions. It had to issue non-bailable warrants against the witnesses and sent them to Darussalam police station.
May 28 has been fixed as the date of the next hearing.
Brac, in a recent study, found that 94% of women using public transport in Bangladesh have experienced sexual harassment in verbal, physical, or other forms.
Lax implementation of laws, overcrowding, and lack of monitoring are behind sexual harassment on roads and public transport, especially on buses.
A total of 415 women from Gazipur, Dhaka, and Savar’s Birulia participated in the study. They commute by public transport and on foot to their workplaces and other destinations.
Asked why most victims did not report incidents of sexual harassment to the police, human rights activist and lawyer Salma Ali said lack of awareness and sense of insecurity were major factors.
“Many families teach their girls not to engage in trouble. A victim will only get the courage to protest and go to the police when she sees that the family, police, lawyers, and society are standing beside her. Everyone must stand with victims,” she said.
The lawyer said that recently victims at least raised their voices on social media. This helped apprehend culprits: “That’s a good sign. Everybody should stand together. Otherwise, your family members can one day become victims too.”
The latest incident of sexual assault that created a storm of criticism on social media was the harassment of a private university student on a bus in Dhaka. The victim had gotten on a bus of Turag Paribahan from Badda to go to her university.
When other passengers got off at Natun Bazar, three staffers of the bus started to sexually assault her. At one stage, she jumped off the bus to save herself.
The three offenders were arrested after the victim’s fellow students staged a protest by stopping around 35 buses of same company and took them to their campus.
Nearly two weeks ago, a student of Bangladesh Leather Technology Institute raised a similar allegation on Facebook against the staff of Labbayek Paribahan in Dhaka. About a month ago, police arrested two staff members of another local bus after a student of Eden Mohila College posted about a similar incident on Facebook.
The Dhaka University student, who was harassed in 2015, said that she had fought back, but many women do not that.
“My incident was widely discussed. It was discussed in talk-shows and seminars and newspapers had covered it. After seeing those, my neighbours in the village started asking my parents if I was raped…and how they would marry me off in future,” she said.
They had to convince them that their girl was harassed, not raped.
“People do not know about the fight these girls have to wage against society and at court when the dust settles,” she said.