Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua said enacting laws, alone, will not stop sexual harassment
The High Court's order for educational institutes and workplaces to adopt guidelines—asking the authorities concerned to form committees against sexual abuse—has been neglected.
Experts and rights activists are disappointed with the development, saying that the guidelines could reduce incidents of rape and sexual exploitation if followed properly.
The guidelines, issued on May 14, 2009, are supposed to be followed as the highest legal provision — until adequate and effective legislation is prepared and enacted to address sexual harassment at workplaces and educational institutions.
Ineffective implementation of the court order, for the last decade, has led to an increase in rape and other forms of sexual abuse.
Rise in rape, sexual harassment
A glimpse at estimates on rape and incidents of sexual harassment—over the last three months—is on an upward trend.
According to police headquarters, at least 1,139 women and children were subjected to physical and sexual harassment.
Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (BASF) recorded 164 cases of child rape and 10 cases of gang rape over the same period, which is higher than the figure recorded a year ago.
The BSAF also found: eight cases of attempted rape, three cases of “eve-teasing,” four physical assaults, 27 incidents of sexual harassment, 12 murders after rape, and four suicides after rape.
The death of Feni madrasa student Nusrat Jahan Rafi—after she was set on fire for protesting sexual abuse by her principal—is among the most high profile of recent incidents.
Experts, activists disappointed
On April 23 this year, the Bangladesh Woman Lawyers Association (BWNLA) sent a letter to the register general of the Supreme Court, attorney general, and Supreme Court Bar Association, asking for the recipients to ensure committees to prevent sexual harassment are formulated.
Fowzia Karim Firoze, president of the BWNLA, said almost 10 years had passed since the guidelines were adopted, but nobody seems too concerned about it.
“Although the Women and Children Affairs Ministry sent a notification to the offices concerned in this regard, there is hardly a sign that the High Court order has been followed, as yet,” she said.
Fowzia added that only a handful of committees have been formed at universities.
“However, we are not even sure whether they are operational,” she said, confirming that not a single such committee was formulated at workplaces.
Fowzia is among writ petitioners whose appeal led the High Court to issue the guidelines 10 years ago.
Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua, an apex court lawyer, said enacting laws, alone, is insufficient to stop rape and sexual harassment.
“A change in our mindset towards women and children is crucial to stopping the criminal acts,” Jyotirmoy said — adding that social stigma and discrimination against women must be wiped out.
Dr Abul Hossain, project director of the Multi-Sectoral Program on Violence against Women—under the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs—said the ministry issued a letter to District Commissioner's offices all over the country, asking the offices to take necessary action after the High Court issued the guidelines. “We adopted an action plan to prevent sexual violence against women in 2018. Recently, meetings were held at the ministry with the officers concerned, to implement the action plan.”
On April 18, after countrywide protests over Nusrat’s death, the Directorate of the Secondary and Higher Education issued a circular asking all nationwide educational institutes to form sexual abuse resistance committees.
It also ordered necessary action be taken against people accused of sexual abuse at educational institutes.
What the guidelines say
According to the High Court guidelines, complaint committees should have a minimum of five members, the majority of whom should be women. The head of the complaint committee should also be a woman, if possible. Furthermore, the committee should have two members—from outside the organization concerned—preferably from organizations working on gender issues and sexual abuse.
The guidelines define sexual harassment as unwelcome sexually-determined behavior—whether direct or implied—such as: physical contact and advances; attempts to establish a physical or sexual relationship through abuse of administrative, authoritative or professional powers; demands or requests for sexual favours; sexually-coloured remarks or indecent gestures; stalking; taking photos or video for the purpose of blackmail; attempting to establish a sexual relationship by intimidation, deception or false assurances; among others.
The authority concerned may temporarily suspend the person accused of sexual harassment if the accused is not a student. In the case of the accused being a student, the authority may prevent them from attending classes — on receipt of the recommendation of the complaint committee. If the accused is found to be guilty of sexual harassment, the authority concerned will treat it as misconduct and take proper action as per the disciplinary rules of the organization or educational institution within 30 days. The matter must also be referred to the appropriate court or tribunal if the act constitutes an offense under penal law.