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The light at the end of the violence

  • Published at 08:08 pm September 5th, 2019
Photo: MEHEDI HASAN
Photo: MEHEDI HASAN

Domestic violence remains an issue irrespective of socio-economic status in Bangladesh

After a weeks’ absence, Nazma entered the house with a lacklustre expression spread across her normally cheerful demeanour, the slack of her sari pulled low over her face. When questioned about her absence, while hesitant at first, she later revealed that she had been repeatedly threatened, forced to have sexual intercourse, and had consequently suffered a miscarriage. 

A few weeks prior to Nazma’s revelation, I learned about a friend’s divorce from her long-standing abusive husband. While I was elated at the news that my friend was finally free from the reigns of domestic violence, she revealed how her divorce, instead of securing a life of freedom, had instead thrown her into a custody battle over her only child, and had caused further suffering as a result of constant physical threats from her ex-husband and family. 

When the fights became unbearable, my friend turned to both the police and her family, and received the same dire response: “These things happen in a marriage. Learn to compromise.”

Domestic violence remains an issue irrespective of socio-economic status in Bangladesh. 

I hear the same outcry for help from Nazma, whose spouse works as a rickshaw-puller, as I do from a friend, whose former spouse owns a thriving garments company in Bangladesh. This is an issue which holds no bias.

The current situation

Violence against women is one of most rampant human rights violations worldwide, and it is further exacerbated by unequal power dynamics between women and men, which are reinforced by inequalities under the law. According to UN Women, one in five adolescent girls in Bangladesh, between ages 15 to 19, reported experiencing sexual violence from a partner. 

Moreover, more than 80% of currently married women have experienced abuse at least once during their marriage, in most cases from individuals they knew and trusted. More than one in four women experience sexual or physical violence of some sort during their lifetime. In total, according to the “Violence Against Women Survey 2011,” a nationwide study conducted by the government, at least 87% of Bangladeshi women face domestic violence. 

A glimmer of hope

There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. Over the last few decades, the country has adopted several laws and policies meant to address violence against women and girls, such as the 2009 High Court Directive on Sexual Harassment, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act (DVPP) 2010, the Women and Child Repression Suppression Act, and the revision and launch of the National Action Plan on violence against women and children in November 2018. 

Bangladesh further experienced advancements made in terms of policy framework, with victories such as the High Court’s eradication of the degrading “two-finger test” for rape victims, and the more recent removal of the term “Kumari” (virgin) from column 5 of Bangladesh’s standardized Muslim marriage contract. 

In the third chapter of the DVPP Act of 2010, the duties and responsibilities of police officers, enforcement officers (EO), and service providers are detailed under Section 4, stating that if a “police officer obtains, by any means whatsoever, the information as to the commission of an act of domestic violence or becomes aware of such occurrence,” such an officer shall inform the survivor of her rights, “including the right to make an application for obtaining relief by way of any order under this Act,” of the availability of medical services, and of the services offered by the EO. 

The police officer must also inform the individual of her right to free legal help under the Legal Aid Services Act 2000, and her right to file a formal complaint under other existing laws. 

Bangladeshi women’s and human rights organizations, including Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), Mahila Parishad, Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association (BNWLA), and several other organizations actively provide different forms of assistance (legal aid, mediation, halfway homes, etc) for those affected by domestic violence. 

Some organizations, such as ASK, even provide free legal advice to any person who contacts the organization at any of the legal clinics located across Dhaka city. Given the safety battles associated with filing a formal complaint, ASK also provides field workers who accompany clients to police stations, the Marriage Register’s (Kazi) offices, hospitals, and to the courts when necessary. The BNWLA shelter homes, Proshanti, also provide shelter services to women and children as they await legal aid. 

Furthermore, Maya Apa, a messaging platform, provides on-demand health and well-being information online, whereby users can pose their health and legal questions anonymously to experts within the respective fields. This allows users to overcome the social stigma oft-associated with seeking support and discussing sensitive subjects. 

With such a myriad of services and legal sanctions in place throughout the country, it was expected that domestic violence against women would decline; yet current statistics have contradicted such assumptions, and violence against women remains widespread.

Obstacles to overcome

One of the primary pitfalls within the system lies in the enforcement of legal doctrines, lack of adequate training for law enforcement officers, the public’s inability to navigate the legal arena, and in the inability or refusal to seek refuge when required. As of 2015, only 2.6% of women in Bangladesh took legal action against physical or sexual violence committed by a partner. Cultural norms also make it difficult for women to seek assistance because of the socio-cultural stigma associated with seeking legal aid and taking a case to court, which is often equated with “dishonouring the family name.”

Like many battles in Bangladesh, it evidently comes down to which party has more power -- the victim or the perpetrator. Even if survivors do manage to access the law, they often experience trauma on their journey to obtain justice. Incidents of police inertia as well as brutal harassment of women are commonplace, along with having to pay bribes to register cases, and cases often unraveling based on political patronage and economic influence. Patriarchal social structures, cultural and religious dogma, and superstitions further aggravate circumstances. 

However, the tendency to commit violence within the family is so deeply rooted that it is only by the proper enforcement and the instilling of fear of some consequence, that such violence can be deterred. Moreover, there exists a strong need for capacity building of institutions and ensuring sufficiency of resources, coupled with education and awareness of the drivers, and increased cooperation between state and non-state actors. As stated by the UN CEDAW Committee in order to promote Women’s Human Rights, the Bangladeshi government must commit to ensuring greater gender equality, improving service delivery, and heightening access to immediate means of redress, rehabilitation, and protection. 

A home is meant to serve as a sanctuary. But, unfortunately, it is also a breeding ground for some of the most life-threatening forms of violence. Therefore, the next time we are approached for assistance by a loved one, or we witness the suffering of someone we know, we should provide them with the reassurance and direction they so desperately need -- such incidences are not matters to be resolved, alone and in fear. 

Our women are putting enviable successes in different sectors all over the map, and it is high time we do the utmost to encourage their safe and healthy development. 

Talisha Faruk is working as a paralegal in the United States.