Sexual violence is too often viewed as an isolated incident, but systemic change is required
Many strong statements and insightful commentaries have been made in the past months by human rights and women’s rights advocates and academics about stopping rape while adhering to the rule of law.
These opinion pieces from Bangladeshis send a strong collective message: Sexual violence is inexcusable. When it is entrenched and institutionalized, it is a human rights violation that threatens individual lives and the fabric of society.
Bangladesh has national and international commitments to address sexual violence, and it has taken several steps.
Most recently, in November 2019, led by the UN and the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs, more than 250 government and civil society experts, academics, development partners, and survivor advocates came together to discuss root causes and effective measures to stop sexual violence.
A set of 10 Actions Points to stand against rape was endorsed by 30 organizations from civil society, development partners, and the UN.
Sexual violence is too often viewed as an isolated incident. Globally, we have learned that we cannot address sexual violence, including rape, unless we achieve a proper and thorough understanding of the problem and correct the related narratives.
Despite progress, there are still misconceptions and misleading information on the causes and consequences of sexual violence, including rape, which shape responses to this epidemic.
Violence against women is a manifestation of discrimination against women and of disproportionate power relationships between women and men.
Firstly, we must raise awareness that sexual violence cannot, in any way, be blamed on the victim or survivor.
What is worrisome in Bangladesh and elsewhere is how in society and even in a court of law, there is a focus on the modesty and honour of a woman to judge if a crime has been perpetrated.
In no way should survivors be blamed for their behaviour, how they are dressed, or where they walk. Too often the response to sexual violence is to stigmatize the survivors, rather than prosecute the perpetrators.
Victim-blaming and normalization of violence can be tackled by transforming social norms and the way women and men think and behave.
To understand better what works to prevent violence against women, we can invest more in data and research and ensure that our initiatives and interventions are always corroborated by evidence.
Too often, prevention programs are implemented without a robust research design or ways to effectively measure impact -- and those interventions that have been evaluated and considered successful are yet to reach a wide audience.
We therefore commit to act as a bridge between research and academia and program implementers.
Second, in the 10 Actions Points, we stressed the importance of strengthening existing sexual violence legislation and policies.
We will continue supporting advocacy for the amendment of discriminatory laws, such as the penal code, by changing the discriminatory definition of rape, amending character evidence provisions, as well enacting more gender responsive legislation, such as a law on sexual harassment.
Third, the immediate response to sexual violence needs to be robust by ensuring survivors and victims receive coherent support, which includes medical support, psycho-social counseling, protection of victims/witnesses, legal assistance and expedition of legal cases.
Numerous observers have remarked how the justice system fails survivors, mainly women, who seek redress for rape and other forms of sexual violence.
The tribunals that handle women and children cases are under-resourced, and conviction rates for violence against women and children cases have only been 3% in some districts.
We commit to continuing to support our partners to build judicial and law enforcement capacity to support the delivery of justice and the provision of comprehensive services to survivors, with due respect for the rule of law, including prompt investigations and trials, and proportionate punishments that comply with national and international human rights commitments to eliminate torture and other serious violations while fighting crime.
We need more women-friendly police desks -- which we have been supporting -- and stand ready to support further capacity building and deployment of more female and male gender responsive police officers on the streets and in the management ranks.
In terms of essential services, One Stop Crisis Centres and a 24 hour-National Helpline have been established by the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs.
Recently, the UN and the Ministry of Health have launched the clinical management of rape training for service providers and will keep strengthening the response to ensure health service providers are more equipped to handle sexual and gender-based violence.
We are also working with legal aid to enhance protection of GBV survivors. These services must be increased so they are available for everyone in need.
Finally, we will continue investing in women’s empowerment, the key to social transformation. An increasing number of empowered women will challenge the acceptability of violence and contribute to change in their families, communities as well as in the public domain.
We will continue working and supporting the women’s movement and its allies in government, as the essential agent for transformational change in the fight against sexual and gender-based violence.
A stronger commitment and urgent action are required from all to combat sexual and gender-based violence.
We believe that it is critical to question power imbalances, attitudes, and behaviours and how these shape and influence society and related public discourse. We, the UN and development partners, commit to work hand in hand with the government of Bangladesh to do more to stop sexual and gender-based violence.
Penny Morton, Acting Australian High Commissioner to Bangladesh; Robert Chatterton Dickson, British High Commissioner to Bangladesh; Benoit Préfontaine, Canadian High Commissioner to Bangladesh; Winnie Estrup Petersen, Ambassador of Denmark to Bangladesh; Harry Verweij, Ambassador of the Kingdom of The Netherlands to Bangladesh; Sidsel Bleken, Ambassador of Kingdom of Norway to Bangladesh; Charlotta Schlyter, Ambassador of Sweden to Bangladesh; Suzanne Müller, Chargé d’Affaires of Switzerland to Bangladesh; Mia Seppo, United Nations Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh; Judith Herbertson, Country Representative, DFID Bangladesh; Asa Torkelsson, Country Representative, UN Population Fund; Shoko Ishikawa, Country Representative, UN Women.