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OP-ED: A shadow pandemic during the global crisis

  • Published at 08:32 pm August 23rd, 2020
violence against women
Representational photo: Bigstock

Ensuring the rights of women and children are essential in order to get through this pandemic together

Governments around the world are implementing policies to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 novel coronavirus. These policies often include restrictions on movement, leading to the closure of services that provide support to populations affected by gender-based violence (GBV). 

The pandemic is also deepening pre-existing inequalities and further exposing vulnerabilities in social, political, and economic systems. Reports of domestic violence are surging. 

For individuals subject to GBV, this often means forced confinement with their attacker in stressful circumstances, which may make violence more frequent, more severe, and more dangerous. 

On April 15, a man from Bangladesh, Obaidul Haque Tutul, live-streamed the murder of his wife on Facebook. It went viral and the incident shocked the country, especially those who watched it.  

Tatul killed his wife Tahmina Akhter with a machete in his home, reportedly over a financial dispute. After committing the crime, Tutul turned himself to the local police. The horrific video has been taken down from the social media platform. 

Bangladesh is a country where poverty and illiteracy exist, so violence at home during a prolonged lockdown is more likely to occur. Experts have mentioned that there are no opportunities to directly help the women who are in distress as long as the lockdown continues. 

Even though there has been no new method considered by the government of Bangladesh to eradicate GBV during the lockdown, laws such as Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Act of 2010 and Women and Children Repression Prevention Act 2000 along with the certain provisions of the Penal Code 1860, are still in operation to help the victims of the aforementioned abuses. 

The courts are open for limited time considering the severity of the cases. As the lockdown continues in Bangladesh, the services and amenities that were once easy to access for citizens are now beyond the reach of many. 

With little to no court functions taking place during the past few weeks, even the defendants who had already secured bail were facing severe difficulty.

A national helpline has also been established just for women to seek help. In response, National Helpline Centre for Violence against Women and Children, a helpline center for the Bangladeshi women and children victims was founded on June 19, 2012, to provide the immediate service to victims and links up to relevant agencies. 

The lockdown pertaining to the prevention of the Covid-19 spread in Bangladesh has essentially shattered support networks, making it far more difficult for victims to get help or escape their aggressor. 

One immediate effect of being confined with the abuser is that not only are women more vulnerable to domestic abuse but are also less likely to be able to make an emergency telephone call in fear of being overheard by the abusers.

Through a joint initiative by the National Legal Aid Services Organization (NLASO) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the legal aid helpline center, 16430, was established in 2013 and successfully resumed the functioning of these services during the “public holidays” amidst the Covid-19 outbreak in Bangladesh from April 12 till now to help citizens in need of legal assistance.  

Organizations such as Ain o Salish Kendra have always played a great role in Bangladesh regarding taking care of female and children victims of abuse. They not only provide pro bono help to the victims like Bangladesh Legal Aids Service Trust but specifically help the female victims of abuse.  

The government needs to put women and children’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic. Urgency should also be raised to take immediate measures to handle the accelerating risk of domestic violence caused by the Covid-19 home quarantine. 

As this crucial measure helps flatten the curve, it is inadvertently leading to a rise in domestic violence. It is an urgent call for Bangladesh to take immediate steps to protect women and children by expanding the appropriate support services. 

Gender equality and the rights of women and children are essential to get through this pandemic together, to recover faster, and to build a better future for everyone.

Sabiha Mehzabin Oishee is a DLA Piper Fellow, and Founder of Bangladesh Forum for Legal and Humanitarian Affairs.

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