The laws we have in place to prevent incidents of domestic violence are nowhere near enough
In June, Dhaka University student Sumaiya Begum was tortured to death by her in-laws because she wanted to pursue her studies.
There exists a stereotype that women are safest at home despite the fact that one in four women experiences domestic violence over her lifetime, and between 6-10% of women suffer domestic violence in a given year.
Domestic violence (hereafter referred to as DMV) is a pervasive crime that is deeply shrouded in misinformation. The UN has described the worldwide surge in domestic abuse as a “shadow pandemic” alongside Covid-19.
In a research entitled “Spotlight on Violence against Women in Bangladesh,” it was found that two-thirds of women in Bangladesh have been victims of DMV and 72.7% of them have never disclosed their experience to others.
More than just numbers
According to a recent survey by Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), a minimum of 4,249 women and 456 children were subjected to DMV in 27 out of 64 districts of Bangladesh in April, with 1,672 women and 424 children facing violence for the first time in their lives.
Around 11,025 women faced DMV last month, from whom 4,947 were tortured mentally, 3,589 were tortured economically, 2,085 were tortured physically, and 404 were tortured sexually.
The women who have been victims of DMV blame the lockdown as their husbands are becoming frustrated indoors due to a lack of social interaction and employment opportunities.
Law enforcement agencies and local administrators are too busy dealing with Covid-19. The victims are unable to seek help as they are always surrounded by their perpetrators.
The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act, 2010 deals with such cases in Bangladesh. The Act defines domestic violence as, “physical, psychological, sexual, or economic abuse against a woman or child of a family by the other person of that family with whom the victim is, or has been, in a family relationship.”
Unlike countries with similar legislation, the definition is not confined within the bounds of violence perpetrated by a sexual or intimate partner.
Not always a 'crime'
However, this Act does not particularly criminalize DMV. It rather defines DMV and widens the avenue of the term.
Criminalizing DMV will provide tangible benefits to the victim and the actions of the perpetrator will be condemned. In the US, in the lawsuit of Thurman v City of Torrington, the police department was found liable for failing to protect a victim of domestic abuse and, following this, the right to police protection for DMV was established. This landmark judgment introduced the importance of criminalizing instances of DMV.
Unfortunately, the Domestic Violence Act, 2010 considers only women and children as victims of DMV as mentioned in Section 2 (18) and excludes men. Referring to only women and children as victims fuels the assumption that marriage is not an equal platform to begin with.
Within the purview of this Act, a woman cannot file a suit of DMV against her husband after divorce. Often, women have suffered abuse from their ex-husbands and his family members.
In neighbouring India, in 2018, the Supreme Court held up a decision by Rajasthan High Court from 2013, stating that the term DMV cannot be confined to marital relations alone. This decision enables a woman to file for DMV against her ex-husband even after the divorce.
The duty of law enforcement
A major portion of responsibility in this Act depends on police and law enforcement agencies who belong to the same society where people continue to be in denial of DMV.
The Act ensures a victim’s immediate rights to the required and necessary medical services, the services of enforcement officers, necessary legal services under the Legal Aid Act, 2000, and to file complaints under any other law as mentioned in Section 4.
It is the duty of a police officer responding to an incident of DMV to announce these rights. Hence, the police officers themselves need to be trained and there should not be any negligence on their part.
It is unfortunate that the Act does not mention anything about providing law enforcement officers training and counseling in this regard.
A protection order is provided after long scrutiny and hearing of both parties as mentioned in Section 14. Once the court makes a prima facie determination of DMV, it may order a temporary protection order for the victim and, simultaneously, a show of cause notice for the respondent, requiring a reply within seven days as to why a permanent protection order should not be issued against him.
After allowing both parties to be heard, the court may issue a protection order for the victim that includes a restraining order against the respondent. The victim has to reside in the shared residence until a shelter home is managed.
In the current situation, this is not feasible as victims are trapped in the same household as their perpetrators and there is a dearth of available shelter homes.
The cases of Abdul Khaleque v The State, Kh Ehteshamuddin Ahmed Iqbal vs Bangladesh and others, State vs Munir Hussain Suruj and others show disturbing yet common scenario: Physical assaulting against the wife resulting in death.
Hence, whenever a complaint of DMV is filed, the victim should be removed from the shared residence with the perpetrator. Otherwise, their lives will continue to be in danger.
No hope for rehabilitation?
The Act only penalizes breach of the protection order and filing of false complaints with imprisonment. But the Act fails to provide counseling to the accused and provide a pathway towards rehabilitation so that such acts are not repeated in the future.
In 2017, Kyrgyzstan adopted a new law, “Safeguarding and Protection Against Domestic Violence,” which, apart from improving protection measures for survivors and simplifying reporting procedures also introduces rehabilitation programs for perpetrators.
Bangladesh’s 2010 Act fails to raise awareness and apprehension at the national and international levels, which is most needed in the current scenario.
The way forward
To tackle the current escalation of DMV cases, law enforcement officers should be provided with training on how to offer the required aid to victims.
Hotlines and service providers need to be more responsive. It should be ensured that complaints can be made safely and privately, followed by effective response from the authorities.
Victims should not be made to share residence with perpetrators until a permanent protection order is issued. There should also be an adequate arrangement of shelter homes.
Most importantly, people should be notified of all the avenues comprising domestic violence so that victims remain vigilant and are aware of the avenues through which they may seek help.
Moreover, rehabilitation should be offered to perpetrators to reduce repetition. The 2010 Act should adopt certain amendments and criminalize domestic violence more clearly.
In Bangladesh, this crime, breeding on stereotypical gender roles and biases and an overall lack of awareness, is escalating during Covid-19 pandemic.
The Domestic Violence Act, 2010 is not adequate when it comes to tackling incidents of domestic violence, let alone in the current situaiton.
But through adopting certain changes and spreading awareness, we can hope to combat this long prevailing social disease as the world searches for a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.
Suriya Tarannum Susan is a student of law at the University of Chittagong.