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Dhaka Tribune

Harassing the law

Addressing sexual harassment in Bangladeshi law schools and the legal profession

Update : 27 Dec 2023, 10:08 AM

In Bangladesh, law schools and the legal profession have been impacted by numerous sexual harassment incidents over the years. The reason behind putting a focus on harassment, particularly in law schools, is that law students are the future justice providers who are supposed to ensure and establish justice for mass populations. How can a law student who has previously committed sexual assault on a classmate or junior ensure justice for victims of rape or assault or harassment? 

A sexist mentality among law students is threatening to take over the legal profession, putting our judiciary in danger. In Bangladesh, men dominate in the legal profession. Sexual harassment of female lawyers and those aspiring to enter the legal field is a common occurrence in a variety of contexts. The court premises have lamentably turned into a space where male lawyers subject female lawyers to scrutiny, focusing on their appearance, demeanour, and personal relationships. 

The rights outlined in Parts II and III of the Bangladeshi Constitution are adequate to promote gender equality and prevent sexual harassment at the workplace. Women's involvement, legal protection, equal employment opportunities, and particular steps for their advancement are highlighted in Articles 10, 26, 29, and 28. The right to life, liberty, and due process are further protected under Articles 31 and 32. 

Nevertheless, Sections 10 of the Women and Children Repression Act of 2000 and Sections 354 and 509 of the Penal Code of 1860 are the primary legal mechanisms that address sexual harassment in the contemporary legal system. Unfortunately, the significance of institutions in combating sexual harassment in the workplace and in educational settings is not sufficiently emphasised by these laws.

There is still no definitive law against sexual harassment at work in Bangladesh. Whereas, India, which shares Bangladesh's socioeconomic circumstances, passed the groundbreaking Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act in 2013. 

It is a recognized legal principle to incorporate international standards into fundamental rights in situations where there is no existing domestic law on the subject and no conflict with international treaties and norms. The court held in HM Ershad v Bangladesh, 2001 BLD (AD) 69, that national courts ought to take a nation's international obligations into consideration. The principles established in international accords should be applied by national courts when domestic laws are unclear or do not offer guidance. 

The ILO's Workplace Code of Conduct places a significant focus on preventing sexual harassment. In contrast, the Bangladesh Bar Council's Canons of Professional Conduct and Etiquette do not address the matter of sexual harassment. Bangladesh has not ratified ILO Convention 190, which requires members to report their efforts in the fight against harassment and violence in order to ensure accountability and transparency. 

In the landmark case of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA) vs government of Bangladesh and others, the High Court Division of Bangladesh defined sexual harassment and gave recommendations to safeguard women and girls in diverse situations, with a focus on workplace-related harassment. As there is no employer-employee connection with judges, the definition of terminology used in the workplace should be expanded to accommodate the special dynamics that challenge female lawyers in courtrooms. 

The recommendations are devoid of important information about how to file complaints and make investigations. Consequently, students and female lawyers hesitate to report incidents due to the absence of well-defined complaint procedures. Their concerns revolve around the fear of facing retaliation if they criticize their professors, senior lawyers, or judges in law school or the court. 

The Bangladesh Supreme Court established a commission to handle allegations of sexual harassment on its premises. The effectiveness of such committees relies on conducting proactive and impartial investigations into allegations and holding wrongdoers accountable, even if they are judges or senior lawyers. 

Furthermore, the Judicial Administration Training Institute (JATI) should provide newly appointed judges with extensive training on gender-sensitive issues. It is crucial that law schools and bar associations work together to develop curricula on professional behaviour standards. 

In Bangladesh, academicians frequently steer clear of addressing rape and sexual harassment in law schools, leaving students to study these topics on their own. This may make it more difficult for students to comprehend the need for legislative reforms and perpetuate the stigma associated with these important conversations.

Bangladesh ought to ratify C190 right away since it has strong measures to stop gender-based violence in both the formal and unofficial spheres. To effectively prevent sexual harassment, comprehensive workplace sexual harassment regulations must be passed, legal education must be revamped, and full CEDAW implementation must be ensured.

Fatima Zahra Ahasan Raisa is a Human Rights Activist, Bangladesh Human Rights Foundation (BHRF) and a student of law.

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