At least 15 students have been raped, four sexually harassed across Bangladesh between January and March, according to reports
Sexual violence against children at educational institutions has become too common a phenomenon in recent years, with reports coming in from around Bangladesh, indicating a dangerous upward trend that has become a serious cause for concern.
In the first three months of 2019, at least 15 cases have been reported where students have been raped or gang-raped by their teachers or staff members in their schools, colleges and madrasas, while at least four have been sexually harassed, according to the data collected by Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (Bangladesh Children’s Rights Forum – BSAF).
Dhaka Tribune has found nine reports of such incidents between April 1 and April 11 alone, where seven girls and three boys were raped or sexually harassed by teachers and/or school staff.
Concern is growing among parents, experts, and child rights activists about this rising trend, who say not all such incidents are reported, and they fear that the actual number of incidents could be several times higher.
The government has enacted several laws and rules to protect children, but they have not been properly implemented, which is why incidents of sexual violence against children are on the rise, experts said.
The occurrence of such incidents is having a severe impact on the psyche of schoolchildren, whose natural mental growth is greatly hampered, the experts said.
Added to that is the fact that many girls are dropping out of schools and colleges in fear of their educators, which means a segment of the country’s future generation is in danger of remaining uneducated and unable to contribute to the country’s overall development.
“It is a red alert for the country,” said Rasheda K Chowdhury, executive director of the Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE) and former adviser to a caretaker government. “There was a time when teachers would take abuse to protect their students, but now they have become the abusers themselves. This does not bode well for the country’s future.”
If the current situation persists, a generation will be at risk of crippled mental growth due to sexual violence, particularly at the hands of the very people who are designated to train the country’s future generations.
What is happening?
According to the BSAF, between January and March this year, 164 children were raped or gang-raped across Bangladesh, while 87 were sexually harassed.
Of them, 15 were raped or gang-raped in their educational institutions, while four were sexually harassed.
The BSAF collected this information from news reports in 15 national dailies over three months, as well as their own data.
Legal and human rights organization Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) said they have found that, of the victims and survivors of rape so far this year, at least one-third were under 18 years of age.
ASK further said the number could be much higher as in more than half of the cases, the victims’ age could not be confirmed.
ASK data is based on their own findings as well as news reports in nine national dailies.
Both organizations said it was not possible to give an accurate picture of what is happening, as a great number of incidents go unreported.
These incidents can sometimes turn fatal, especially when survivors take legal action against the perpetrators.
The latest such incident that has shaken the country is the assault of 18-year-old Nusrat Jahan Rafi, who, upon filing a case against her madrasa principal, Sirajuddaula, was set on fire by unknown assailants on the roof of her madrasa in Sonagazi, Feni on April 6.
After battling for her life with 80% burns for three days, Nusrat succumbed to her injuries on Wednesday.
The same old reasons
When asked what is fuelling such a heinous trend in educational institutions, social experts and rights activists said the reasons are the same as they have always been: degradation of moral values, culture of impunity, political influence, unregulated access to the internet, and so on.
These issues have been discussed over and over again, but not much progress has been made to curb the occurrence of sexual violence.
Experts criticized the government for failing to ensure prompt justice against sexual predators and criminals, and to safeguard children in their own classrooms.
“Teachers are looking at their students as sexual beings, when they should be looking at them as learners, whom teachers are supposed to guide,” said Prof Dr Sadeka Halim, dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Dhaka University. “The teachers are losing their moral ground, which is why these incidents are happening.”
Speaking to Dhaka Tribune, BSAF Member Secretary Abdus Shahid Mahmood said sexual violence against children is not a recent trend.
“These incidents have been happening for years, but now more cases are being reported,” he added.
He also blamed the culture of impunity for a rise in the numbers of such incidents.
“If we look into the past of the perpetrators, we will see that either they have committed such crimes before and were able to get away, or they witnessed these crimes go unpunished,” he told Dhaka Tribune.
He said the incidents that have been reported have occurred mostly in urban areas.
“We can certainly say that the situation in rural and remote areas is worse. We need to conduct research region-wise, in both schools and madrasas.”
CAMPE Executive Director Rasheda K Choudhury echoed the BSAF member secretary’s opinion.
“We need an anthropological research on the issue to determine the nature of the problem by identifying the reasons, so it can be nipped in the bud,” he said.
Speaking of the reasons, Rasheda also said the culture of impunity and the lengthy process of trials is helping the perpetrators get away with their crimes.
Shahid said in most cases, the families of victims feel discouraged to pursue justice because of the lengthy trial procedures.
He further said if the court verdict concerning Rajon and Rakib – children who were tortured to death in inhumane manners four years ago – had been implemented in time, the situation might have been different.
Although the principles of human rights do not support capital punishment, Rasheda said drastic measures might be needed to curb the menace – much like in the case of acid attacks, where the legal system ensured prompt and severe punishment for the attackers.
She suggested trying cases of sexual violence at speedy tribunals.
Prof Sadeka Halim said there is a High Court directive to form a committee to address sexual harassment and rape at educational institutions.
“If that directive were strictly followed across Bangladesh, it would be the first step towards justice,” she added.
Shahid Mahmood said there is another directive that says no local lawmaker can be a member or head of the management committee at any educational institution.
“This directive is not followed everywhere,” he said. “The time has come to ensure that this directive is also strictly followed, or else teachers and staff members will continue taking advantage of the political influence at their disposal.”
The impact on the victims
When there is a lack of justice, there are two consequences, Rasheda K Chowdhury said.
“First, the perpetrators get confident that they can get away with committing crimes. Second, the victims lose faith and feel vulnerable, ultimately deciding against seeking justice out of fear and intimidation,” she told the Dhaka Tribune.
“Drop-out rates in Bangladesh’s primary schools have gone down drastically. But we have been unable to reduce girls’ drop-out rates at the higher secondary level because we cannot ensure their safety,” she added.
When these girls are unable to complete school, it has a long-term impact on the economy and development goals.
Shahid Mahmood said sexual abuse in educational institutions destroys a child’s normal development, and impacts its peers as well.
“The effect is not only on these children alone. We have observed that as adults, many victims of child abuse re-enact their traumas on other children. They become bad parents. So the impact of abuse can span generations,” he said.
“The country does not have adequate number of psychologists and specialists needed to support and counsel victims. Therefore, the increasing number of child abuse crimes generate ever more growing problems,” Shahid added.
Dr Helal Uddin, associate professor at the National Institute of Mental Health in Dhaka, agrees.
“We need to advance with a proper plan to place a certain number of counsellors in each district,” he said.
“In the short term, we may place recent graduates after bare minimum training to address the problems immediately.”
Police’s role criticized
Rakhi Das Purkayastha, joint general secretary of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, said looking into recent cases of sexual violence against women and girls in Subarnachar, Noakhali, they found gross negligence of duty on the police’s part.
The same happened in the case of Feni madrasa student Nusrat, as the officials at Sonagazi police station tried to undermine Nusrat’s complaints.
This is another reason why victims don’t come forward to report the crimes committed against them, she added.
Abdus Shahid Mahmood said when the Feni case drew nationwide attention, police became proactive and were able to arrest some of the perpetrators within a short time.
“This needs to be looked into,” he said. “These irregularities need to be addressed with the utmost severity. If necessary, an independent commission under the prime minister should be established to probe into police negligence in such cases.”