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The culture of blaming rape victims must stop

In this country being raped can often be a fate worse than death
Syed Mehdi Momin
The culture of blaming rape victims must stop

Almost every day there are reports of rape in the Bangladesh media. Often the rape victims are also brutally murdered.

On an average nearly 13 women and girls were raped in the country every day. And that is the official figure. Social scientists, lawyers and field level crime investigators believe that the actual number of rape incidents was much higher than the number of cases filed as a large number of cases of sexual violence and rape remained underreported.
In this country being raped can often be a fate worse than death. Girls and women are raped all over the country -- be they indigenous or non-indigenous the gravity of crime is same. The country is becoming a land of predators who stalk women at work, on the transports and then throw her out of a running vehicle. Often the victim finds no way but to walk home alone.
Bangladesh is a republic and its government is supposed to protect all citizens who work for sustaining themselves and to give the country a good name as a land of the dedicated workforce committed to bringing economic prosperity and adding social values. Nevertheless, they need protection from the state, from the society and from law --- which unfortunately many in this country do not have access to.
We see media flooded with reports of women being abducted, raped, and even killed. Only few of them approach police or court seeking justice. Others keep quiet fearing humiliation and of being ostracized in the society and also to have been spared from further repression by police and those posing as protectors. Some victims also face astounding penalty from religious bigots and selfish society leaders for alleged adulteration or being indecently or erotically dressed. Such dictums come from those who want to confine women into their homes and use them as machines to produce children.

The United Nations Multi-country Study on Men and Violence recently asked men in rural and urban Bangladesh if they had forced a woman to have sex at any point in their lives. 14.1 per cent of men in rural Bangladesh and 9.5 per cent of men in urban Bangladesh said yes (10 per cent averaged). 2.7 per cent of men in rural Bangladesh and 0.5 per cent (6/1252) in urban Bangladesh had raped in the past year. In rural Bangladesh 47.4 per cent of rapists perpetrated more than once, 3.7 per cent had four or more victims, and 40 per cent first raped as a teenager.

82 per cent of rural Bangladeshi and 79 per cent of urban Bangladeshi men cited entitlement as their reason for rape. 61.2 per cent of urban Bangladeshi men who had raped did not feel guilty or worried afterwards, and 95.1 per cent experienced no legal consequences. 89.2 per cent of urban Bangladeshi men answered 'agree' or 'strongly agree' to the statement 'if a woman doesn't physically fight back, it's not rape.' These statistics are a clear indicator of the mindset of many men in this country. Unfortunately, most rapes go unreported in our country due to social stigma and the prevailing lack of support available for victims.

The women and girls who do report being raped can sometimes face antipathy or outright hostility from police. Human rights organisations have been protesting the insensitivity and sometimes discrimination shown by law enforcers when dealing with cases of sexual assault and rape. Five such organisations have filed a writ petition to seek justice. This has led the High Court to order the government to make sure police accept rape complaints instantly and provide required services to the victim without prejudice.

It is relevant here to mention that until very recently Bangladesh had the notorious "two-finger test" in rape investigations.

Even nuts-and-bolts measures, like enhanced funding for forensic investigations, upgrading training of police to deal with sexual crimes, and making expert post-trauma support available to victims, are conspicuous by their absence.

Thankfully along with the modernisation of society, more women are being educated and are going out to work. They are breaking out of the subservient mould that society had given to them and are more independent. While this means they are more likely to be sexually abused, it also means they are more likely — compared with women of a previous generation — to report rapes and confront sexual predators.

There is an urgent need for sustained government engagement on gender-based violence issues across a range of domains. Gender justice experts and activists have been raising the issues for years, but their recommendations have largely fallen on deaf ears.  Bangladesh still has unacceptably high rate child marriage, of teenage pregnancy, and of domestic violence. There’s still a culture in many families where boys and men are fed before girls and women, so that if there’s not enough milk to go around in a family, it goes to the boys.

Once the sense that women are less important in some way that men becomes accepted, it is easy to justify violence against women. Reducing impunity is imperative as is more police accountability, speedier trials, consistent and appropriate sentencing policies, adequate criminal justice resources so that gender justice is not only delivered, but seen to be delivered.

Many men (and strangely enough, women) insist on blaming women for bringing rape upon themselves. Well few women in Dhaka dress or act provocatively (unless only if burqa clad women do not provoke you) while they are in an open place. Nevertheless the question is even if they had worn mini-skirts would it be alright for men to pounce on them and molest them to their hearts’ content?

When it comes to conversations about any incident of sexual assault, the topic of how the survivor was dressed at the time always seems to come up in this country and indeed many other countries too.

The problem is that our society holds some ridiculous beliefs around how ‘revealing’ clothes supposedly increase the risk of sexual assault. First, we think that perpetrators are sex-crazed men who can’t control themselves at the mere sight of a woman dressed in so-called provocative clothes. What we have to understand is that in reality, sexual violence is rarely about sex! Whether a woman is conservatively attired or not, it doesn’t make much of a difference, because sexual assault is mostly about exerting power and control over someone else.

Clothes are not a risk factor. The only risk factor is the presence of people with perverted minds. And really, if the issue was about perpetrators not being able to control themselves around women dressed in revealing clothing, then rates of sexual assault at fashion shows and the like would be out of control.

There is also this absolutely messed up idea that women dressing in supposedly revealing clothes are “asking for it”. Women, and men for that matter, dress in many different ways for many different reasons. No woman wants to be raped–no matter how she is dressed.

Unfortunately aggressive sexual harassment is a daily part of women commuters in this megapolis. Inside a crowded bus a man will not hesitate to grab a lady’s breasts or hips.

Many women these days travel in groups, some carrying sharp objects—safety pins, pocket knives—to discourage harassers. There is no simple explanation of what it is like to be a woman in Bangladesh today. It depends on where you live, whether you are rich or poor, so on and so forth.

Often, women who suffer violence stay silent because they have no faith in the justice system. And even when they do raise their voices, the government deals with them on a case-by-case basis rather than as an issue that is endemic to the nation.

The government should take urgent measures to make sure that religious fatwas and traditional dispute resolution methods do not result in extrajudicial punishments. The government is yet to act on repeated orders of the High Court Division of the Supreme Court, July 2010, to stop illegal punishments such as whipping, lashing, or public humiliations.

Bangladesh has an obligation under international law to prevent, prohibit and punish torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

It is also under an obligation to end discrimination against women as discrimination is the root of all forms of violence against women.  

We can rightfully boast of an accelerating economy that is lifting many people out of poverty, but it is not nearly enough. By treating half of its population so poorly Bangladesh can only operate to half of its potential. It is high time we tackle the root causes of rape with coherent policies in schools, the media and in parliament itself, to reshape attitudes towards women.   

Traditionalists may decry corrosive Western influences all they want. Yet social attitudes that promote the idea of women as second-class citizens, whose main role is childbearing and housekeeping, and who should stay indoors after nightfall, have no place in a modern society.

The writer is the Senior Assistant Editor of The Independent and can be

contacted at: syed.mehdi@theindependentbd.com

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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