Bangladesh: Our demand today - freedom from fear

South Asia Citizen's Wire
Article by WLUML networker, Sultana Kamal.
The documentation unit of Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), more familiarly known as ASK in the year 2003 recorded 249 incidents of acid throwing, 374 incidents where women were tortured for dowry, 46 cases of fatwa in which women were subjected to insulting and torturous treatment, and, last but not the least, 1391 incidents of rape.
Even though there is some overlap between the victims of acid throwing and the victims of dowry related violence in the above description, it omits deaths by grievous hurt, suicide, pre-mediated murder or crimes like trafficking and abduction. It may be noted that these statistics are based on the news reported in the national dailies and no one has doubts that there are many more cases that have not been reported. We perhaps have no disagreement in saying that the scale and forms violence against women has taken in the recent years are unprecedented. It has crossed all borders. Women are now targets of violence irrespective of their age, the time of the day and whether they are alone or in company, whether they are at home or in the street. However, the above accounts are enough to make one feel ashamed or at least embarrassed as the member of a society which allows such blatant violation of rights and such violence against a particular section of that society.

In December last year I went to visit the people in Mahalchhori of the Chittagong Hill Tracts whose houses in August have been burnt to ashes in a spree of arson. Where men and women have been beaten, tortured and women raped. There I was told by a woman that as soon as she heard that a group of Bengalis had attacked their village, without thinking of anything else she just jumped into the river in fear. She kept on swimming until she became very tired and felt as if she would drown to death. At that point, she remembered that she had left behind her daughter who may have been caught by the enemies. She swam back to her daughter in that extremely exhausted state only to find that her daughter was being beaten by a group of people. Some reported her to have been actually raped but the mother denied that in an interview with us. Just think what made the woman jump into the river before anything was done to her. It is the constant fear a woman has to live with.

In November, in a polder area of the remote part of South Bengal, a Hindu widow, who could be easily identified to belong to the poorest of the poor, asked me if Hindu women could continue to live in Bangladesh in the face of daily harassment or the threat of harassment they live under. In some of the southern districts, we have reports of several incidents where Hindu houses have been invaded by groups of young men of the Muslim community with the demand for food and entertainment by women of the family in whatever probable form. There are incidents where young men come and demand money for their picnic and if refused, the substitute has to be the young girl of the family to join them for purposes not difficult to imagine.

A Muslim activist woman in one of the remotest villages said in her speech in a meeting that for "liberation" she had always dreamt of a situation where she will be free to speak and move, to work and to enjoy a peaceful life. She said she had known the British period and the Pakistani rule and wasn't surprised that people were exploited then. But now in the independent Bangladesh she feels really persecuted each day with either actual or threat of violence. We all are very well aware of what happened to Simi Banu, to Fahima and Mahima, the child Trisha and Rumi. Not all of them were killed or raped but all of them have been subject to various forms of violence just because they belonged to a certain sex and the consequences they met with were mainly induced by fear in their minds.

Until very recently, violence against women only meant the very gross, identifiable physical assault on women, like rape, maiming, serious injuries by sharp objects, acid throwing or murder. That too remains subject to minute scrutiny and proof beyond reasonable doubt to result in conviction. Simple injury, unidentifiable assaults, regular battering without marks, sexual harassment other than rape, verbal abuse or psychological torture were not recognised as criminal offence or violence against women offering legal remedy. Neither torture nor assault within the four walls of home or by a close family member, particularly husband, considered to be family or private matters, was to be interfered by the state. Till today, marital rape has no legal cognisance. The women activists had to continue long and arduous campaigns to convince the society, the law makers and the state that violence against women has many faces and many forms and that it does not only manifest itself in rape and murder.

It is only since the 80s that some of the above mentioned incidents have been recognised in law to constitute violence against women. Even then simple wife battering has no recognition in law as yet. That is why we hear of so many false dowry cases. The reason being, women can seek no legal remedy if she is battered for no other cause than dowry unless the battering leaves injuries to be classified as grievous hurt. Whatever has happened to Simi Banu inducing her to commit suicide cannot be litigated under the violence against women Act. According to the latest news all the perpetrators of violence against Simi Banu are out of jail on bail now, and they are threatening her sister of the same consequence if they don't stop action against them. Rumi's family had to leave Khulna to a safer place in one of the villages to avoid threats from the accused of harassing Rumi. But in countries like Australia, USA or UK, the law bars entry of the perpetrators in the areas where the victim normally lives or has to go on business like education, shopping or visits. Here in our country the laws either by definition or by default not only bar mobility of the victim or the victim's family but also make their life insecure for ever once the woman has been chosen by the perpetrators to be their victim. Our laws or the lawmakers do not take into consideration that to provide effective assistance to the victims of violence against women they need to create a certain environment and there have to be workable, easily implementable legal measures and to make strict application of those measures an absolute condition.

But unfortunately the usual tendency is to enhance the punitive measures rather than seeing that implementation procedures are made women friendly. Once the punishment is made too high or as severe as death penalty, judges become reluctant to go for conviction. To convict an accused to death the judge needs to be absolutely sure that the accused has actually committed the crime that for well-known obvious reasons is often not possible. The result therefore rests on very low percentage of conviction compared to the numbers of complaints received. This in turn results in frustration in the minds of the victims and the legal aid providers, finally creating a general sense of distrust in the system of justice. This, to my opinion is the worst adverse effect we may have from not having a well-thought definition of violence against women eventually leading to wrong remedial measures and frustrating results.

To bring fundamental change to the situation we must be able to create a condition where women will have full confidence in the society's sense of justice towards them by recognising the more basic elements of violence against them, by making more sensible laws and by actually punishing the perpetrators for the prevention of those crimes and by establishing a society where women will have not to fear violence at every minute of their life. Awareness to violence against women will have to be joined by respect for their safe and respectful life as well as their freedom from fear. One will have to know that women are not violated only by rape and murder. It may very well be done by hurting their sense of respect as well as by diminishing their confidence; by not only killing them physically but by killing their will to live and love for life. Only by doing so can we think of appropriate systems of assistance to them.

Sultana Kamal is Executive Director, Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), Dhaka.

This article was originally published in The Daily Star (Bangladesh) on March 8, 2004.