Bangladesh: Discrimination and violence against women persist

The Daily Star
There are many laws that are still discriminatory towards women and even those laws that do protect women are not enforced properly.
Simi Banu's suicide seven years ago and the eventual unearthing of the events leading to the fateful day was an awakening. There are still laws in our country that are discriminatory towards women but most importantly, despite the existence of some positive laws, this and other cases show that the state machinery needed to provide redress to women victims at grass roots level is still very frail, reports Hana Shams Ahmed.
A recent report by IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks) highlighted an issue that has been neglected by the media for some time now -- acid attacks and the failure of the authorities to control it at the source. Although the number of cases of acid attacks have gone down considerably (According to ASF, there were 192 reported cases of acid violence in 2007, down from 221 in 2006. In 2001 there were 349 cases and in 234 cases in 2000), the core problem is far from over.

The report revealed that the sale of acid (sulphuric and nitric acid) is going on completely unchecked despite the government acts against its sale, and a mechanism to keep it in check. In 2002, the parliament enacted two laws against acid violence: Under the Acid Control Act of 2002, the unlicensed production, import, transport, storage, sale, and use of acid can result in a prison term of 3-10 years. Those who possess chemicals and equipment for the unlicensed production of acid can get the same prison term. Jewellers use acid widely to melt gold and other metals, and unfortunately there is no effective monitoring to control the use and sale of this acid. The caretaker government's mobile court drive in 2007 and early 2008 came to an early demise, and after that there have been no follow-ups.

That has always been a problem with laws, especially laws regarding women, enacted at a policy level but which do not get implemented because of a weakly functioning mechanism. In a recent incident, a woman who had gone to report a case of rape against her, and the duty officer asked her to describe exactly how the rape took place. The police are so insensitive about what a victim of rape or any other gender crime goes through, that the victim often prefers to drop charges.

Last month was the seventh death anniversary of Simi Banu. Her death, which was recorded as a case of suicide, but in reality was result of systematic harassment by local hoodlums, disregard by self-righteous neighbours and ultimately failure of an unconcerned law-enforcing agency, is a reminder for a change in state machinery related to crimes against women.

“There are many laws to protect women but these laws are not enforced properly,” says Salma Khan, the President of Women For Women, “unfortunately the grievance reprisal machinery is too weak and sometimes inaccessible. It's very important for the police to be sensitised on such matters.”

There are many laws that are still discriminatory towards women. The citizenship laws do not allow a Bangladeshi woman to pass on her citizenship to a foreign husband, but if a man marries a woman his wife automatically becomes a Bangladeshi citizen. There is also discrimination in the Muslim Family Law and Hindu Law. Under Muslim Law, “the wife (or wives taken together) get one-eighth if there is a child, and one fourth if there be no child from the estate of her husband, though the husband gets exactly double. Mother gets from the estate of her sons one-sixth when there is child of her son or when there are two or more brothers or sisters or one brother and one sister of her son, and one third when there is no child and not more than one brother or sister of her son. On the other hand, the father gets from the estate of his son one-sixth if there be child of his son and in the absence of any child of his son, he gets the entire residue after satisfying other sharers claim, and so on and so forth” ('Law for Muslim Women in Bangladesh', Sultana Kamal).

Muslim Law still allows polygamy “with the previous permission in writing” from his first wife and a wife can only file for divorce from her husband if her husband gives her the permission to do so in a marriage certificate. A man, however, can divorce his wife whenever he wants. Under Muslim Law a man is always the legal guardian of a child and the mother only has temporary custody of the child up to a certain age depending on the sex of the child. But she is not the natural guardian either of the person or property of the child; the father, or if he is dead his executor, is the legal guardian.

A Hindu woman is the most vulnerable. The rights and obligations of Hindus are determined by the principles of Hindu law. “Although in India the laws have been reformed,” says Khan, “because the government of our country is very sensitive about how to deal with Hindu groups our laws have remained the same.”

According to Khan many people who consider themselves to be leaders of their communities resist changes in their laws. “The present government is in a position to amend these laws,” she says, “most governments have been neglectful or scared to touch issues around minority communities. In India Hindus enjoy almost complete equality between men and woman, legally and a Hindu woman can divorce her husband and they inherit the same amount of property as a man.” In Bangladesh no Hindu woman can ask for a divorce.

For the first time in our country we have a woman as a Home Minister and as a Foreign Minister. It is a great initiative of the government to assign leadership positions to deserving women. Now is the best time for the government to reform discriminatory laws against women, and amend the state mechanism of redress towards women victims.

24 January 2009

By Hana Shams Ahmed

Source: The Daily Star