Violence against women continues unabated

The couple was fighting for some time over dowry and then the husband, Al-Amin, doused his wife (26) with petrol from his motorbike and set her on fire. Standing nearby, their two-year-old daughter Alifa caught on fire too. Al-Amin himself received burn injuries.

This incident took place on 11 December last year at Sarail upazila in Brahmanbaria. The three of them were brought to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital burn unit. After 13 hours of treatment there, Shahida succumbed to her injuries and died. Al-Amin is in the Brahmanbaria district jail.

The number cases is 20,000, but this is just a number. The trauma borne by the victim women, their children, parents and families, cannot be measured

Shahida has another child, other than Alifa. Now the two are growing up without their mother. Speaking to Prothom Alo on 30 March, Shahida's elder brother Md Javed Munshi said Al-Amin's family have taken the two children and left the village. They do not know how the two children are faring.

Shahida's death is just one of innumerable incidents of violence against women. According to the police headquarter records,  last year 18,941 cases were filed all over the country under the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act. Cases are lodged at court too. According to persons working with women abuse cases, around 10 per cent of the number of cases filed at the police stations, are filed at court. So there will not be less than around 20,000 cases filed in 2023 under the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act.

The number cases is 20,000, but this is just a number. The trauma borne by the victim women, their children, parents and families, cannot be measured. They bear the pain. The long-winded trial process exacerbates their suffering further, and they remain angry and hurt. Then at one point of time they give up hope of justice.

According to home minister Asaduzzaman Khan, the citizens now must also take up the task of mobilising awareness to build up resistance against women abuse. Speaking to Prothom Alo on 31 March, he said the government is always alert about violence against women. Police take action whenever such incidents occur. The media too must play a role in raising awareness.

How many women are victims of abuse

Only when cases are filed regarding incidents of repression against women, do these appear on police records. Police headquarter records say from 2018 to 2023, a total of 16,000 to 22,000 cases were filed. That means, 20,000 cases are filed on average every year.

Only when the incidents of torture are extreme, do these appear in the media. Bangladesh Mahila Parishad collected information on 35 types of violence against women from the newspapers last year. The number of abused women and children was around 3000. In each of the first two months of this year, this number was over 200.

The human rights organisation Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK)'s records show that last year 574 women were victims of rape and another were killed after being raped. And 207 were killed by their husbands. A total of 142 were victims of sexual harassment. And 10 were victims of acid throwing.

Last year 26,797 complaints of women abuse were directly made to the national emergency service number 999.

Women also face harassment and mental torture online. According to records of the Police Cyber Support for Women (PCSW), over 12,000 complaints were lodged over the last 15 months regarding false IDs being opened online, IDs being hacked, deception, harassment over mobile phone and spreading objectionable content.

State minister for women and children affairs Simeen Hossain (Rimi), speaking to Prothom Alo on 18 March, said that he ministry was working on creating awareness on preventing violence against women,  women's empowerment and legal assistance. But, she admitted, this was not adequate enough to meet the demand.

Rape, deception

Four victims were seen admitted at the One-Stop Crisis Centre at Dhaka Medical College Hospital during a visit there on 31 March. One of the women (21) had been victim deception and then raped. She said that a bus driver who was known to her said he would take her to a bus so she could go to Rangpur from Gazipur, but instead he took her home and raped her.

Two other girls at the OCC that day said that they had been lured with marriage proposals and then raped. The mother of another young girl said that a young man had deceived her daughter into marriage.

There are more instances of violence against women. For example, on 18 April a young woman (21) was out with her husband in Gabtali upazila of Bogura when she was gang raped. He husband had been held at gunpoint.

Trials see no end

In 1996 Fahmida Akhter alias Najma married physician Tozammel Hossain. On 6 July 2008 Tozammel along with some miscreants took Fahmida into the toilet of their house in Mirpur, slit her veins, gouged out her eyes, doused her in hot water and killed her. A full 18 years after the incident, on 7 July 2014 the Dhaka district session judge court sentenced two of them including Tozammel Hossain to life imprisonment.

Speaking to Prothom Alo on 31 March, Fahmida's brother said that during Covid the accused were released on bail. The hearing hardly took place. He angrily said that other than the sufferers, no one will understand this trauma.

According to Supreme Court sources, till 31 December last year, 155,438 cases are under trial at 99 women and children repression prevention tribunals around the country. There are over 34,000 cases under trial for over 5 years.

Associate professor of Dhaka University's law department Taslima Yasmin was asked why the trial process was so inordinately lengthy. She pointed to a number of factors. One, after the victims filed a case, there is delay in obtaining the medical certificate and DNA report (mandatory in rape cases). This causes a delay in investigations and drawing up the chargesheet. Two, after the trial begin, the challenge is to being forward the witnesses. Three, in many cases the public prosecutor is politically appointed. There are allegations of a lack of transparency in dealing with the cases of the victims.

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Taslima Yasmin told Prothom Alo, this lengthiness in the trial process strengthens the belief that one can get away with crime, thus increasing the criminal tendencies.

Many families, in fear of the inordinately long trial process, chose to reach a compromise instead. For example, it was learnt upon visiting the Dhaka Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal-7 on 20 February this year that an attempt was being made to marry off the young girl rape victim (14) to the accused, Anwarul Huq (55) in order to reach a compromise in the case. During the trial judge Sabera Sultana raised an objection to the matter of marrying off the victim to the rapist.

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The family members later said the accused has been in jail for the past two years. The girl gave birth to a baby girl last year. The defence lawyer Md Ismail Bhuiyan told Prothom Alo that the families of the accused and the girl were wanting to reach a compromise through marriage.

The girl's elder sister was asked why they sought compromise. She told Prothom Alo over mobile phone, "My sister is very young. She has a future. Then there is the matter of the family's honour. It is becoming too difficult to conduct this lengthy case, repeatedly coming to court."

The law ministry provides legal assistance to poor women, men, workers and imprisoned persons by means of the 'National Legal Aid Services Organisation'. According to the organisation's 2022-23 report, assistance was provided in over 32,000 cases that year. But there were no separate records of how many women were provided with this assistance.

Records of how many incidents of women abuse go to trial can be found at the One-Stop Crisis centres of 14 medical college hospitals under the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs' Multi-Sectoral Programme on Violence against Women and Children (4th Phase). According to OCC records, over 62,000 women and children received assistance over the past 23 years in incidents of physical and sexual abuse and being set on fire. Only 19,441 cases were filed. Verdict was passed in only 3 per cent of the cases and sentences were put into effect in less than 1 per cent of the cases. The OCC law office Tahmina Nadia, speaking to Prothom Alo, said that case drag on inordinately and so many cannot continue with the case.

I had been going to the law department chairman and the proctor for one and a half years seeking their intervention regarding her being bullied, but to no avail. Had they taken action then, my daughter would have been alive today.
Tahmina Begum, mother of Jagannath University student Fairuz Sadaf Abantika who committed suicide

In Bangladesh, the rate of punishment in criminal cases is low. It is even lower when it comes to the matter of violence against women. In a review of cases under the Dhaka district Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal from 2002 to 2016, Prothom Alo in 2018 reported that and punishments were accorded in only 3 per cent of the cases.

Supreme Court lawyer Shahdeen Malik feels that in order to prevent violence against women, it is necessary to bring about radical changes to the trial process in order to reduce the case jam. He recommends that the public prosecutor be appointed from the cadre service in phases, rather than on political consideration.

Shahdeen Malik said that sometimes the punishment for certain offences are is made more stringent, thinking that harsh punishment will be a deterrent for crime. But instead, judges tend to be more lenient in pronouncing the accused to be guilty. The judges do not want to pass any harsh sentence if there is the slightest doubt in his mind. This must be kept in mind when ensuring speedy trials too.

'Had action been taken, my daughter would be alive'

From her own experience, Jagannath University student Fairuz Sadaf Abantika's mother Tahmina Begum realises that if preemptive measures can be taken before the repression actually takes place, one can be saved from disaster. Abantika committed suicide on 15 February after being bullied for long by her fellow student. Abantika's mother was crying relentlessly while speaking over mobile phone on 30 March. She said, "I had been going to the law department chairman and the proctor for one and a half years seeking their intervention regarding her being bullied, but to no avail. Had they taken action then, my daughter would have been alive today."

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