Many strong statements and insightful commentaries have been made in the past few weeks by human rights and women’s rights advocates and academics about stopping rape and adhering to the rule of law. Together these opinion pieces from Bangladeshis send a strong collective message: sexual violence is inexcusable and is a human rights violation that threatens individual livesand the fabric of society. Sexual and gender-based violence, including rape, is too often viewed as an isolated incident. Numerous studies have shown that rape, like other forms of violence, is the result of gender inequality and discrimination, and disproportionate power relationships between women and men. To stop sexual and gender-based violence, including rape, we need a joint effort that engages every strata of society rather than limited reactions to individual cases.

Bangladesh has taken many steps towards addressing sexual and gender-based violence. In November 2019, led by the UN and the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs, more than 250 government and civil society experts, academics, Development Partners and survivor advocates came together to discuss root causes and effective measures to stop sexual and gender-based violence, including rape. From the robust discussion that took place, a set of 10 Actions Points to stand against rape emerged and were endorsed by 30 organizations from civil society, Development Partners and the UN. The exchanges in recent weeks urge all to double their efforts as the UN and Development Partners to transform those attitudes and beliefs that perpetuate gender-based discrimination and tolerate violence against women and girls.

Globally, we have learned that we cannot address sexual and gender-based violence, includingrape unless we achieve aproper and thorough understanding of the problem and correct the related narratives. Despite progress, there are still misconceptions and misleading information over the causes, effects and consequences of sexual and gender-based violence, includingrape, which shape the way that we respond to the epidemic. Violence against women is a form and a manifestation of discrimination against women. This notion is crucial to effectively frame the issue and achieve social transformation.

We must raise awareness that sexual and gender-based violence, includingrape, cannot in any way be blamed on the victim or survivor. What is worrisome in today’s society, in Bangladesh and elsewhere, is how even in a court of law, where justice should be effectively delivered and survivors should find redress and protection, there is a focus on the modesty and honor of a woman to judge if a crime has been perpetrated. This double-victimization of a survivor, by publicly questioning her motives, is yet another human rights violation. In no way and no space should survivors be blamed, because of their behavior, how they are dressed, how they speak or where they walk.Too often a community’s response to sexual and gender-based violence is to stigmatise the survivors, rather than prosecute the perpetrator.

Victim blaming and normalisation of violence can be tackled by transforming social norms and the way women and men think and behave. To achieve this, we commit to further invest in primary prevention and explore new initiatives to make sure that under no circumstances violence is justifiable.

We will strengthen efforts to work with partners to identify and implement the most effective ways to stop violence before it even occurs. Successful, evaluated models from around the world tell us that prevention programmes are most effective when multiple partners at different levels are engaging with individual, families, society and institutions all together.

To understand better what works to prevent violence against women, we will invest more in data and research and ensure that our initiatives and interventions are always corroborated by evidence. Too often, prevention programmes are implemented without a robust research design or ways to effectively measure its impact; and those interventions that have been evaluated and considered successful are yet to reach a wide audience.We therefore commit to act as a bridge between research and academia and programme implementers. Furthermore, we acknowledge our responsibility as the UN and Development Partners to ensure that our actions are well coordinated. National ownership and the leadership by the women’s movement is and will remain our guiding lights.

While we work on prevention, our immediate response to sexual violence needs to be robust by ensuring victims receive coherent support which includes medical support, psychosocial counselling, protection of victims/witnesses, legal assistance and expedition of legal cases. As challenging as it may be, we need to fight traditional gender roles andthat place men in a dominant relationship to women.Gender roles that define what women and men should do, are not biologically engrained but constructed through history and society.If we have taught ourselves to believe that men are the breadwinners, stronger and entitled to treat women as they please, we can unlearn these concepts and promote a more equal family and society. We all have the power and responsibility to change our beliefs, attitudes and behaviours.

As indicated in the 10 Action Points, we will also support more age appropriate comprehensive sexuality education in schools and we will strengthen efforts to incorporate these programmes in the national curriculumwhile at the same time encourage parents to stop treating sex as a taboo, and instead promote a culture of positive sexuality. Teaching children from a young age about sexuality will also help them to better understand the concept of sexual consent.

Second, in the 10 Actions Points we stressed the importance of strengthening existing sexual violence legislation and policies. Bangladesh is party to several international treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Convention against Torture. We note that each of these bodies have recommended the government take steps to close gaps in laws to end violence against women. The High Court finally declaring the discriminatory Two Finger Test illegal in 2018 after extensive engagement by the legal community and women’s movement was a step in the right direction. The analysis of where the gaps in legislation are is available, thanks to the work of civil society organisations and legal experts. Following their lead, we will continue supporting advocacy for the amendment of discriminatory laws that discourage survivors of sexual and gender-based violence from reporting and hamper women’s access to justice. We support the proposed legal amendments including enacting a proposed Sexual Harassment Law, amending the Penal Code by changing the discriminatory definition of rape to make it more inclusive, amending character evidence provisions, and adopting the victims/witness protection law.

Third, we commit to continuing to support our partners at national and local levels to build law enforcement capacity, including the High Court Directive on Sexual Harassment andto support the delivery of justice and the provision of comprehensive services to survivors. Numerous observers have remarked how the justice system fails survivors, mainly women, who seek redress for rape and other forms of sexual violence. The tribunals that handle women and children cases are under-resourced and conviction rate for violence against women and children cases have only been 3% in some districts. We are ready to support capacity-building and awareness raising programmes for the judiciary, and establishment of survivor-focused court protocols and protection measures.

We welcome the opportunity to work with law enforcement agencies to responsibly and promptly address sexual and gender-based violence, including rape, with due respect for the rule of law. The Convention against Torture (CAT) review has shown us the way.The UN and Development Partners cansupport the Government of Bangladesh to further build the capacity of those in charge to conduct impartial, effective and non-discriminatory investigations and to observe the legal prohibition on disproportionate punishments, including extrajudicial killings.We have already trained some law enforcers on more women friendly policing, including through more female police officers and gender responsive police officers on the streets and in the management ranks. Women friendly police desks that we have helped establish in police stations are also making it easier for women to approach the police, and we need more of them.

In terms of essential services, One Stop Crisis Centres and 24 hour-National Helpline have been established by the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs. Recently, the UN has launched the clinical management of rape training for service providers with the Ministry of Health and will keep strengthening the health sector response to gender-based violence to ensure service providers are more equipped to handle sexual and gender-based violence, includingrape, cases. At the same time, we are also working with legal aid to enhance protection of GBV survivors. All of these need to be brought to scale so that services are available for everyone in need.

Finally, we will continue investing in women’s empowerment, the key to social transformation. Empowering women is about equipping them with the knowledge, skills and confidence to take control and agency of their own lives and be aware of their rights. An increasing number of empowered women will challenge the acceptability of violence and contribute to change in their families, communities as well as in the public domain. We will continue working and supporting the women’s movement, as the essential agent for transformational change in the fight against sexual and gender-based violence, including rape.

A stronger commitment and urgent action are required from all to combat sexual and gender-based violence. As much as we acknowledge that there is not a single, straightforward solution to stop sexual and gender-based violence, including rape, we believe it is critical to find ways to question power imbalances, attitudes and behaviours and how these shape and influence society and related public discourse. Sexual and gender-based violence is a global scourge and a huge stain on the human rights record of many countries. We the UN and Development Partners commit to work hand in hand with the government of Bangladesh to do more and work harder to stop sexual and gender-based violence.

* Penny Morton, Acting Australian High Commissioner to Bangladesh; Robert Chatterton Dickson, British High Commissioner to Bangladesh; Benoit Préfontaine, Canadian High Commissioner to Bangladesh; Winnie Estrup Petersen, Ambassador of Denmark to Bangladesh; Harry Verweij, Ambassador of the Kingdom of The Netherlands to Bangladesh; Sidsel Bleken, Ambassador of Royal Kingdom of Norway to Bangladesh; Charlotta Schlyter, Ambassador of Sweden to Bangladesh; Suzanne Müller, Chargé d’Affaires of Switzerland to Bangladesh; Mia Seppo, United Nations Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh ;Judith Herbertson, Country Representative, DFID Bangladesh; Asa Torkelsson, Country Representative, UN Population Fund; Shoko Ishikawa, Country Representative, UN Women