Public transport must be safe for women

Update:

The lack of justice and continued negligence by the law enforcement agencies have exacerbated the insecurity of women travelling by public transport. The recent incident of a nurse, Shahinoor Akhter, being gang raped and then killed on a bus in Kishoreganj, has shaken us deeply. Nurses, who use public transport for the sake of their professional duties, have all reason to be alarmed.

In recent times there has been a heinous and growing trend of violence against women in buses, and by the bus staff. This must be halted at once. Unfortunately, despite the outcry of anger and protest from all strata within the state and the society, there is still no sign of any speedy trial and exemplary punishment in these cases.

When Zakia Sultana of Tangail was raped and killed on a bus, the lower court within six months sentenced the four accused to death and ordered the bus company to hand over the bus ownership to the family of the victim. This was an example of a speedy trial. However, the accused persons submitted an appeal against the verdict and so now there is no certainty when this sentence will actually be implemented.

The constitution has provided for speedy trials and surely this means final verdict and implementation of the sentence. But the loopholes remain in the law. On one hand there is the death sentence for such violence against women, and yet on the other hand, at least 90 per cent of those accused in these tribunals are eventually freed.

A public interest litigation had been submitted to the High Court in 2009 for directives regarding sexual harassment of women and children at the workplace and educational institutions. A decade on, on 29 April this year, a woman lawyer placed an appeal with the High Court for the implementation of the verdict given by justice Syed Mahmud Hossain (presently the chief justice) at the time.

The verdict issued back in 2009 had stated that as long as the parliament did not pass a law against sexual harassment, Article 111 of the constitution provided that this directive of the High Court would remain in effect. The verdict called for committees to be formed in all workplaces and educational institutions to deal with incidents of sexual harassment and also for the identity of the victim and the accused not to be revealed until the accusations were proven. A recent report of Manusher Jonno Foundation states that 22 per cent of the readymade garments factory workers are subject of sexual harassment.

Over the last 10 years, even the Supreme Court administration has not followed that directive to form a committee at the workplace to deal with cases of sexual harassment. This has not been followed by the Supreme Court Bar or the Attorney General’s office. This just brings home the fact that there is no alternative to good governance and a widespread social movement to change attitudes towards women. Simply enacting sterner laws is not the remedy to violence against women.

The government needs to form a commission to look into the laws enacted to protect women against violence and also to look into the efficacy of the prevailing system to implement those laws. There has been a long-standing demand to update the act against repression of women, but now special measures are needed to ensure that incidents of rape such as that of Shahinoor are no longer repeated. It is imperative that joint initiative be taken by the bus owners association and the administration to make it safe for women to travel by public transport, especially at night.

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