Lockdown in Bangladesh sees violence against women rise

Access to justice has long been a challenge in Bangladesh, particularly for women facing violence. Violence is always heavily under reported, but with lockdown due to COVID-19 women are even more restricted in terms of escaping, reporting and accessing support in cases of violence. Meanwhile, BRAC’s data shows violence against women has increased alarmingly compared to the same period last year. Virtual courts offer new hope in transparency, efficiency and speed.

Amena Khatun* and her husband Ismail Hossain* experienced an extreme food crisis during lockdown in Barguna district, in southern Bangladesh. They had no work and no savings. Almost at the point of starving, Amena’s father took Amena to see their local Union Parishad (UP) member, hoping to access food relief.

On 6 April, the local UP member assured Amena that government relief would be provided if Amena went to his house with a national identity card in the afternoon of 8 April.

Amena went to the house at the specified time, and quickly realised that he had called her to an empty house with the assurance of false relief. Realising the danger, she tried to get out. The local member was ready. He raped Amena. Ismail rescued his wife after a struggle and brought her home. Soon after, her husband was visited by thugs and threatened to not file a case.

Undeterred, Amena's father filed a case under Section 9 (1) the next day. The accused is yet to be arrested.

Access to justice: a challenge amplified during COVID-19

More than 3.5 million cases are pending in Bangladesh and 10 per cent of them have been in progress for more than 10 years. The more delayed cases are, the harder they are to resolve.

All courts in Bangladesh have stopped hearing cases except a few urgent matters since the government declared a general holiday, as part of the prevention of spread of COVID-19. In Ameena’s case, even though her father filed a case, they have yet to receive any indication on when next steps may happen.

According to BRAC's human rights and legal aid programme, while courts are closed, violence against women and girls is increasing. In comparison with data from BRAC’s 408 legal aid clinics during the same period last year, the number of violent incidents against women has increased by 69 per cent.

Find the trend of type of offences against women in March and April this year compared to the same months of 2019 below:

Community-level legal aid services: Needed more than ever

While various justice sector stakeholders have not been available during the lockdown, BRAC has remained present, providing essential services, including legal aid, across Bangladesh. Between the first week of April and the end of April 2020, HRLS resolved 314 disputes by alternative dispute resolutions through teleconference and helped women to recover the equivalent of BDT 5.7 million from their husbands.

Julekha Banu*, from Kishoreganj, was brutally abused over dowry on 28 March. Three men - her husband, her father-in-law and brother-in-law - took turns to beat her. When they were finished, they dropped Julekha near her father's house. People in the neighborhood heard her crying and rescued her.

On 1 April, Julekha contacted BRAC’s legal aid team. While BRAC staff were not in their offices, they were working over the phone. Julekha was immediately advised to be admitted to the hospital and the incident was reported to the police. On 2 April, Julekha's child was rescued with the help of the police and returned to her. The physical torture case will be pursued when the court reopens.

Virtual courts: New hope

Many countries are running trials digitally, and legal experts have long said digital judgment is urgently needed in Bangladesh. Prior to COVID-19, it did not seem like an option, though, with virtual courts facing strong resistance from a wide range of stakeholders.

Things are rapidly changing. In April, the Special Committee for the Rights of the Child proposed to digitalise the judiciary of the court. An emergency meeting was held via video conference and it was decided that, with the approval of the Chief Justice of Bangladesh, the emergency hearing of the juvenile court would be held by video conference.

The Supreme Court of Bangladesh issued a Practice Direction for the Appellate Division, the High Court Division and the Subordinate Courts for conducting judicial proceedings through video conferencing. It has been directed that courts can now hear urgent matters only through video conferencing.

10,054 people had their bail granted by the subordinate judiciary from 12 to 18 May. One of the limitations of virtual courts is that they cannot hear all issues until courts reopen. People like Amina and Julekha therefore have no immediate recourse from the judicial process.

On 11 May 2020, three benches were constituted in the High Court to hear cases virtually during COVID-19. There is also a separate bench for hearing appeals. Urgent writs, civil motions and related applications, urgent criminal motions and related bail applications and urgent matters under primitive jurisdiction, e.g. appeals and petitions on issues including property, marriage and company will be heard.

10,054 people had their bail granted by the subordinate judiciary from 12 to 18 May. One of the limitations of virtual courts is that they cannot hear all issues until courts reopen. People like Amina and Julekha therefore have no immediate recourse from the judicial process.

Virtual justice is urgently needed. Considerable investment will need to be made in terms of infrastructure and training, but e-courts offer huge promise in terms of reducing Bangladesh’s case backlog. Not only does the backlog delay people receiving justice, but it deters others from trying to seek it. While Amena and Jhulekha were brave enough to pursue cases, many thousands more are not. Digital courts are not only a solution for COVID-19, but have long-term potential for making Bangladesh's legal system more functional and for millions of people in the most vulnerable situations to receive justice.

*Real names were not used.

*Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh is head, Programme and Enterprise Communications, Shahariar Sadat is programme head, Human Rights and Legal Aid Services and Lina Dilruba Sharmin is a communications specialist, BRAC.