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Bangladesh under fire over rape menace

UN and rights groups call for urgent reform of the criminal justice system so that victims get justice

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Bangladesh under fire over rape menace

An activist demands justice for rape victims at a rally held by Bangladesh Students’ Union in Dhaka on Oct. 5. (Photo supplied)

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Global bodies including the UN and Amnesty International have joined thousands of street protesters in Bangladesh to demand justice and an end to rising cases of rape and other forms of sexual violence in the South Asian country.

“In the wake of recent rape cases, the United Nations expresses serious concerns over the increasing violence against women in Bangladesh. These are heinous crimes and grave violations of human rights. One rape is one too many,” Mia Seppo, the UN resident coordinator in Bangladesh, said in a statement on Oct. 7.

Massive street protests and a social media backlash erupted following the brutal gang rape and abuse of a woman in Noakhali district on Sept. 2.

A 37-year-old housewife was beaten, stripped and filmed naked while begging for mercy from her tormentors. The video was circulated on social media on Oct. 4 to socially ostracize the woman as having an “immoral character.” The viral video sparked a massive public backlash and forced law enforcers to hunt and arrest six men.

The victim told a team of National Human Rights Commission that the leader of a notorious local criminal gang raped her several times before terrorizing her with weapons.

“The case of the woman from Noakhali that was circulated through social media has yet again underlined the state of social, behavioral and structural misogyny that exists. While the UN stands with the public and civil society groups in calling for justice, we recognize that these are not isolated incidents,” the UN said.

“The UN stands ready to support the government to undertake a comprehensive review of the handling of rape cases and violence against women and children, to improve and create a gender-responsive justice system. The UN strongly recommends an urgent reform of the criminal justice system to support and protect victims and witnesses, and to speed up the slow trial process.”

A newly married woman was raped by six men at a college campus in Sylhet district on Sept. 25, the day after the gang rape of a mentally challenged indigenous Chakma woman by nine men in Khagrachhari district of Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Over the past four days, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of capital Dhaka and major cities to demand justice including the death penalty for rapists and immediate government action to end the rape menace. Countless Bangladeshi users, mostly women and girls have blacked out their Facebook profile pictures in protest over rising rapes and impunity.

Arani Semanti Khan, an activist and student of Dhaka University, blamed lax law enforcement and the impunity of politically and financially influential rapists for the scourge of violence against women.

“Not just rape, any kind of oppression is linked to power wielding in Bangladesh. This power can be political, social, financial, age-related and muscle power. You cannot stop rape in a country when the powerful continue to feel nothing would happen after rape is committed. You can only expect the country to become a sanctuary of rapists,” she said. 

Global rights watchdog Amnesty International also issued a statement deploring the rape crisis and extremely low rate of convictions in Bangladesh.

“This truly disturbing footage [of the Noakhali rape case] demonstrates the shocking violence that Bangladeshi women are routinely being subjected to. In the vast majority of these cases, the justice system fails to hold the perpetrators responsible,” said Sultan Mohammed Zakaria, South Asia researcher at Amnesty International, on Oct. 6.

“There can be no excuses here — the Bangladeshi authorities must immediately launch a thorough and impartial investigation and bring those responsible for this vicious attack to justice through fair trials without recourse to the death penalty.”

Only 3.56 percent of cases filed under the Women and Children Repression (Prevention) Act 2000 have resulted in a court judgment and only 0.37 percent of cases ended with convictions, according to data from the One-Stop-Crisis Center.

Dhaka-based rights group Ain-O-Salish Kendra documented 975 rape cases including 208 gang rapes in Bangladesh from January to September this year. It recorded 1,413 rape cases in 2019, about double the 732 in 2018.

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