About one-thirds of unmarried girls in Bangladesh face sexual harassment once a year, says a survey. (Photo: Shutterstock)
A leading women’s rights group in Bangladesh has called for the formation and effective functioning of committees in all educational institutes and workplaces to address rising cases of sexual harassment of women and girls in the country.
Some 71 percent of educational institutes have committees to prevent sexual harassment and 39 percent of workplaces have such committees, Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA) said in a statement during a press conference in the capital Dhaka on Nov. 28.
The BNWLA did not provide the figure for sample institutions. An official said the data was collected from the state-run University Grants Commission and various labor organizations.
The group said all education institutes and workplaces are supposed to form such committees following a directive from the High Court in 2009.
Despite this, about 29 percent of educational institutes have no such committees, and only 44 percent of institutes have effective committees, the group said.
The High Court directive came in response to a Public Interest Litigation by BNWLA in 2008 to protect women and girls from sexual harassment in the workplace and educational institutions.
The court ordered employers to form a seven-member sexual harassment complaint committee headed by a female employee and if possible appoint at least two members from outside the organization.
Supreme Court lawyer and BNWLA president Salma Ali lamented that even after 13 years the High Court directive has yet to become a reality.
“We demand forming and implementing a sexual harassment prevention committee in every workplace and educational institution as per the instructions of the High Court. More awareness-raising initiatives should be taken so that complainants can approach the committee without fear,” she told UCA News.
Abused women need to find the strength and courage to complain, she said, adding that an environment needs to be created where they can complain easily and without any harassment.
A recent survey shows sexual harassment is extremely high in the South Asian nation.
A study by US-funded Data for Impact released on Nov. 24 showed one-third of unmarried girls in Bangladesh face sexual harassment at least once a year, the Financial Express newspaper reported. The proportion is about one-fifth among never-married girls.
In about 77 percent of cases of physical violence against married women the perpetrators are their husbands, the study found.
The BNWLA reported that in the past ten months, some 3,600 women and girls have been subjected to abuse.
Despite having committees, there are allegations that such committees often fail to function independently and when a complaint is submitted attempts are made to cover up to save the reputation of the organization.
Sumaiya Akhter, 48, head of the sexual harassment complaint committee of a private bank, said that such committees should stop being a paper-tiger.
"If any complaint is received, it should be investigated. If it is found to be true, the wrongdoer should be handed over to the law enforcement agency, but we let him go by firing him," Akhter told UCA News.
Although institutions run by the Bangladesh Catholic Church have safeguarding policies, UCA News spoke to at least 10 women from five institutions. Seven of them said they are unaware of how to make a complaint if they are sexually harassed or do not know who is the right person to approach.
A female teacher at a Catholic-run college in northern Bangladesh said that she has been teaching there for four years. "There is no committee to complain if someone is a victim of sexual harassment in our institution,” she told UCA News on condition of anonymity.
She noted that when allegations of sexual harassment surface, no committee, but the head of the institution resolve it.
“But I think there should be a specific committee where women or students who are victims of torture can complain without fear,” she added.
Sebastian Rozario, executive director of Catholic charity Caritas Bangladesh, said that the agency has a strong safeguarding policy and a victim of sexual abuse can file grievances by complaint box, by email, or directly to the focal person.
“I have been the executive director for more than two years and have had two such incidents during this time. Two employees were sacked after finding out the truth of the sexual harassment incident,” Rozario told UCA News.