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Bangladeshi activists decry surge in rape and impunity

Patriarchal society, lengthy trials and intrusive questioning mean many cases of sexual violence never reach court

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Bangladeshi activists decry surge in rape and impunity

Students hold a rally in Dhaka on Jan. 23 to call for justice over the alleged rape of two indigenous women in Chittagong Hill Tracts. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)

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Women's rights advocates have blamed a male-dominated social system, poor legal protection and a culture of impunity for a surge in sexual violence including rape in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan told parliament on Feb. 18 that from 2014-17 a total of 17,289 rape cases were filed involving 17,389 victims including 3,528 children.

"Justice was completed in 3,430 cases. Courts have convicted 17 to death, 80 to life imprisonment and handed down jail terms to 673 people during the period," the minister said in response to a question in the house.

The minister's statement followed a Feb. 12 court verdict in Tangail district of central Bangladesh that sentenced four people to death and jailed another for seven years for raping and killing a young law student on a moving bus.

Five men including the bus driver and his assistants raped Rupa Khatun, 27, on a night bus on Aug. 25 last year. They killed her and dumped her body in a forest beside Tangail-Mymensingh Highway.

The gruesome crime sparked a massive public and media outcry. The convictions came only 173 days after the crime in a rare case of swift justice in Bangladesh.   

Women's activists say the real figures for sexual violence against women and children are much higher as many cases go unreported due to complexities and the lengthy legal process.

"This verdict is a milestone but not enough to cheer about. This case delivered justice as the culprits were petty criminals, not influential persons. If it had involved the owner of the bus instead of the bus driver, I suspect the result could be different," Nina Goswami, a lawyer and senior deputy director at Ain-o-Salish Kendra, a Dhaka-based rights group, told ucanews.com.

"Often rape cases go unreported due to social stigma and shaming of the victim for 'loss of honor.' Victims are often poor and powerless, so they don't expect justice from an expensive, lengthy judicial process," said Goswami.

"Lack of justice spurs a culture of impunity, so rapists continue to walk free and commit the crime again."

Rita Roselin Costa, convener of the women's desk at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Bangladesh, said rape victims face abusive treatment instead of sympathy and support from society and legal institutes.

"Lengthy trials and abusive questioning by police and in court mean a rape victim is raped many times afterwards. The rapists influence society by threatening and shaming the victim, so the family refrain from registering a case or even withdraw a filed case," she said.

"The statistics from the home minister show justice in cases of violence against women is very low."

According to Bangladesh police, 243,373 cases of violence against women and children were recorded in Bangladesh from 2002-17.

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