Nirmola Gomes couldn’t escape being married off at a young age even though she was vehemently opposed to it. Her family was poor and had found what they considered a promising suitor, a Bangladeshi man who worked as a cook at a hotel in Dubai. At the time of their marriage in 2010, Nirmola was just 16, and the man was almost twice her age. Soon afterwards, Nirmola experienced the cruel side of forced – and unequal – marriage in Bangladesh. “I was too young and didn’t know what it is like to be a bride. He used to beat me during the day and assaulted me sexually at night,” said Nirmola, a Catholic from Natore district in northeastern Bangladesh. She said her husband was an alcoholic and beat her up when he got drunk. Within two months, Nirmola became pregnant. But that didn’t stop the abuse.
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“His intention was to leave me, so that he could have a second marriage. One day he kicked me so badly that I had to be hospitalized and two days later I had a miscarriage,” she said. Instead of returning to the home of her in-laws after leaving the hospital, she fled to a friend’s home. Later, she was rescued by a human rights group and given a job in their office. Nirmola didn’t file a case against her husband. “My life is already ruined. Going to the police won’t change anything,” she said. Stories of Nirmola’s are all too common in Bangladesh, but rarely are complaints filed to authorities. About 87 percent of married women in Bangladesh have been victims of various forms of domestic violence in their lifetime, according to a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)-sponsored survey conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, released this January. Of 12,600 women surveyed, 65 percent said they were physically tortured by their husbands, 36 percent were victims of sexual violence, 82 percent faced psychological abuse and 53 percent were victims of mental anguish. Only half the victims received treatment, while one third said they didn’t seek treatment for their injuries over fears of a backlash from their husbands. In Muslim-majority Bangladesh, the conservative patriarchal attitude of society is blamed for sexual violence within marriage. Sexual violence in marriage is less talked about in the country, but it needs more attention, says Dr. Ruchira Tabassum Naved, a social scientist with the Dhaka-based International Center for Diarrheal Diseases Research, Bangladesh. “Here, we have an extremely high rate of sexual violence in marriage. By the virtue of marriage, man is perceived to have unlimited access to his wife’s body and marriage is perceived as a license to have any kind of sexual activity the men want,” she said. In rural Bangladesh, 55 percent of married women face sexual violence compared to 37 percent in urban areas, she added. The high rate of child marriage is another reason behind the prevalence of domestic violence. In Bangladesh, one in every three girls marries before age 15, according to a UNFPA survey released in October of last year. With 64 percent of girls getting married before 18, the country is currently ranked sixth in the global index of child marriage and first in Asia. “Those who get married early, they usually can’t cope with the husband and in-laws”, said Dr. Ishrat Shamim, director of the Center for Women and Children Studies. “In our country, you are not just married with your husband but also with the whole family. It creates problems." Prompted by women’s rights groups the government passed a Domestic Violence Act in 2010, which makes domestic violence a punishable offense with a maximum sentence of two years in jail. Yet, domestic abuse cases still go largely unreported. “There is a cost to pay for reporting violence. It can provoke more violence [as] there may be retaliation” from the husband or in-laws, said Dr. Ruchira. Violence is also seen as a way of correcting women, so when a woman is abused it is assumed that she has called the abuse down upon herself, she said. This perception, in turn, prevents abused women from speaking up. “Women are often blamed for being abused,” she said. “So the women get the impression that reporting or telling anybody that ‘I have been abused’ is similar to saying ‘I have been bad’.” In September 2013, the World Health Organization released a study on domestic violence against women in 10 countries including Bangladesh. “We found that 66 percent of women never talk about their experience of violence and 34 percent, who talk about their experience, usually talk to their relatives and sometimes, in rural areas, to their neighbors. But less than two percent seek help from formal institutions like police and hospital,” she said. Although in-laws are often involved in domestic abuse situations, in most cases the husband is the main perpetrator. A WHO survey of 2,400 Bangladeshi men found that 89 percent of rural men believe a husband has the right to mildly beat his wife to correct her, while 83 percent of the urban males surveyed held the same view. Moreover, 93 percent of urban men and 98 percent of rural men believed that one needs to be tough to become a real man and 50 percent of urban men and 65 percent of rural men thought women need to tolerate repression to save their families. The dowry system is another major factor fueling domestic violence. Though demanding a dowry from a bride’s family has been illegal in Bangladesh since 1980, the practice is still prevalent. Rubina Akter, from Shariatpur district south of Dhaka, was subjected to one of the most extreme forms of domestic violence after her family failed to pay a dowry. The youngest of three daughters born to a poor rural farmer, she was married off to a grocery shop owner at the age of 22, in 2012. Her husband didn’t demand a dowry at the time of marriage, but asked for it a year later when his business slipped and he fell into debt. He demanded that Rubina ask her father for 200,000 taka (about US$2,564), but she refused, knowing that her family could not afford such an extravagant sum. After months of physical and psychological abuse, her husband threw sulfuric acid in her face last September, which left her disfigured and blind in her right eye. She moved back into father’s house after receiving treatment and filed a case against her husband. Police later arrested her mother-in-law as an accomplice in the attack, but her husband and his brother are still at large. Now, all Rubina wants is justice. “I will never forgive them. They have destroyed my life and I want to see them severely punished,” she said. Unreported cases of violence are often attributed to negligence from police and the local authorities. “If a victim goes to the police station, police are reluctant to file a case. They often ask, ‘Why complain about such a little matter?’ If she goes to a local union council, she is most likely to be asked to settle it mutually,” said Dr. Ishrat, a former professor of Sociology at Dhaka University. “The victim also fears that if she files a case her husband might never take her back. Also, the legal process is too long and so expensive that most victims cannot afford it,” she said. Religious teachings are also exploited to subjugate women in Bangladesh, said Dr. Ishrat. “According to Islam and Christianity, the first woman was created with the bone of the first man. Hinduism tells a woman to worship her husband as a god,” she said. “That’s why the society always thinks women are inferior to men.” Editor's note: Names of victims have been changed to protect their identities.