Many rape cases go unreported in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. (Image: Pixabay)
Over the past few days, Bangladesh has been abuzz with debates and protests over brutal rape cases that have triggered soul-searching about one of most horrific and dehumanizing forms of violence against women.
On Sept. 25, six members of the Chhatra League, the student front of the ruling Awami League, allegedly raped a newly-wed woman for hours after tying up her husband at the hostel of Murari Chand College, a 128-year-old prominent institute in Sylhet city in the northeast.
Three months into their marriage, the couple went to enjoy the natural beauty of the campus like hundreds of visitors before hell broke loose on the fateful day.
The crime sparked a massive public and social media backlash, triggering street protests that prompted the administration and police to act swiftly and arrest the accused.
Media reports found the alleged rapists are close associates of influential local politicians who have roamed scot-free for years despite committing crimes including possession of arms, violent clashes with rivals, extortion and harassment of women on and off the campus. Even after the gang rape their alleged godfathers tried to settle the issue, but it was already beyond their control.
The college case has triggered much anger because there have been countless allegations of various crimes including rape against Chhatra League leaders and members since 2008 when the Awami League came to power, but most have evaporated without justice.
On Sept. 24, nine Bengali men broke into a house of an ethnic Chakma family and brutally raped a mentally challenged girl after tying her parents with ropes in Khagrachhari district of Chittagong Hill Tracts in southeast Bangladesh. Police claimed the accused are members of a local robber gang.
In the same district, Krittika Tripura, an 11-year-old girl from the ethnic Tripura community, was brutally raped and murdered by unidentified attackers in July 2018. Justice remains in limbo.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts, covering three hilly, forested districts, is a restive, heavily militarized region infamous for sectarian violence between ethnic communities and Bengali Muslim settlers. Rape is a common tool to terrorize ethnic communities.
The scourge of sexual violence
Sexual violence is a global plague. UN Women says about 35 percent of women and girls in the world face some form of sexual violence in their lifetime, while less than 40 percent of victims report rape.
Bangladesh reflects those statistics. A total of 889 women and girls were raped, 191 were victims of attempted rape, 41 died after rape and nine committed suicide after rape from January to August of this year, according to Dhaka-based rights group Ain-O-Salish Kendra (ASK).
The actual figure should be much higher as the data only shows cases reported in the media, while many cases remain unreported, which is a common reality in South Asian countries like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.
ASK documented 1,413 rape cases in Bangladesh in 2019, about double the 732 cases in 2018. In India, about 100 women are raped every day, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. In Pakistan, a rape occurs every hour and a gang rape every two hours, according to Human Rights Watch.
In Bangladesh, women and girls of all ages, from children to elderly, have been not been spared from sexual violence. In 2017, the nation was shocked when an 80-year-old sick and bed-ridden woman was raped.
The rapists hail from diverse groups — from relatives, teachers, religious leaders, law enforcers, political leaders and activists to petty and hardened criminals. In most cases, the offenders are financially and politically influential people who enjoy impunity, encouraging them to repeat the crime.
Bangladesh is a nominally moderate Muslim country with a largely conservative and patriarchal social system where sex is considered taboo and off limits for public discussion or education.
Rape is seen a loss of honor and a disgrace for the victim and her family by most people. Often the victim is blamed for inviting the crime by wearing revealing dresses and going out after dusk.
This illogical and unrealistic victim shaming leads to social ostracism and suicides of victims. Parents in rural areas often hush up the rape of their daughters, fearing that reporting it would end her chances of a good marriage for losing her “topmost honor.”
It is hypocritical and irresponsible for a society that regards modesty and virginity highly to do little to teach men to honor the dignity of women. Instead, families, schools and religious institutes warn women about their clothes and lifestyles.
Broadly, Bangladeshi society still views women as subordinates to men and commodities for pleasure. Women’s choices, likes and dislikes really don’t count much. Such an irresponsible and uncivilized society offers grounds for rapists to thrive. Thus, a rape is not a disgrace for the victim but a damning shame for the society.
Legal loopholes and impunity
British colonial-era laws offer loopholes for rapists and their backers to avoid punishment for sexual crimes. Defense lawyers can exploit the Evidence Act 1872 and question a woman’s lifestyle and clothing to show that she has a “general immoral character.”
It often forces the complainant to give up the legal battle to escape “a second rape” in the form of ugly and dirty questioning by defense lawyers.
For similar reasons, many victims don’t go to police to register a case as they are anxious to avoid intrusive police quizzing. They often resort to out-of-court settlements.
The 1860 Penal Code narrowly defines rape as a gender-specific crime and sets life imprisonment as the maximum punishment for rape, with the death sentence if the victim dies. However, poor police probes, intimidation of victims and witnesses and influence on the legal system by offenders often means no justice at the end.
The Women and Child Repression (Prevention) Act 2000 introduced minimal protection such as not disclosing a victim’s identity as well as closed-door and immediate examination of rape victims, but it does little to address the root causes of rape.
Some believe that the death penalty and even extrajudicial killings would be strong deterrents against rape, but they would not be effective. India introduced the death penalty for rape after the brutal gang rape and murder of a medical student in Delhi in 2012, but the country still has one of the world’s highest rates of rape.
Any change to rape legislation won’t curb this heinous crime unless society changes the way women are viewed and treated, allowing them to live with dignity like men.
Rock Ronald Rozario is the bureau chief for UCA News in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.