Move to combat sexual harassment in Bangladesh schools

Committees will handle complaints after Muslim student is murdered after accusing teacher of attempted rape
Move to combat sexual harassment in Bangladesh schools

Demonstrators form a human chain in Bangladeshi capital Dhaka on April 20 to call for justice after the murder of a teenage student who complained about sexual harassment by her teacher. (ucanews.com photo)

Bangladeshi authorities have ordered education institutes to form units to prevent sexual harassment following the murder of a teenage student days after she accused a teacher of sexual assault.

An official from the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education (DSHE) said an order has been issued to 27,000 schools to form five-member committees to combat sexual harassment.

"The committees will be led by female teachers. They will take steps to prevent sexual harassment and take up any complaints," DSHE director Shahedul Khabir Chowdhury told AFP news agency on April 21.

Chowdhury said the government move follows a 2009 High Court directive that set out guidelines to prevent sexual harassment of women and children in workplaces, schools and on the streets.

Nusrat Jahan Rafi, 19, a Muslim student from Sonagazi madrasa (Islamic school), was set on fire after she was tied with a scarf and her body doused in kerosene on April 6 in Feni district of southeastern Bangladesh.

A group of people including three of her classmates tricked her to go to a rooftop, carried out the attack and planned to pass off the death as a suicide.

The girl was attacked after she refused to withdraw a March 27 complaint to police of attempted rape against the madrasa’s principal.

Rafi had burns on more than 80 percent of her body and her death sparked a massive public and media outcry including angry street protests.

Protesters called on the government to hand out “exemplary punishment” to those responsible for the brutal attack while also demanding reform of Bangladeshi laws and practices regarding sexual assault.

Police arrested 14 of the 16 alleged plotters, perpetrators and backers of the crime including madrasa principal Siraj-ul-Doula.

Rights groups including New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Bangladeshi authorities to ensure justice over the murder.

Barrister Sara Hossain, honorary executive director of Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, has been instrumental in fighting sexual harassment of women and girls.

“Often we see the government makes some moves on an issue when it turns into a crisis. Timely responses and actions would have saved many women and girls from abuses and losing their lives,” Hossain told ucanews.com.

“The government cannot end its responsibilities by only issuing an order to form committees to combat sexual harassment — it must be strictly enforced and monitored.”

Jyoti F. Gomes, secretary of Bangladesh Catholic Education Board, doubted whether the initiative would be enforced properly.

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“There is a culture of impunity and silence in our society and the state over sexual harassment. The initiative is good, but I have doubts about how much it will be effective when the wave of public outrage over the student’s death wanes,” Gomes told ucanews.com.

Bangladesh had more than 700 cases of rape and sexual assault in 2018, according to Dhaka-based human rights group Ain-O-Salish Kendra (Law and Arbitration Center).

Rights activists believe the actual number of cases is much higher as many cases go unreported due to the social stigma of reporting rape and sexual assault in a largely conservative Muslim-majority society.

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