Rekha Parvin, 43, a Bangladeshi Muslim housewife from southwestern Narail district was abused and tortured for years by her husband over a dowry payment from her parents. (ucanews.com photo)
Patriarchy, obsolete social norms, fear of repercussions and poor legal protection force a majority of the victims of domestic violence to keep silent, Bangladeshi women activists say.
Only 4 percent of women who have suffered sexual and gender-based violence reported their case or sought support from institutions like the police, courts and hospitals, according to a study released on Aug. 21. Many kept silent and only a few went to informal institutions like "Salish" (village courts) and local union councils to seek redress.
The study was part of a three-year "Accelerating Efforts to Prevent and Respond to Sexual and Gender Based Violence" project jointly sponsored by the United Nations Development Program for Bangladesh and Korea's international development agency. The findings echo results of a 2013 survey carried out by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics that found nine out of 10 women would face some form of domestic or sexual violence in their lifetime.
"In our country, domestic violence is largely considered a family matter," said Rita Roselin Costa, convener of the Women's Desk at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Bangladesh.
"Most of the victims think that speaking up against violence or seeking support from formal institutions would be defamatory to her and the family so, they say nothing," said Costa.
"Most women who initially seek support from formal or informal institutions quickly withdraw fearing a backlash from family and society. Serious criminal cases like rape, murder and acid throwing take place but remain largely unreported," she said.
"Many women's rights groups and NGOs offer legal aid, medicine and counseling services to victims at the grassroots level. But we have seen less than 30 percent make a second call to seek assistance."
Most victims of gender-based violence keep silent in order to "save family life" and because they don't know how to access social and legal protection, according to Fauzia Karim, president of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association, a leading women's rights group.
"Despite some progress, most women are socially and financially disempowered. They know very well that if they lose their family that even their parents and relatives won't [provide] shelter," said Karim, a Supreme Court lawyer.
Bangladesh Domestic Violence Act 2010 fails to address the issue, as its provisions for protection are "substandard" and many women are not aware of the act's existence, she said.
"In many countries, victim women get accommodation, employment, financial and legal support in fighting abuses, but here it's not the reality," Karim continued. "Moreover, legal processes are expensive and lengthy, which makes victims frustrated about getting justice so they give up."
In Bangladesh's male-dominated society, violence against women is considered a corrective measure. Women are also barred from raising their voices, according to Ishrat Shamim, director of Dhaka-based Center for Women and Children Studies.
"It is generally perceived that women who face violence have done something wrong and they need to go through corrective measures," said Shamim, a former professor of Sociology at Dhaka University. "Existing social norms teach men and boys that they need to be tough and control women and make them submissive."
Besides the stigma, a tendency to classify violence against women as personal and family matters must end too, she urged.
"The patriarchal mindset, social and legal systems need to change if we want to help women to stand up against violence and seek justice. Women must no longer be treated as subordinates."
Extreme forms of sexual and domestic violence against women is less prevalent among Christian communities and the church carries out women's rights "sensitization campaigns" at diocesan and parish levels, according to Costa.
"Extreme forms of violence against women are less among Christians, but it is still a reality. To address it we offer leadership training to women at grassroots levels and make them aware about government and non-government support mechanism in case of abuses and violence," she said.