Young girls in Dhaka seen in this 2014 photo. Despite a high number of young girls facing harassment in Bangladesh, this is largely unreported due to social stigma associated with being teased and a lack of justice. (ucanews.com photo)
Every day from 8 to 11 a.m., Nomita Rosaline Costa waits in front of Holy Cross High School in central Dhaka for her 14-year-old daughter Chhobi Costa in grade seven.
"I am concerned about the safety and security of my younger daughter as 'eve-teasing' is rampant nowadays," Costa, 43, a Catholic housewife and mother of two daughters told ucanews.com.
The term "eve-teasing" is a loose reference to the biblical Eve and implies that girls and women who are victims of abuse or harassment are actually temptresses, justifying the harassment inflicted on them by wicked men.
It takes various verbal and nonverbal forms, from whistles, leers and winks to unwanted physical contact, catcalls, and sexually suggestive remarks; from a woman being told to adjust her clothing or scarf to suit religious norms to groping and even serious sexual assault.
"My elder daughter is a graduate student and I didn’t worry much about her safety when she went to school. But recent unpleasant incidents have struck me with fear, so I always accompany her when she goes to school and comes home," Costa said.
Her fear and anxiety about her daughter’s safety is a common phenomenon among Bangladeshi mothers.
Most cases of stalking go unreported in Bangladesh due to social stigma, which can be fatal.
There were 362 young girls and women who were victims of stalking in 2015 and 22 were killed or committed suicide, according to Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, a leading women’s rights group. Until September this year, there were 181 reported cases of stalking, five of which resulted in suicide and two in murder, the group said.
Two recent cases of fatal stalking shocked the nation, provoking an unprecedented public outcry before police arrested the attackers.
Suraiya Akter Risha, 14, an eighth grader from Wills Little Flower School in Dhaka was stabbed on Aug. 24 after she refused to date a stalker. Four days later she succumbed to her injuries.
Less than a month later, Nitu Mondal, 14, a ninth grader was hacked to death by a stalker from her village in central Madaripur district on Sept. 18.
"In our country, there are high levels of sexual harassment but most girls don’t share with anyone what they face, fearing that their parents or people in society might blame them for what happened," said Rita Rosalin Costa, convener of the Women’s Desk at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh.
Sometimes, if any relative sexually abuses her, she and her family are most likely to hush up the incident to protect the ‘honor’ of the family," Costa noted.
A victim rarely approaches the police or court for justice, as people have almost no confidence in the legal system, she pointed out.
"There are laws to curb stalking but these are not enforced. So, the perpetrators think they can do whatever they like and can get away with it. Often the stalkers are financially influential and the victim’s families cannot fight against them," Costa said.
Tackling stalking needs a concerted effort, she said.
"Stalking stems from poor parenting and inadequate socialization. Modern technology like mobile phones and satellite media and youth unemployment also play a role. We need to tackle all these to stop this social vice," she added.
The Bangladesh Penal Code stipulates a one-year jail term and a fine for violating or attempting to violate the modesty of women by making comments, lewd body language or actions. Meanwhile, anyone who touches the body of a woman with sexual intent can be jailed for 3-10 years.
The Dhaka-based Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers’ Association says about 90 percent of girls aged 10-18 years old face sexual harassment. It estimates that 32 percent of abusers are students, 33 percent are middle-aged men and 35 percent are anti-socials.
"Most cases of sexual harassment go unreported and unpunished, because young women fear further physical and sexual harm, being socially disrespected and becoming the subject of gossip," said Fauzia Karim, a Supreme Court lawyer and the association's president.
Part of the problem lies in the absence of a law or specific guideline to tackle sexual harassment and little effort from the government and civil society groups to address the issue in its wider socio-cultural context, Karim noted.
"Most of the reported cases are filed under the Prevention of Oppression Against Women and Children Act 2000 but it fails to address the root causes of the problem. There was a High Court directive back in 2009 for the government to formulate a new law to combat this problem, but it is yet to see the light," Karim added.
Tackling the social stigma and emotional trauma of stalking are important factors to be dealt with, says psychologist Sultane Manjur from North Bengal Medical College and Hospital.
"Girls often suffer from depression and feel guilty when they face harassment. They can’t share it with anyone and at the extreme level they commit suicide. They badly need support and counseling to recover from this trauma," said Manjur.
"For the stalkers, the family and society needs to keep track of their activities and correct them when they hear about wrongdoings before things turn worse," he added.