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Causes and consequences of violence against women

by Saira Rahman Khan

WOMEN in Bangladesh are subject to various forms of violence because socioeconomic and class-based discrimination, coupled with gender relations, place them in subordinate positions in all aspects of life. The legal framework appears ineffective in combating patriarchal practices and dominance because of exceptions, loopholes and corruption. Thus, women continue to face various forms of violence, harassment and degradation.
A large number of women fall victim to domestic violence every year in Bangladesh, mainly over dowry demands by their husbands and in-laws. The general trend of unwillingness to address the issue of domestic violence effectively is because domestic violence is a far more deep-rooted and sensitive issue for Bangladeshi society than violence by the police or violence in public spaces, since it raises the question of the abuse of the patriarchal power structure within the family.
Women are, thus, the largely silent victims and witnesses to domestic violence, rape and other heinous acts, their silence made even more profound due to the social stigma attached to some of the acts of violence they face. Women are discriminated against in public life and within the family. They are sometimes labelled the ‘poorest of the poor’ due to their low economic status, especially if they are poor women who have been abandoned by their husbands or are poor widows. Even when they are strong enough to seek employment overseas, government policies fail to protect them abroad.

In Bangladesh today, ‘equality before the law’, though a constitutional guarantee, is still hard to achieve. On paper, the law seemingly discriminates among none, but in practice, justice is for the rich and those who can afford legal representation and not for the poor who are, generally, at loss as to how and where to seek legal redress and who face the most abuse and exploitation.
Given the patriarchal and class-based nature of Bangladeshi society, and due to lack of enforcement of law and order, the jilted Romeo may take revenge by rape or acid violence, to spoil any future chances of a relationship for the victim. Failure to meet dowry demands may also lead to various forms of violence against women.
Rape is a taboo issue in Bangladesh as it is something that brings shame to not only the victim but to her family as well. When a woman has been raped and the crime made public, the first thought that enters the mind of the community is that she must have encouraged the perpetrator with sexual advances or flirtatious remarks. Unfortunately, in such a social make-up, the woman, and not the man, is perceived to be of bad character. What happens afterwards? Usually, if the matter is not taken to court, a rural mediation or salish will commence with the village elite sitting judge and pass a decision whereby the rapist and his victim are married; or the victim is labelled a ‘loose’ women and both she and the perpetrator either whipped, beaten with shoes or even stoned; or the family of the victim are ostracised by the rest of the community. Whatever the social treatment after the offence, the people who pass the illegal decision are men, the marriage to her rapist will be fraught with domestic violence and her father will be shamed for life.
If the matter is complained of and see the inside of a courtroom, in-camera trials are there in legislation but may not always be considered or practised. As a result, the victim is made to relive the shameful event, in sickening detail, in front of a male magistrate and a room full of (mostly) male lawyers and criminals, despite a legal provision for in-camera trials for victims of rape [The Suppression of Repression against Women and Children Act 2000 (Amended in 2003)]. Apart from that, there always remains the fear of threats from the rapist and his family, which compel some victims to stop appearing before the court.
Another form of violence is the mental stress that stems from verbal abuse and harassment of a sexual nature by colleagues, teachers, local men and neighbours and the like. In Bangladesh, this has even led to the suicide of young girls, too ashamed to leave the house due to, among other issues, the fear that their families will be dishonoured if men and boys continue to harass them.
However, patriarchy not only perpetrates violence against women, it maintains it by preventing dissenting voices. When women human rights defenders rally and work to promote and protect human rights, they too face several gender-specific risks, in addition to those risks that are faced by their male counterparts. When women take action to defend their rights, they may be perceived as a threat to social stability. They also face social pressures, such as prejudice and exclusion, and even victimised at home where they may suffer domestic violence. Women human rights defenders may be subject to verbal abuse and sexual harassment. Given the culture of ‘shame against a woman is shame against the family’, the silence of the victim and the male-dominated legal system also ensures that many of such violations are not made public and the experience is suppressed. This has serious repercussions on the well-being of women human rights defenders.
Apart from the Penal Code of 1860, Bangladesh has several laws that have been enacted specifically for the punishment of perpetrators of acts of violence against women. Among them, the most important two are The Suppression of Violence against Women and Children Act 2000 (amended in 2003) and the Acid Crime Control Act 2002. However, such laws were enacted without popular opinion, and with little consultation from women’s rights groups.
Furthermore, in response to a public interest litigation filed by the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association BNWLA, the High Court Division ruled on May 14, 2009 that any kind of physical, mental or sexual harassment of women, girls and children at their workplaces, educational institutions and at other public places, including roads, was a criminal offence, punishable by fine and/or imprisonment. The ruling detailed sexual misdemeanour as ‘any kind of provocation through phone calls or e-mail, lewd gestures, showing of pornography, lurid stares, physical contact or molestation, stalking, vulgar sounds or any display of a derogatory nature.’ The High Court bench directed the government to make a law on the basis of its guidelines; until that happened, its guidelines would enjoy the status of law (Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association vs. the Government of Bangladesh and Others. Writ Petition No. 5916 of 2008). 
 Regardless of this, sexual harassment continues, with little regard to its effect on the victim or her family; and often under the patronage of the local political elite.
There is a consensus that both the lack of understanding the law and the lack of implementation of the law are reasons that are seriously hampering justice. Even if we ignore the flaws in the prevalent laws and focus on the lack of implementation, we will see that the latter is possibly one of the main causes for the continuation of violence against women. Not many women in Bangladesh complain against domestic violence, either because they are ignorant of the laws that do not condone this act or because they or their families wish to keep the matter private. In the police stations law enforcement officers still perceive domestic violence as a social, and not a legal, issue. It is ‘ordinary’ or ‘common’ for a man to chastise his wife. Unfortunately, violence that stems from dowry demands may lead to the death of the wife by her husband or her in-laws and only after her death is the crime acknowledged, and the perpetrator arrested. It is truly unfortunate that in cases of domestic violence, the bride keeps returning to her father’s home for refuge, but is usually sent back to her husband’s when he demands — or when her father cannot afford to feed her and/or her children. Later, she may return as a corpse.
Therefore, indifference, corruption, poor investigation, lack of evidence, poor preservation of evidence and reluctance of the police to handle domestic violence issues are some of the reasons. Others include ambiguity in the language of the new laws, ignorance of the law, the inability to go to the police station to complain due to threats by the perpetrator; inability to continue court appearance due to financial or social reasons; and inefficient legal representation. Furthermore, the criminal justice system is not pro-poor. Every step of the way involves ‘paying’ someone or the other in the system, be he the police officer investigating the matter, the clerk who files the case to even, according to reports, the public prosecutor and the magistrate. As a result, poverty rules out justice. Most importantly, there is no law protecting victims and witnesses from backlash by the perpetrator. As a result, they refrain from coming forward with statements.
Furthermore, there is lack of expertise, especially at the local and rural health-worker level, which hampers the proper identification of burn wounds, evidence of rape, etc. The injury registers at the local hospitals are not maintained properly and this hampers the case. Medical certificates are not always issued because doctors are unwilling/uninterested to act as witnesses; again, some medical certificates are unclear and ambiguous as to the source of the injury. Again, because district-level government doctors are transferred from one place to another, they are difficult to trace by the summons officer.
Corruption in the law enforcement agencies is a critical obstacle to eliminate crime and violence against women. Medical care, short-stay-homes or shelters are far too inadequate and girls and women who suffer from family problems often are left with no option but to fall prey to new exploiters. There are no facilities to treat trauma victims, or to provide occupational therapy, education-cum-vocational training or recreation.
It is a fact that human rights violations are violations perpetrated by the state — either by being involved directly in the act, through state agencies, or acknowledging that such acts exist but refraining from doing anything to stop or curtail them. In the matter of violence against women, the inaction of the police, for whatever reason, and their reluctance to carry out proper investigations, the inaction of the government appointed civil surgeon in ensuring proper medical examinations of victims, all contribute to encouraging acts of violence against women, and thus such acts are also human rights violations. Furthermore, there have been cases where the police themselves are the perpetrators of such violence. That too, is then a human rights violation.
The Government must have the political will to curtail acts of violence against women and to ensure that the laws are implemented effectively and that the perpetrators are punished.
Women who survive attacks suffer prolonged physical and mental sufferings, social isolation, insecurity and declining working capability. In most of the cases, they do not get justice. The traumatic experience of the incident and the social and economic hardships after, further damage self-esteem and may hamper their development. It is unfortunate that despite adequate laws and increased public awareness, the number of incidents of violence against women remains high. In order to curtail acts of violence against women, the following suggestions may be made:
A law protecting victims and witnesses must be enacted, so that they can give evidence without the fear of threats from the perpetrator.
A separate, independent investigation cell needs to be established in the police department. Police officers of the level of inspector or above should be chosen for this cell and given training in modern investigation skills and techniques for crimes amounting to violence against women.
Case dockets should be prepared under the supervision of the investigating officer and if any ambiguity arises, he must be held liable.
Doctors at the local level hospitals need to receive training on how to identify and treat burn wounds and rape cases; and even how to prove domestic violence.
The responsible doctor must enter all the details in the injury register as soon as possible.
The issuing of medical certificates must be made legally binding.
It must be the responsibility of the public prosecutor to ensure the timely presence of witnesses and their statements.
Cases must be heard and decided within the time frame decided by law.
Steps must be taken to reduce corruption in the office of the public prosecutor and in the police force and any corrupt official must be penalised.
It is high time for the people in power to make a critical examination of past and present actions that have allowed perpetrators of acid violence to walk free and that have allowed acts of violence against women to continue unabated. The state needs to become a pro-people, democratic state to successful perform for all the citizens it belongs to. If it fails to deliver, the only recourses are continuous people’s movements.
Saira Rahman Khan is a member of the human rights organisation Odhikar and an associate professor at the School of Law, BRAC University.

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