The Bangladesh government introduced the death penalty as the maximum level of punishment for the proven crime of rape on October 13, 2020. The decision came amidst the anti-rape protests that started earlier on October 5 as a result of the nationwide public concern over the security of women. While this governmental response is positive in terms of responding to the public demand, concerns remain over the potential implications of this new law in eliminating rape and sexual violence against women in the country.
Bangladesh has been plagued with the problem of sexual violence against women for a long time. Thousands of female rape cases are reported every year in the country, of which a number of victims end up committing suicide as a result of trauma and social stigma. Many cases go unreported out of fear of social ostracism. More than 1,000 rapes have been reported this year, and a fifth of the total number have been gang rapes. During the Covid-19 pandemic, incidents of sexual violence have risen exponentially. A total of 632 rape incidents happened in between April and August this year, along with 142 cases of attempted rape. On average, 4 women have been raped every day during the pandemic.
The anti-rape protests started a day after the video of a 37-year old woman being sexually abused went viral on Facebook. On September 25, 2020, a 20-year old woman was grabbed while she was out with her husband in a car and gang-raped. Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) activists, the student wing of the ruling political party Awami League, were alleged to have been involved in both of the incidents.
The impact of the death penalty as a means of decreasing sexual violence remains highly debated among local communities. The possibility remains that fear of apprehension and conviction, resulting in the death penalty, might lead towards the criminals killing the victims after rape. There is also the chance that the law will be misused by ruling party officials or the party-empowered BCL activists.
Besides, introducing the death penalty is not helpful in terms of eliminating the socially rooted causes of sexual violence. Bangladesh is a highly conservative country; social media platforms have often witnessed heated debates on the usefulness of Hijab and covering your body as a measure of preventing men becoming sexual aroused. People have also blamed pornography as an important catalyst of stimulating the men to indulge in sexual violence. However, the logic of women inviting men to rape them by not wearing Hijab has often been discredited by opposers referring to numerous occurrences of sexual violence against children and women wearing Hijab.
Lengthy judicial procedures and the attackers rarely being held to account are two other serious concerns. The conviction rate for rape in Bangladesh is below 1 percent. In a 2013 UN multi-country survey among men in Bangladesh who admitted to committing rape, 88 percent of the rural respondents and 95 percent of the urban respondents said they had faced no legal consequences.
The most dangerous implication of being a victim of rape is the social vilification. Misogyny is rooted in the structure of the Bangladeshi society and the concept of virginity is so strongly upheld that the victim is vilified after the incident of a rape, when it should be the other way around. Victims also face difficulties in being able to get married, as they are socially ostracized for not ‘being a virgin,’ having been violated by some other male. Disturbingly, rape is often represented as the muscularity of a man.