The government of Bangladesh approved measures on October 12th to institute the death penalty for cases of rape. This follows weeks of widespread protests incited by a number of recent assault cases, including the brutal gang rape of a 37-year-old woman in Noakhali on September 2nd, which was filmed and went viral last week. This case adds to the country’s extensive record of sexual violence, according to the BBC and the Guardian.
Sexual violence against women has become a prominent political issue in Bangladesh, as reported cases of rape are routinely ignored and many more cases are left unreported. This is because police forces rarely take seriously the testimonies of women, and furthermore, because women fear they will be stigmatized, according to the BBC.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that “when women come to the police, first the police don’t believe her. They shame her.” HRW added that sexual assault victims who report to the police “face a refusal to file a case, bias, victim-blaming, stigma, and humiliation.” Activist Zefroon Afsary has blamed “ineffective trial processes” that “decide how much justice [a woman] deserves based on her clothing, whereabouts, and lifestyle choices,” writes Al Jazeera.
Altogether, more than 1,000 rapes have been reported in Bangladesh this year alone, a fifth of which were gang rapes, writes the BBC. A 2013 survey from the UN found that among men in Bangladesh who admitted to committing rape, 88% of rural respondents and 95% of urban respondents confirmed they faced no legal consequences. According to the Guardian, the conviction rate for rape in the country is just 0.37%.
The recent resurgence of anger over cases of sexual violence left without justice was initiated by an assault late last month. On September 25th, a 19-year-old woman was gang-raped by several students in a hostel in Sylhet. The perpetrators were arrested and charged, according to Al Jazeera and the BBC.
Days later, the video of the woman gang-raped in Noakhali went viral on social media. The woman was raped several times at gunpoint by one of the perpetrators over last year, threatening her with gang rape if she resisted. On September 2nd, the woman was gang-raped by the same man and several others. The men recorded the assault to blackmail her for money and more gang rapes. When she refused, the men released the video, which swiftly went viral last week. Eight men have now been arrested, writes Al Jazeera.
The video greatly intensified the ongoing protests across Bangladesh. Demonstrators demanded significant change to how cases of rape are prosecuted. Student protest leader Auroni Semonti Khan said: “We are protesting against this culture of impunity and nonchalance. Justice has to be ensured in any case of rape.” Some demonstrators carried signs reading “Hang the rapists” and “No mercy to rapists.” In the capital Dhaka, protesters built mock gallows. The protests continued for several days, marking the longest ever large-scale protest against sexual violence in Bangladesh, according to Al Jazeera and the BBC.
Galvanized into action by the UN’s statement that the assault in Noakhali highlights the “state of social, behavioural and structural misogyny” in Bangladesh, the government responded to the protests with the promise to institute the death penalty for cases of rape. This amends the current law that stipulates a maximum life sentence for cases of rape. The president has vowed to issue an ordinance this week to bring the amendment directly into law, as the parliament is not in session due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Al Jazeera, the BBC, and The Guardian.
While many have applauded the decision to institute a death penalty, others claim this will not address the root of the lack of justice for cases of sexual violence in Bangladesh. Indeed, the policy does not aim to remove the stigma around women reporting cases of rape, nor to lend legitimacy to the voices of women. Moreover, research by Taqbir Huda at the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust shows that capital punishment will likely result in even lower rates of conviction. Thus, in addition to the practice of the death penalty by a state being morally questionable, the new policy will likely do little to stop misogyny and rape in Bangladesh and instead lead only to more suffering and protests.
Evidently, the government has the will and support to end sexual violence, but the intended method to realize that will is unfounded. Rather than institute a death penalty, in order to make long-lasting change, the government must address the actual roots of the issue by legitimizing women’s voices, especially in the eyes of men and boys, through educational reform, support of feminism in the media, advertisement campaigns, and more. By these means, Bangladesh will be able to achieve greater respect for women in the years to come.
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