The violent killing of an 18-year-old girl in Bangladesh has triggered nationwide protest for justice and the protection of women’s rights. Nusrat Jahan Rafi died after being set on fire for refusing to drop sexual harassment allegations against the principal of her Islamic school in the town of Feni.
Rafi had filed a complaint with the police in late March concerning an incident where her principal, Siraj-ud-Daula, called her into his office and touched her inappropriately and repeatedly. A video taken at the time shows that the local police chief who registered the complaint told her the incident was not a “big deal.” Daula, however, was arrested, sparking outrage among his supporters. Her family said that in the week leading up to the attack, they received multiple death threats telling them to drop the case.
Rafi called her brother from the ambulance driving her to the hospital following the attack and recounted the events, which he recorded. She was lured onto the roof of her rural school on Saturday, April the 6th and was asked to withdraw the charges by five people dressed in burqas. When she refused, her hands were tied and then she was doused in kerosene and set alight. She died in the hospital four days later as a result of the burns that covered 80% of her body.
The Prime Minister of the conservative Muslim nation, Sheikh Hasina, met with Rafi’s family and vowed to bring those responsible to justice. Rafi’s case is now being treated with urgency, which was not the case until her death. At least 17 people, including students and local politicians, have been arrested in connection with the case. Banaj Kumar Majumder, the head of the Police Bureau of Investigation, said that of these, two have confessed that the murder was planned and carried out at the direction of Daula.
Tens of thousands attended her funeral prayers and dozens of protesters gathered in the country’s capital of Dhaka on Friday to demand justice. The incident has sparked further nationwide outrage, fuelling calls on the government to reform and enforce laws concerning all sexual assault. As stated by Alisha Pradhan, a model and actress, “We want justice. Our girls must grow up safely and with dignity.”
The attack on Rafi has drawn international attention to the deeply embedded issue of sexual violence in Bangladesh. According to Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), a Bangladeshi human rights organization, there were over 700 rape cases reported in 2018, a number that is likely significantly lower than the actual occurrences of assault because of the immense stigma associated with reporting crimes of a sexual nature. When complaints are filed, conviction is very unlikely. A recent study conducted by Naripokkho, a Bangladeshi women’s rights organization, found that conviction rates dropped from 0.5% in 2016 to 0.3% in 2018.
Lawyers and human rights groups have repeatedly called for repeal of section 155(4) of the Evidence Act 1872, which states that “when a man is prosecuted for rape or an attempt to ravish, it may be shown that the prosecutrix was of generally immoral character.” This provision has allowed for a criminal defence that actively degrades the character of women allegedly subject to sexual abuse.
Further, Bangladesh has no witness protection law, which means that victims who submit complaints of sexual assault risk serious threats, harassment and even death. A Witness Protection Act was drafted by the Bangladesh Law Commission in 2006, but is yet to be passed into law 13 years later. Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch explained that “the horrifying murder of a brave woman who sought justice shows how badly the Bangladesh government has failed victims of sexual assault.”