Violence Against Women In Bangladesh Reaches Breaking Point

Amidst the global COVID-19 crisis, Bangladesh is also facing an alarming ‘shadow pandemic’: the rise of violence against women. Since the onset of a nation-wide lockdown in March, women throughout Bangladesh have reported increased levels of emotional, physical and sexual violence, most commonly at the hands of their husbands. BRAC, a major Bangladeshi non-government organization, reported a nearly 70% rise in reported incidents of gender-based violence against women in March and April 2020 compared to the previous year.

For some women, this was the first time they had experienced such violence, likely precipitated by economic stress, fear and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. However, for many, the changing social conditions brought about by the COVID-19 crisis have merely served to exacerbate their already high risk and exposure to this violence.

The pervasiveness of systemic gender-based violence in Bangladesh is hardly a new issue. Results from one 2015 government survey suggest that over 70% of married women and girls in Bangladesh have experienced some form of abuse from their partners, with half of those reporting an assault of a physical nature. Perhaps most alarmingly, women are also being targeted by acid attacks, largely in continuation with other forms of domestic violence.

Systemic power imbalances and inequality between men and women are among the primary drivers of violence against women in Bangladesh. Because of this, gender-based violence can be regarded as another manifestation of entrenched gender-norms and stereotypical perceptions of women’s roles and responsibilities in society. As put simply by one women’s rights lawyer, “Society thinks domestic violence is silly violence, that it’s something that normally just happens in the family.” Such attitudes, amongst other issues, have served to create even more barriers for victims in reporting the assault as well as seeking access to avenues of legal redress and support.

For many years, international humanitarian organizations have recognized the severe implications of such violence on the promotion of human rights and the empowerment of women more generally. Whilst the nation endeavours to build “a society without violence against women and children by 2025,”efforts by the Bangladesh government up until this point have been insufficient in addressing this ongoing crisis.

“The number one obstacle to stopping gender-based violence is the criminal justice system,” according to one lawyer from the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association. Certainly, the Bangladesh government has passed legislation to prosecute those responsible for various forms of violence against women, particularly for incidents involving acid violence. However, the conviction rate for perpetrators of gender-based violence remains extremely low, exposing a strong lack of accountability of offenders within the justice system. Findings reported by Human Rights Watch indicate that of the over 11,000 women who filed legal claims via the government’s One-stop Crisis Centres, only 160 saw the successful conviction of their perpetrator. Not only is this damaging to the individual victim in each case, but it is also highly discouraging for those who have experienced this violence to come forward and report their experience of victimization, given such a low likelihood of being able to achieve a successful legal outcome.

Of additional concern are the barriers in place that prevent victims from accessing the Bangladesh justice system in the first place. Claims of gender-based violence are often overlooked by police, who in many cases will refuse to file a charge sheet let alone investigate the incidents. If able to actually make it to court, widespread corruption, poorly trained public prosecutors and gender-bias within the Bangladesh legal system often limit the ability of survivors to seek justice. Knowledge of this, in combination with the limited accessibility to safe shelters, witness protection and other support services, leaves many women in situations where they perceive any escape from violence as virtually unattainable. Such barriers have only worsened throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, with the closure of the already-limited number of shelters, shutting down of court services and police turning away victims even more so than usual.

In alignment with their obligations under international law, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the government of Bangladesh must strive to eliminate gender-based violence in all its forms. Whilst having taken several strides in the right direction, Bangladesh must take even greater action to protect and support survivors of gender-based violence as well as appropriately prosecute and punish those responsible for such heinous crimes.

Bangladesh must strive to change how its justice system treats cases, as well as victims of gender-based violence that it encounters. First and foremost, efforts must be to taken to ensure victims are provided with sufficient support and protection throughout each step in the legal process. In the absence of witness protection laws or access to a safe shelter, many victims are too frightened to testify in court as they fear retribution from their offender, who in many cases, is their husband or another family member. In other cases, women may face pressure from their perpetrator or even their own families to drop their case and settle outside of court, which often leads to a weaker punishment.

In response, the government should work to improve the accessibility of safe shelters across the country, providing these women with an opportunity to escape further violence as well as a sense of security as they seek out a legal remedy. To avoid the complications associated with financial dependence on their families, or in some cases even the perpetrator themselves, throughout the judicial process, victims should be granted greater access to legal assistance, ensuring that they are in the best possible position to achieve a successful outcome. Going forward, it may prove beneficial to improve training for those involved in this process, including judges, prosecutors and police, to ensure they are better equipped to be working with victims of gender-based violence.

A stronger prevention campaign may also be needed to tackle the widespread issue of violence against women. Whilst there are laws in place to criminalise such violence, including the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection Act), the perpetration of physical, psychological or sexual abuse against women is still somewhat normalized throughout Bangladesh society. Both victims and perpetrators may not perceive such behaviours as illegal, but rather a continuation of gendered stereotypes surrounding the perceived subordination of a female to her male counterpart. To dispel these social norms, the government should set out to create a nation-wide public awareness campaign that stresses the illegality of gender-based violence, in both its most subtle and overt forms. A similar approach should also be taken to educate and encourage women to exercise their rights, as well as utilize the services and legal avenues of redress available to them if they are to become victimized by such violence.

The crisis of gender-based violence in Bangladesh is at a pivotal moment. The drastic rise of violence against women since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a much-needed spotlight on the failings of the Bangladesh government to protect its citizens and fulfil its obligations to international law. Because of this, human rights groups, as well as the nation’s own citizens, must continue to hold the government accountable for these failures and maintain pressure on their leaders to strengthen efforts in this fight against gender-based violence. Not only will these changes save lives, but they will also help Bangladesh on their path towards promoting greater gender equality in all facets of social, economic and political life.