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Students protest against an alleged gang-rape and brutal torture of a woman in the southern district of Noakhali, in Dhaka, Bangladesh on October 8, 2020. © 2020 Rehman Asad/NurPhoto via AP

(New York) – Protests in Bangladesh erupted this week after a video of a group of men attacking, stripping, and sexually assaulting a woman went viral, Human Rights Watch said today. Protesters called for the resignation of Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal over the government’s failure to address an alarming rise in sexual violence against women and girls.

“Bangladeshi women have had enough of the government’s abject failure to address repeated rapes and sexual assaults,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Bangladesh government needs to finally make good on its empty promises and heed activists’ calls to take meaningful action to combat sexual violence and to support survivors.”

The attackers shown in the video apparently included a man who had allegedly raped the woman in the video at gunpoint multiple times over the last year, based on an investigation by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). “Whenever the woman protested or refused, she was threatened with gang-rape by his whole team,” said Al Mahmud Faizul Kabir, the commission’s investigation director. The woman told the media that the men had filmed the assault and then threatened for over a month to release the video in an effort to extort money from her and to compel her to comply with their demands for sex. When she resisted, they released the video.

Though the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission has sought to remove the video from the internet, it continues to circulate widely. “My life is already ruined,” the survivor told the media. “I am now worried about my children, especially my daughter.”

Eight men have been arrested in the case. But protesters called for the government to finally take the country’s sexual assault problem seriously. According to Ain o Salish Kendra, a Bangladeshi human rights organization, 907 women or girls were raped in just the first nine months of 2020. Over 200 of these cases were gang rape. Since these numbers are based on media reports and most survivors do not report assault, they most likely capture only a small fraction of the true number of cases of sexual violence against women and girls in Bangladesh.

Following massive protests earlier this year in response to a case in Dhaka, a High Court ordered the Law Ministry in January to form a commission within 30 days to address the troubling rise of sexual violence in the country, with the aim of producing recommendations by June. However, more than nine months after the order, it is unclear whether the commission is functioning, and it has not produced recommendations.

In the meantime, the government has yet to pass long-promised sexual harassment and witness protection laws. Survivors continue to face stigma, and do not have adequate access to psychosocial services when they seek help.

The attackers are rarely held to account. The conviction rate for rape in Bangladesh is below 1 percent. A 2013 UN multi-country survey found that among men in Bangladesh who admitted to committing rape, 88 percent of rural respondents and 95 percent of urban respondents said that they had faced no legal consequences.

As is often the case, the survivor in this case told the media that she hadn’t felt comfortable approaching the police as she was repeatedly raped and terrorized over the last year, saying: “For a vulnerable woman like me, it was not possible to go to the police or any higher authorities.”

Survivors of sexual and other gender-based violence who go to the police often face a refusal to file a case, bias, victim blaming, stigma, and humiliation. “When women come to the police, first the police don’t believe her,” a women’s rights lawyer said. “They shame her. The case starts with non-belief.” Another women’s rights lawyer said: “The police frequently have a negative attitude and don’t believe the victim. A lot of police have no knowledge of how to handle gender-based violence cases.”

In its concluding observations in the most recent report on Bangladesh’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the CEDAW Committee found that “existing rules, policies, and plans addressing gender-based violence against women are rarely implemented due to stereotypes and gender bias, and lack of gender sensitivity on the part of law enforcement officials.”

In 2018, the Bangladesh High Court ruled that police had delayed recording the complaint of a woman who was gang raped on a microbus in Dhaka in 2015, and issued guidelines for handling rape cases. These included taking the victim’s statement in the presence of a social worker, designating female officers at police stations to receive complaints, providing support for victims with disabilities, and criminalizing police failure to register a case without sufficient cause. But these guidelines are rarely followed and there appears to be no mechanism to hold accountable police who ignore them.

If they are able to file a case, survivors are further deterred by long, drawn out court cases, pressure from public officials and the accused to drop cases, and abusive questioning in court. Lawyers and rights groups have repeatedly called for the 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 encourages defense lawyers to denigrate the character of women if they pursue criminal charges, a clear disincentive to survivors to step forward.

These problems are compounded because Bangladesh has no witness protection law, meaning that survivors pursuing legal remedies and those willing to testify on their behalf risk serious threats, harassment, and even death. A Witness Protection Act was drafted by the Bangladesh Law Commission in 2006, but it has yet to be passed into law. Nearly 90 percent of legal practitioners surveyed by the country’s 2018 Justice Audit said that the measures to protect vulnerable witnesses and victims of crime, especially women and girls, were inadequate.

Though activists have repeatedly called for reform, Bangladesh’s penal code, article 376, which sets out the punishment for rape, specifically excludes marital rape and fails to provide legal protection to men, boys, transgender, hijra, or intersex people who are victims of sexual assault.

In 2009, the High Court issued a judgment providing detailed guidelines governing sexual harassment in all workplaces and educational institutions. As stipulated by the guidelines, all workplaces and educational institutions should have dedicated committees to prevent sexual harassment and respond to complaints. Yet over a decade later, these guidelines are rarely implemented, and the government has yet to finalize a draft bill.

The Bangladesh government should create the High Court-ordered commission on sexual violence and publicly report its recommendations; provide comprehensive sexuality education in schools, including on the meaning of consent; and provide training to law enforcement and court officials on working with victims of gender-based violence, Human Rights Watch said. It should ensure that adequate and accessible resources for psychosocial support are available and accessible and should heed activists’ calls to finally pass a sexual harassment bill, provide witness protection, and reform discriminatory legislation.

“The Bangladesh government needs to listen to women,” Ganguly said. “The government should ensure that this woman, and all sexual assault survivors, are treated with dignity and have access to services, and that their right to a fair, timely, independent investigation and adequate legal remedy is respected.”

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