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Bangladeshi women hold placards during a rally to mark the International Women's Day in Dhaka, Bangladesh. © AP Photo/ A.M. Ahad

In 2015, Salma's husband and his parents held her down and poured nitric acid down her throat because they wanted more than the Tk 100,000 (USD 1,100) that her parents had already paid in dowry. For months since the wedding, her father-in-law had beat her repeatedly, demanding more. Salma went to stay with her parents to escape the abuse. But when villagers started gossiping about her broken marriage, her parents told her to return to her in-laws. When she said she was being physically abused, they told her "you just need to endure." Now, she is fed through a tube in her stomach.

Salma's story is disturbingly common in Bangladesh, where over 70 percent of married women and girls have faced some form of intimate partner abuse, about half of whom say their partners physically assaulted them. But the majority of women never told anyone about this abuse and only three percent take legal action.

In many cases like Salma's, survivors seeking help are turned away—by family, community, and the police—and can be in even more danger when forced to return to their abuser. When Salma tried to escape the violence, she was met with stigma and—with only a handful of government-run shelters in the country and limited access to support services—she had nowhere else to go.

Salma has fought for a legal remedy for over five years now, but to little avail. Her father, meanwhile, had a stroke and the family cannot afford to continue pursuing justice. The public prosecutor bringing the case told her that her in-laws were paying more bribes so she "should pay more money." "That is how you will get justice," he told her. He too, of course, requested bribes, she said.

Every time they go to court to find out the status of the case, court officials, police and the prosecutor all ask for "tea and snacks costs," Salma said. Now she says she is telling her father, "You have been going to the courts for the last five years and nothing is happening. Let's just give up."

But there are concrete actions the Bangladesh government and donor governments can take now—during the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence—so that Salma and other women and girls seeking legal recourse never have to give up.

The 16 Days of Activism is an annual international campaign in which governments and activists come together to address violence against women and girls. It runs from November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, until December 10, Human Rights Day.

The Bangladesh government should work with concerned donor governments, activists and the UN to conduct an audit of currently available shelters, disseminate this information, and commit to opening at least one shelter in each of Bangladesh's 67 districts by 2025. Shelters should remove restrictions that limit their accessibility, such as requiring court orders to stay there or restricting the presence of children. No woman or girl should ever have to "just endure" violence because there is nowhere else to go.

The law ministry should immediately create an independent commission to appoint public prosecutors to ensure their independence. Donor governments like the US that are involved in justice reform should ensure that training for public prosecutors and police emphasises working with victims of gender-based violence and consider joint training for prosecutors and investigating officers to improve coordination on cases of gender-based violence.

As Salma described, as cases go on for years, justice officials frequently demand bribes, making it more and more difficult to continue to pursue justice. This problem is exacerbated by a lack of transparency and accessibility of case information, given Bangladesh's 3.7 million-case backlog. Without a centralised filing system, cases get lost and survivors are forced to pay bribes to get court officials to find their case information and move cases forward. The German government led an impressive justice audit in Bangladesh and would be well-placed to spearhead a project to move case files into a centralised online filing system—gender-based violence cases would be a good place to start.

The Bangladesh government should ensure that legal aid is reaching women and girls in need and that they are aware of their rights. Last year, the national legal aid services organisation distributed funds to 2.5 times more men than women.

The law commission drafted a witness protection law nearly a decade ago—it should be passed into law in consultation with Bangladeshi women's rights organisations, and donor governments should support the implementation of a witness protection programme.

Violence against women and girls is so pervasive in Bangladesh, it is sometimes dismissed as unsolvable. For these 16 days of activism, the government and donors should listen to activists who are offering workable solutions.

Here are 16 actions the Bangladesh government should take for the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence:

1. Commit to creating at least one shelter for women and girls fleeing violence in each of Bangladesh’s 67 districts by 2025.

Shelter services are so limited that for most women and girls facing violence there is nowhere to go to escape abuse. The shelters that do exist often allow only short-term stays of a few days, and most shelters have specific criteria for who can use them, excluding some survivors from any access to shelter.

2. Pass a long-promised witness protection law.

Bangladesh has no witness protection law, meaning that survivors seeking justice and those willing to testify on their behalf risk serious threats, intimidation, harassment, and even death. The Law Commission proposed draft legislation nearly 15 years ago but it has yet to move forward.

3. Replace the rape law with a law that sets out a comprehensive definition of sexual assault, recognizes all potential victims, and criminalizes as sexual assault any sexual act occurring without consent.

The current legal definition of rape in Bangladesh specifically excludes rape within marriage and defines as rape only acts by a man against a woman, excluding men, boys, and transgender, hijra, or intersex people from protection. There is no definition of penetration under the law, meaning that cases of rape that include the insertion of objects or other parts of the rapist’s body are more likely to lead to acquittal.

4. Repeal the newly passed death penalty for rape and instead work with activists to institute real reforms.

The Bangladesh government recently passed an amendment to allow for the death penalty as punishment for rape, after widespread protests in response to several recent gang rape cases. There is no conclusive evidence that the death penalty curbs any crime, including rape, and it could end up deterring reporting or even encouraging rapists to murder their victims to reduce the likelihood of arrest. Instead, the government should carry out real reforms advocated by experts and activists.  

5. Amend the Evidence Act to prohibit use of character evidence against rape survivors.

Lawyers and rights groups have repeatedly called for the repeal of section 155(4) of the Evidence Act 1872, which allows defense lawyers in rape cases to defend their clients by showing that the victim was of “generally immoral character.” This provision is a clear disincentive to victims stepping forward.

6. Make sure legal aid reaches women and girls in need.

Survivors of gender-based violence are entitled to apply for free legal aid from the government. However, this aid is inaccessible for most survivors of gender-based violence. The national legal aid service said in its 2019-2020 annual report that legal aid was provided to over 2.5 times more men than women.

7. Pass an anti-sexual harassment law.

Bangladesh does not have a comprehensive law governing sexual harassment. In 2009, the High Court issued a judgment providing detailed guidelines governing sexual harassment in all workplaces and educational institutions, but they are rarely followed. The government should systematically monitor these sites to make sure that  these guidelines are followed and finalize a draft bill on sexual harassment.

8. Provide sufficient training to police, prosecutors, and judges on handling gender-based violence cases and hold them accountable when they mishandle these cases.

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. A women’s rights lawyer told Human Rights Watch that “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.” All justice officials should be adequately trained in working with survivors of gender-based violence and should undergo training on gender equality—and the government should provide a system to allow survivors mistreated by police to file complaints and ensure that their complaints are taken seriously.

9. Better resource the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act Enforcement Officer position.

The act created an enforcement officer position for each upazila (sub-district) who is responsible for making applications to the court for protection orders, accessing legal aid, and referring victims to a safe shelter when necessary. However, enforcement officers are often severely overburdened and underequipped.

10. Introduce mandatory comprehensive sexuality education classes in all schools including teaching about consent, gender equity, and healthy relationships.

Violence against women and girls is so socially normalized in Bangladesh that survivors often don’t feel they have any right to complain or seek help. Sexual violence is ubiquitous, as is the victim-blaming that follows. Schools have a crucial role to play in changing the attitudes of boys and girls and building a healthier and more equitable society. The government should develop a curriculum on these topics starting from a young age, with age appropriate material, and require it to be taught in all schools.

11. Amend the Dowry Prevention Act, 2018 ensuring that it does not deter victims from reporting dowry demands.

In September 2018, parliament passed a new Dowry Prevention Act, 2018. However, some aspects of the law may actually lessen protections for women. In particular, criminalizing dowry payments could deter reporting cases in which a bride’s family is coerced into giving dowry through violence, the threat of violence, or other forms of pressure.

12. Revise the Child Marriage Restraint Act to set the minimum age of marriage at 18 for women and men with no exceptions. 

In Bangladesh, 22 percent of girls marry before age 15 and 59 percent marry before age 18, the highest percentage in Asia and the fourth highest in the world. In  2017, as countries around the world cracked down on child marriage, Bangladesh took the extraordinary step of essentially re-legalizing child marriage by passing legislation permitting girls under 18, with no specified minimum age, to marry under undefined “special circumstances.”

13. Adopt and implement a comprehensive national action plan to end all child marriage.

The Bangladesh prime minister pledged in 2014 to end child marriage and to create a national action plan toward that end. But the government has not published an action plan and there has been little progress toward ending child marriage, in spite of a United Nations Sustainable Development Goals target for all countries to end all marriage before age 18 by 2030.

14. Create an online centralized filing system for all gender-based violence cases, and make relevant case information accessible to all parties free of charge.

Bangladesh has a backlog of about 3.7 million pending legal cases. The government should work with donor governments to train judges and implement a centralized organized system for tracking court cases in order to reduce the backlog and increase access to legal information. The lack of transparency without an organized and accessible system for case files often leads to demands for bribes and other forms of corruption. Women seldom have proper access to information and legal counsel, leaving them particularly vulnerable to such corruption and abuse.

15. Commit resources to expanding and increasing the capacity of Victim Support Centers.

The Bangladesh police have eight Victim Support Centers to provide emergency shelter for a maximum of five days, and coordinate health care, legal advice, psychological counseling, and access to rehabilitation programs. However, they have limited resources and capacity. The Dhaka Metropolitan Police Victims Support Center has even published recommendations to improve its own capacity to reach and support victims, including increasing safe home facilities, but those are yet to be carried out.

16. Ensure that One Stop Crisis Centers and Cells are available and that staff are properly trained to support survivors.

The government created nine One-Stop Crisis Centers to provide social service support, immediate medical assistance, psychosocial counseling, and coordination with police and legal aid providers. But women’s rights activists say the actual functioning of the centers varies and other service providers have reported instances of crisis centers and cells being inoperative or shut down. Activists said that some staff at the centers have been known to treat survivors with disbelief, stigma, and even discourage them from filing a case, particularly in cases of sexual violence.

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