C R I M E & S O C I E T Y – B A N G L A D E S H
“The Bangladesh justice system is failing women and girls with devastating consequences.”
– Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
With more than two-thirds of the women in Bangladesh suffering from intimate-partner violence, it may come as a surprise that almost 72% of them never tell anybody and less than 3% take legal action. And, even among those who do seek legal action, a very small percentage ever see their abuser convicted. In fact, data collected by Justice Audit Bangladesh in 2016 found that of the over 16,000 cases of violence against women that were filed, less than 500 brought about a successful conviction.
Published last Thursday, the Human Rights Watch report titled ‘I Sleep in My Own Deathbed’: Violence against Women and Girls in Bangladesh — tries to explain these low complaint and conviction rates by drawing on 50 interviews—29 of which involved victims of gender-based violence, analysing the deep-rooted gender biases in the country, and the failure of the judicial system in ensuring a safe and proper trial to women.
Why do victims not report their abusers?
“Society thinks domestic violence is a silly violence, that it’s something that just normally happens in the family,” said a women’s rights lawyer to HRW.
Shammi, a woman interviewed by HRW for the report, had a similar reasoning for why she had for years on end endured beating at the hands of her husband and why she’d never gone to the police even after he’d doused her face with acid. “It is not a good idea to go to the police because it is a family matter,” she said.
And, this belief—that domestic violence should stay within the family—is common enough that, when Justice Audit asked over 104 million people in Bangladesh what their advice would be to someone who was seriously injured by their husband or in-laws, only 12% suggested going to the police — nearly a third said they should solve it between themselves.
On top of that, there is the fear of economic destitution. Since many married women in this country are financially dependent on their husband, a divorce—which is a common consequence of a legal complaint—could land them and their children in absolute poverty. And, with their own families sometimes turning them away, they may have nowhere to go since Bangladesh only has 13 long-term government shelters, eight short-term Victim Support Shelters and 15 NGO-run shelters for victims—numbers that are wholly inadequate for a population of about 81.3 million women spread over 64 districts.
Even the existing shelters are unreliable: some demand a court order for their services; others only shelter women suffering from particular types of abuse, like sex trafficking; yet others don’t allow children—especially the male ones.
Plus, with about 1 in 4 citizens of Bangladesh illiterate, many women do not even know of the existence of these shelters or the illegality of domestic violence. So, they cannot seek help.
With these factors in consideration, it may be too risky for women to go for legal action. Because they know even if they do find the courage, there’s no guarantee they’ll ever get the justice they deserve.
Why do perpetrators not get convicted?
“I don’t think he did it, so we’re letting him go,” the Officer in Charge at Rupnagar Thana told Sadia, who had lost an eye and a ear when her husband had poured nitric acid over her.
Sadia’s case isn’t one off. A lot of women who complain to the police are met with disbelief and refusal to file a case. Sometimes the police even ask for a bribe. And while asking for bribes, though illegal, is prevalent in all sorts of cases—as revealed by Transparency International’s 2017 Household Survey of Corruption in Service Sectors, which found that 60% of households had to pay bribes to law enforcement to access their service—paying that money may be especially hard for financially dependent women.
And the trouble with law enforcement doesn’t end with the charges being pressed. Because, even though Bangladesh’s laws on violence against women all state that cases should be disposed within 60 to 180 days, in reality, they drag on for years and pose a burden to the victims’ family, wealth and mental health. Survivors are forced to recount and relive the same horrible experience over and over again, all the while repeatedly getting harassed by and facing threats from the defendant to drop all charges.
A lawyer from the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association explains to HRW that as time goes on, victims’ families can’t keep going, perpetrators can threaten the victim to drop cases, evidence is lost over time, witnesses drop out over time. Essentially, when cases are delayed, justice is denied.
Next comes the questioning competency of the public prosecutors who are assigned to represent these women. They are often poorly trained in criminal law; and being public appointments, they don’t feel liable to effectively collect evidence, coordinate with investigating officers, and ensure that witnesses arrive at court on time. Corruption is also an issue here since more often than not defendants try to bribe, pressure and threaten the prosecutors into losing their case. And so, HRW states that for rigorous prosecution, a case has to be tried by a non-governmental legal aid organisation. Otherwise, court professionals often don’t do their duties.
Either way, the case may still get acquitted due to a lack of evidence and the disappearance of key witnesses. While the former results from weak police investigators, the latter is the cause of an absence of witness protection laws in Bangladesh. Witnesses fear for their lives and don’t turn up in court, leading to the case getting dismissed before the jury and the judge can even be presented with all the facts.
All in all, one way or another the victims of gender-based violence are failed by the Bangladesh law enforcement and judicial system.
What can be done?
HRW ends the report with more than a few recommendations to the government, the ministry of law, the ministry of women and children’s affairs etc. There, they highlight the need to improve access to services—like housing, financial support, legal assistance, medical aid, mental health counselling—to gender-based violence victims. Every district should have a shelter, HRW says, where women suffering from any kind of abuse can escape to with their children.
Running public awareness campaigns is important here to let victims know that dowry, acid violence, and domestic violence are illegal, and where and how they can reliably access the services offered by the government—if they are facing abuse.
The judicial system alone calls for huge systemic changes—the first and foremost of which is a reduction in the time delay. HRW proposed setting deadlines on investigations and effecting speedy trials. Second, public prosecutors should not only be trained properly in criminal law but they should also be educated on gender equality and women’s rights in Bangladesh. Third, so as to be accessible to women from all backgrounds, the end of corrupt practices such as bribery is mandatory. And, last but not least, a centralised filing system is required so that case information is easily available to relevant parties.
Aside from that, according to HRW, the government should consult with the country’s women’s rights activists and legal experts to enact a law that protects at-risk victims and witnesses from harassment and threats—even relocating them or concealing their identity and whereabouts if required. Victims and witnesses with disabilities should be allowed access to an interpreter or support person as needed so that they are able to give their testimony in accordance with the Evidence Act of 1872.
“The Bangladesh justice system is failing women and girls with devastating consequences,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Protesters are in the streets calling for change. The government should seize this pivotal moment to implement real reform that could save lives and promote the equal society it envisions.”
If you want to go through the HRW report on which this article is primarily based on, click here.