Two Months of Anti-Rape Protests: Back to Square One?

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S O C I E T Y – B A N G L A D E S H

Iffat Zarif

In January, a two-day-long protest was seen in the capital when a student of Dhaka University was raped in the Kurmitola area. Following the incident, the High Court ordered the law ministry to form a commission within a month to address the rise in sexual violence. More than ten months later, that commission is yet to be formed.

In 2016, after the gang-rape and subsequent murder of Comilla Victoria College student Sohagi Jahan Tonu, people all over Bangladesh had taken to the streets to demand that her rapists and killers be arrested. Four years later, the CID is still investigating.

Similar nationwide protests were seen in 1995, when 14-year-old Yasmin Akhter was raped and murdered by the police. It was only two years later that the three police officers were arrested, despite the local police attempting to block the investigation, after activists and ordinary citizens tirelessly continued to demand justice and the entire district of Dinajpur took up arms against the police station — an event that led to the deaths of seven protesters.

Anti-rape protests are nothing new in Bangladesh. Several times, the country has been rocked to its core by brutal and violent rape incidents and their subsequent graphic portrayal, after which citizens have taken to the streets demanding basic security of their lives at regular intervals — and yet, nothing has changed. This year, starting on 5 October, Bangladesh witnessed what could be called its biggest and longest nationwide anti-rape protest in three decades. 

On the night of 25 September, a group of men ambushed a woman and her husband on the premises of Sylhet’s Murari Chand (MC) College. After confining her husband in the nearby hostel building, the men gang-raped her inside her own car. The incident stirred conversations throughout the country, painting a picture of how no woman was safe even when surrounded by people, and making people rediscover that rape incidents are more than just numbers.

Adding fuel to the spark was the video of a criminal gang beating and violating a housewife. The incident, having taken place on 2 Septembercame to light on 4 October when the video was posted on social media by the perpetrators themselves after the survivor stopped responding to their threats. That expressed the extent of impunity in the country — the criminals did not fear releasing video evidence of their crime, confident that they would not be punished.

The very next day, anti-rape demonstrations erupted all over the country — in Dhaka, Feni, Tangail, Rajshahi, Cumilla, and numerous other districts — where protestors, consisting mainly of students and activists, cried out for the eradication of all forms of violence against women; they demanded justice for victims by ensuring exemplary punishment for rapists; and most of all, they called for significant systemic and social changes that would finally start to curb the excessively high rate of gender-based violence in the country.

However, the week-long, country-wide protest started losing its momentum after the government decided to pass an ordinance to enforce death penalty as the highest punishment for rape, spreading hope that this initiative would be able to stop the increasing number of rape cases in the country. But two months after the initial protests started, Bangladesh saw conversations regarding rape incidents slowly die off, more than 368 reported cases of rape over the months of October and November with an average of 6 cases per day, and a member of the parliament trying to frame women’s liberation as the cause behind rape. 

The government response: An eyewash in the making?

In the parliament session discussing the new amendment, a member of the parliament, Rejaul Karim Bablu from Bogra-7, blamed feminists for the increase in rape. He also compared women to tamarinds, asking to implement the late Maolana Shafi’s “Tetul Theory” to stop rape. Not one person, including the 72 female members of the parliament, decided to stand up and protest.

His words stirred protests all over the country. Feminist organisations and women’s rights activists actively expressed their outrage, demanding an immediate apology and even his removal from office. However, neither the Prime Minister, nor the Speaker, nor the Leader of the Opposition of this country, despite being women themselves, bothered to address Rejaul Karim’s words, even after being compared to tamarinds.

This raises the important question of how concerned the state really is over stopping rape.

From the public’s perspective, it certainly seemed like it was concerned, when on 12 October, just days after the demonstrations began, the cabinet moved to approve the draft of an amendment — albeit not one that the experts had hoped for.

This amendment increased the maximum punishment for rape from life imprisonment to the death penalty. Called the Women and Children Repression Prevention (Amendment) Bill, 2020, it was promulgated through an ordinance by President Abdul Hamid as parliament was not in session at the time.

In doing so, the government acted in accordance with the placards on the hands of thousands of students and protesters that read “Hang the rapists” and “No mercy for rapists”.

Women’s rights activists and lawyers, however, had different demands. Instead of increasing the punishment, they had called for ensuring conviction — a process that would require the government to pass witness protection laws; set time limits on the disposal of rape cases and ensure that they were complied with; build more shelters and one stop crisis centres for victims; and train police officers, investigators, and public prosecutors to deal more efficiently and humanely with rape cases.

Feminists Across Generations, a platform of several women’s rights groups, pointed out several loopholes in the existing legal structure, such as the Evidence Act which lets defense lawyers investigate the victim’s “character” and use it as justification for rape, and the section 375 of the Penal Code 1860, which excludes marital rape, as well as male and transgender rape, from its definition of rape. The Rape Law Reform Coalition, another similar platform of legal rights groups, pointed out all the reforms required in the laws regarding rape in their detailed 10-point demand.

Alongside legal reforms, activists also asked the government to address the issues behind the existing rape culture in the country, and pushed for a social reform in a backwarded society that encourages blaming the victim rather than working towards justice.

This is where the anti rape protests which resurged in October stood out: It had the most sophisticated and organised leadership a country could ask for. Experts, rights lawyers, feminists, journalists, teachers, and criminologists — people from professions who have the necessary experience, research, and knowledge required to solve a problem as widespread as rape and rape culture in our country — joined the movement and wholeheartedly worked for change. The government had all the resources and advice it could have possibly asked for at its disposal. 

However, paying no heed to the activists who had taken to the streets, nor consulting the women’s rights lawyers in the country who were actively vouching against the death penalty and asking for other forms of reform, the government went on to pass the bill in parliament on 17 November by voice vote.

Yet, there is little to no evidence that stricter punishments, especially the death penalty, curb any sort of crime, including rape. Instead, it could actually turn out to be a deterrent to reporting and reduce the conviction rate further.

Rumeen Farhana, a female MP, brought up the issue of low conviction rates in parliament during the discussion and said that when the criminals cannot even be tried, it brings into question how effective increasing the punishment will be.

Plus, as Muhammad Mahbubur Rahman, a professor of Law at the University of Dhaka, pointed out, the new amendment could act as an incentive for rapists to kill their victims. “From a penal policy perspective, it is dangerous to put rapists on the same footing with murderers,” he told The Daily Star. 

“The superiority of force which enables a man to commit rape can enable him to go further — to add murder to his guilt. The only restraining motive that can prevent murder in this situation is to inform him that the punishment of murder is more severe than the punishment of the crime which he has already committed. In this way, the differential treatment of rapists and murderers contributes to the security of life of rape victims.”

The government decided to turn a blind eye to all of these perspectives, and rather focused on tokenistic expressions of improvement and kept responding to populist demands.

In the last two months, we have seen three cases being disposed of at record breaking speeds. First, a Bagerhat court sentenced a person named Abdul Mannan Sardar to life in prison for raping a seven-year-old child only a week after the case went to trial. In Kushtia, a madrasa superintendent was again sentenced to lifelong imprisonment in just 3 working days, and in Rangpur last week, a person was found not guilty and acquitted of all charges just within 2 working days.

The country has also seen a few incidents of quick arrests and charge sheet formations. A charge sheet against 8 perpetrators was submitted in the court in the MC College incident on Thursday, 3 December. 

These cases go to show that, when prompted, Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies are capable of conducting speedy investigations and our courts are capable of conducting speedy trials. However, when the same government stays indifferent to all expert concerns and is reluctant to address or discuss the necessary legal reforms, 3 out of 200,000 pending cases seem like cherry picking, a gesture that is merely  tokenistic and made to gain public acceptance.  

Has there been any change in the scenario? 

According to Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), in the first ten months of 2020 alone, Bangladesh saw 1349 cases of rape — 277 of which were gang rapes; 46 resulted in the victims being murdered afterwards. These numbers suggest that, on average, at least four women fell victim to this crime every single day.

Over the years, the rate of sexual violence against women has only worsened. The annual number of rape incidents, which stood at 998 in 2013, increased by over 40% in 6 years, to 1413 in 2019.

Yet, activists say this is just the tip of the iceberg since most of such incidents are never disclosed. In fact, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, only 3% of rape incidents are reported to the police and less than 1% lead to a conviction.

These staggering numbers are among the key factors that pushed the country to organise such large-scale protests against sexual violence that lasted for such a prolonged period of time. The protests, although peaceful, were aggressive in their impression, and saw people, mostly women, from all walks of life joining — this is unprecedented in recent times in Bangladesh.

Logically, the nature of the protests and the death penalty amendment should have acted as discouragement or a cause of fear for the perpetrators, resulting in a fall in the number of rape cases throughout the country. Statistics, though, show otherwise. ASK data shows that 374 rape cases were seen (calculated from the January-September and January-October reports) only in the month of October, which on average roughly translates to 12 cases per day. This, in comparison to the data available for the rest of the year, is three fold the average reported cases per day for the first 9 months of 2020.

Data from Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, too, which they compiled after analysing news reports from 14 National Dailies, shows that rape cases increased after the enforcement of the death penalty amendment. The 215 cases of rape reported by them in the month of October and the 153 cases in November together make 368 cases in the 61 days of October and November, which means that more than 6 rapes took place per day on average. This, too, is almost double the average for the first 9 months of 2020, and almost three times the average in 2018, which numbered at 2 rape cases per day.

Contrary to popular belief and government response, this factual analysis of reported rape cases tells us that fear or fear of punishment alone cannot work to minimise rape in this country. However, the state’s populist move to enforce the death penalty helped to break mass protests and stop conversations at a premature stage without addressing the much needed legal and social reforms demanded by activists and experts.

This is one of the tragedies of the recent anti-rape protests. For the first time in years, the Bangladeshi society started discussing marital rape, both positively and negatively. For the first time in history, activists received a public platform to talk about men’s rape, transgender rape, and other issues of rape culture. Not that everything in the discussions were positive or in line with expert opinions, but people were forced to confront and talk about things which were previously considered taboo in our society. 

However, now that the government has shunned the protests by responding to popular demands rather than informed and constructive ones, we are back to square one yet again. Bangladesh still remains a country where victims are blamed for their clothing and lifestyle choices after being violated by criminals, defense lawyers still have the opportunity to tarnish victims’ “characters” to help them win the case for perpetrators, male and gender diverse rape survivors still have nowhere to go because the country’s law doesn’t recognise them as victims, and we still remain a country where every woman fears taking a stroll at night.

Bangladesh still remains a country where 12 women are raped every day.


The writer is a part of TDA Editorial Team.


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