It’s no secret that violence against women and children has long been an issue, and is further on the rise in Bangladesh. Bangladesh Mahila Parishad (BMP), a women organization working for protecting women’s rights, reported 592 incidents of rape occurred across the country in last six months till June 30 this year. But what is more disturbing is how we hear more and more incidences of rape of females of atypical age range. In 2017 alone, the number of headlines about minors as young as four-years-old being raped was disturbingly high. According to BMP’s report, 2,063 women and children became victims of various types of violence, including rape, eve-teasing, physical torture for dowry demand etc.Let’s not forget that news of an 80-year old raped by neighbours had also shocked us recently.
Are we simply hearing more news than before because of access to information, or are there additional factors that have contributed to a rise in the twists of sexual violence in the country of 163 million? If we’re hearing more news then why aren’t we reacting more?
While social media has increased access to such news, the number of rape incidences actually reported still remain at around 2%. Therefore, it stands to reason that rape—a tool for hyper-masculine establishment of social dominance, power and control—is on the rise in new and twisted ways.
New factors in the age of technology and rising female empowerment are contributing to an already prevalent rape culture, violent extremism and a legal system that is failing to protect and prevent. Let’s look at how technology is contributing to the rising rape culture—the availability of smartphones and cheaper computers have led to increased consumption of a wide range of pornography. The highest visited website from Bangladesh according to Hola—a free VPN service that enables users to mask the location they are using their web browser from—is one of the world’s largest pornographic video sharing website, and its entire gamut of sexual imagination available in specific categories. Yes, pornography is viewed all over the world, but when suddenly graphic content is easily available en masse in a conservative, sexually-repressive culture which venerates the isolation of male and female, it serves to increase the over-sexualization of women— and an abnormal, feudal psychosocial tendency to dominate over women. A great example is the recent rape, mutilation and murder of a minority schoolgirl in Khagrachori—sexual homicide is the trending mechanism of establishing hegemonic male dominance.
This is compounded further by the cultural prevalence of poorly-authorized “fatwas”, a rising epidemic whereby members of the rural male elite inflict cruel, inhumane and degrading punishments on women in the name of religion which are in reality extra-judicial, ad-hoc punishments which usually go against both state law and religious scripture. Misogynistic and sexist interpretations of religious texts lie at the crux of the violent extremism problem in Bangladesh, as they shape cultural understanding of majority of the population. The severe dearth in women's religious leadership creates the very space in which sexist and misogynistic interpretations of religion can freely operate.
The hegemony is under threat—over the last few years, Bangladesh has made significant progress in improving gender parity and participation of women in the economic and political spheres. While participation of women in the workforce is increasing, it is this threat to the hegemony that has shaped the ironic reality—the women who step outside from private to the public sphere are often treated with derision and harassed when they try to earn a livelihood for their families. There is a noticeable correlation between women not getting protection, and being engaged in spaces outside the domain of what is considered the “right place” for them. This is evidenced in how women in Bangladesh still feel unsafe and are concerned about the implications of reporting any crimes, evidenced by the reluctance among women surveyed to go to the police to report a crime: 65% of women surveyed felt the police would blame them rather than the perpetrator, and 57% felt that the crime would not be taken seriously
Violence against women is not always seen as a crime but a private matter – especially violence in private spaces, which is the most under-reported crime. Bangladesh has no specific laws related to femicide, though there are legal instruments to prosecute perpetrators and there is a law against gender violence (Whose City, ActionAid, 2017). But while there are no specific laws on addressing sexual harassment in public and private spaces, there are legal provisions in different laws that address protection of women and girls.
Settings where the rapist—and everybody else— knows that they can “get away” from jurisdiction, the vicious cycle of perpetration will not cease to exist. The appropriate authorities that are meant to instil preventiveness and respect for the law have failed to do so—thanks to a culture of corruption, misogyny and negligence of police authorities, and a sad acceptance that it the victim who would be the first to be blamed than the perpetrator himself. Cases are most often not filed, and conviction rate is even lower as, aside from outside court settlements, police don’t often want to report the actual instances of rape in order to beef up their crime-prevention statistics. Plus, the victims have to prove rape allegations undergoing a humiliating process during investigation, medical tests and trial, all without any assurance that those will not be used against them by the very society they seek support from after their trauma.
If we can bring positive shifts in early childhood education both in school and at homes of both girls and boys, then behavioral prevention of violence will be possible. Boys—and their parents—need to be re-educated that machismo and disrespect of women’s freedom and empowerment does not mean that they are strong. But how feasible is it to convey this notion to the mass population? There is a major divide between “intellectualism” and agents of the status quo, where the classes of people most espousing violence and corruption—i.e. the working class as well as the “newly-rich” elites—reject equal rights.
Even if a woman might be a bread-earner, women are rarely the decision-makers or equals in the majority of Bangladeshi family units. Research indicates that female participation in household decision-making is significantly associated with the justification of wife beating in Bangladesh. Thus, the hurtful hypocrisy of our patriarchal society still persists when women step out of their houses to work for themselves or their families. It protects the men who stare at women lewdly in the streets and catcalls, and threateningly silence the women who speak out against them.