A proposed law to prevent sexual harassment has remained tangled in red tape for around ten years even as such incidents against women have been on the rise.
Legal experts and rights activists point the finger at the legal vacuum regarding harassment and say such incidents could not be curbed as there is no specific law against them. They said harassment victims also cannot seek any legal remedy due to the vacuum.
In 2008, the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association (BNWLA) filed a writ petition with the High Court (HC) seeking directives to prevent harassment incidents. The court in 2009 passed an order in this regard defining sexual harassment.
The HC in its ruling asked the government to pass a law in this regard, and instructed it to follow the HC directives until the law was passed. Subsequently, the Law Commission in 2010 prepared a draft of the law and submitted it to the law ministry.
However, neither the judicial directives nor the proposed draft could make any headway as stalkers have continued in their oppressive behavior toward women.
The proposed draft was prepared in light of Indian, Pakistani experience.
In 2010, the Law Commission proposed that the government pass the harassment prevention law, entitled "Sexual Harassment at Workplace and Educational Institution Prevention Act".
The Law Commission and the BNWLA jointly prepared the draft of the law and submitted it to the law ministry and other relevant public departments.
The draft was prepared in light of experience of bills in neighboring India and Pakistan, former Law Commission chairman and former chief justice ABM Khairul Haque told The Business Standard.
"After the submission of the draft, there was no progress," he added.
Harassment definition, proposed punishments
The Law Commission draft elaborately defined sexual harassment – ranging from annoying a woman by sending emails to referring to someone as beautiful in an indecent indicative manner.
The definition of sexual harassment includes any form of physical and mental torture, annoying mobile texts, phone calls, pornography or such photos and vulgar gestures and words.
Harassment not only takes place at educational institutions and workplaces, but also on roads and public transport. Any indecent and vulgar word, comment and gesture would be treated as harassment
The draft said harassment not only takes place at educational institutions and workplaces, but also on roads and public transport. Any indecent and vulgar word, comment and gesture would be treated as harassment.
The draft said threatening, pressurizing, making relationship with false promises, indecent and objectionable wall paintings will also be treated as harassment.
The draft proposed imprisonment of up to three years and fines for the crime. Besides,it proposed that if a harassment victim commits suicide, the instigator will be penalized through seven years' imprisonment and fines.
Legal vacuum increasing harassment
Nur Khan (Liton), Ain o Salish Kendra executive committee secretary general and a prominent human rights activist, told TBS that sexual harassment incidents have increased compared to earlier years.
Legal vacuum is one of the major reasons for harassment and gender-based violence. Moreover, a culture of persecution of the harassment victim, social and financial barriers on the way of getting justice and lengthy trials were also pointed out in the research
According to Ain O Salish Kendra, 161 women were harassed in January-September period this year while 12 of them committed suicide. During the period, three women and nine men were murdered while protesting the incidents.
In 2019 and 2018, a total of 400 women faced sexual harassments.
According to research by ActionAid, legal vacuum is one of the major reasons for harassment and gender-based violence. Moreover, a culture of persecution of the harassment victim, social and financial barriers on the way of getting justice and lengthy trials were also pointed out in the research as being behind the recurring harassment.
Former law minister Barrister Shafique Ahmed thinks if the stalkers could be brought to book, major offences like rape would automatically drop.
If the stalkers could be brought to book, major offences like rape would automatically drop
While contacted, BNWLA President Advocate Salma Ali said, "Though we sat with the relevant government officials several times, the law got stuck in promises only. There has been almost no progress since the submission of the draft."
However, Law Minister Anisul Huq said an anti-harassment law is a time-befitting demand and the authorities are still considering moving ahead with the proposed draft.
"The law ministry often helps the home ministry in enacting such laws. We will discuss the matter with them soon and hope for a prompt enactment of the law," added the minister.