Rape, a four-letter menace, has had its traumatic presence etched in the societies of the world since time immemorial. Rape of women or youths are part of Greek mythology and from myth to reality, from past to present, this evil has only gained power and increased in number, worldwide.
Rape has persisted as the most common form of violence against women. Recent cases of gang rape and organised sexual assaults in Bangladesh have triggered the demand for a reform in the rape law, focusing on harsher punishments of the perpetrators.
Rape, however, has another issue attached to it that is highly neglected - the issue of the mental well-being of the survivors.
Are we, as a society and as individuals, doing enough to ensure that the victims of rape and sexual assault are provided with effective facilities to improve their mental health?
In Bangladesh, according to Ain O Shalish Kendra (ASK), in between January to September 2020, 975 women have been reported to be victims of rape while 43 of them died and 12 committed suicide. The actual number of rapes committed can safely be assumed to be much higher since the statistics has been gathered from the news reported daily on nine national newspapers. Out of the 920 surviving victims, it is difficult to verify whether these victims have been provided with effective mental health support, especially after being subjected to such a brutal crime.
According to Dr. Sarah E Ullman's article "Mental Health Services Seeking in Sexual Assault Victims", victims of sexual assault experience significant mental health issues. Despite these psychological symptoms, the rate at which mental health services are sought are predominantly low.
Post-rape, the reason for not seeking help for mental health support is mainly the taboo and stigma attached to both the concepts of rape and mental health. As a result, victims do not speak about either of them and often suffer in silence.
In Bangladesh, rape has been addressed to be a criminal offence punishable under the colonial Penal Code 1860 and also includes punishments imposed through the Cruelty to Women (Deterrent Punishment) Ordinance, 1983 and Nari O Shishu Nirjatan Daman Ain 2000 (Prevention of Women and Child Repression Act), amended in 2003.
It is commonly believed that both law without easy access and law without proper execution, is futile. It is the overall effective process that helps to ensure justice and this also includes the post-crime support provided to victims.
To assist such victims, national helpline for emergency, 999 and national helpline for violence against women and children, facilitated by Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, 109 is available 24/7. However, despite of all these laws and helplines, rape and mental trauma that follows is far from being eradicated from the society.
While there are laws at place to punish rapists, there is lack of necessary policy and laws impeding effective victim support service in Bangladesh.
Since 2009, Victim Support Centre (VSC) has been in operation in Bangladesh with the support of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police in collaboration with UNDP to provide counselling support through partner NGOs to women and children. However, there is still an absence of legal and institutional framework to guide the support provided to rape victims to ensure uniform provision of services and smooth reintegration of these victims in the society.
The Guardian in 2018 reported that about 80% of teenage girls suffer serious mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, months after being sexually assaulted.
In 2017, the South African Journal of Psychiatry highlighted that survivors of rape experienced a range of emotional difficulties and varying levels of distress. Receiving support and care from others assisted them, but the poor integration of mental health within post-rape services meant few received formal mental health support or effective referrals.
Thus, only having a system is not enough. Importance lies in its effectiveness.
In Bangladesh, mental health issues were previously dealt by The Lunacy Act, 1912. Now it is repealed by Manoshik Shashtho Ain 2018 (Mental Health Act, 2018). This is currently the only Act providing guidelines to deal with patients suffering from mental issues.
Through the 2018 Act, the government aims to work towards promoting and raising awareness for improving mental health support for people in need. The Act clearly defines mental illness (Manoshik Oshushthota) and mental disorder (Manoshik Roug) but does not go into the depths of expressly describing depression, anxiety or PTSD; issues that are faced by rape victims.
Section 5 of the Act pledges to work towards forming a Mental Health Review and Monitoring Committee in every district in Bangladesh with the inclusion of at least one female member. It provides the process through which an application can be made to the Committee for remedy by family members/guardian of the person suffering from mental illness provided they feel that the treatment received by the patient was not satisfactory. The committee is obliged to take an action within 30 days of acceptance of the application.
Section 23 imposes strict punishment for both intentionally issuing false certificate of mental health by any medical practitioner and for negligence or mismanagement by any health professionals/guardian during the treatment of patients.
While the Act itself has been a great step forward towards addressing issues related to mental health and imposing strict punishments for unsatisfactory service and fraud, still its existence is of lesser use when it comes to providing mandatory mental health support to survivors of rape and sexual assault.
Hence, due to the increase in rape and mental trauma associated with it, it is high time effective laws for ensuring mental health facilities to such victims is enacted to ensure healthier integration of these victims into the society. After all they are equally entitled to live a life free of the trauma they faced and did not deserve.
Barrister Mariha Zaman Khan is an Advocate of Dhaka District & Sessions Judges Court and an activist of I Know, Right (IKR).