2020 was a difficult year, incomparable to any other in the lifetime of our generation. The global pandemic has been sweeping every corner of the earth - the communities, countries, and continents. People cannot remember so many deaths, illnesses, and restrictions like this in nearly a century.
We, the people living in Bangladesh, are perhaps more ill-fated than others in this world, as we had to witness more than 1350 rapes, 46 reported deaths of rape victims, 13 suicides after the rape, and 271 attempts to rape till October of this year, according to the statistics of Ain O Salis Kendra (ASK), a statistic which includes more than 200 gang rapes.
Injustice towards the rape victims, the power play of the offenders, undue political influence, and lack of sustainable planning to prevent rape has already made this inhumane criminal offense a "new normal" during this pandemic.
The word "rape epidemic" was introduced by an international organisation named "Equality Now." The group defines the term as a particular condition of society where gender-based violence, including sexual violence, is inflicted on women and girls in epidemic proportions. According to the activists of this forum, the rape epidemic arises as a result of the negligence of the governments and irresponsibility of the authorities to the detriment and suffering of rape victims at the individual level.
In Bangladeshi society, rape victims have been treated negatively for a long time. Immediately after a rape, people tend to look for the fault of the victims. A victim has to lead a life of solitude as she gets treated negatively in every aspect of her life. In certain cases, even their family refuses to take care of them.
However, the accused lives a peaceful life with society which treats his actions as a misdemeanor rather than a horrific crime. Such normalisation of a heinous and violent crime has brought this country to such a disastrous situation that from children of 6 months to women of 90 years, nobody is safe from potential rapists lurking around them.
In 2020, while women of other countries are contributing immensely in every sector, including science and technology, the uncontrolled nature of rape incidents has created a culture of fear among women in Bangladeshi society. Socio-structural, cultural and institutional negligence towards women and children are the main factors for this unfortunate state and the prevailing culture of impunity.
In every rape case in Bangladesh, the accused always tries to escape justice using their political connections. Though Bangladesh has strict laws against rape, proper implementation of those laws hasn't still been ensured in this country.
The government of Bangladesh approved the use of the death penalty for rapists on October 12, 2020. Nevertheless, it is not a long term solution for this continuing rape epidemic, rather it is an unwise measure that is not very likely to be effective in the socio-legal context of Bangladesh.
Statistics show the weakness of our legal system and lack of people's confidence on it. 80% of the rape victims in our country do not even seek remedy or file a case against rapists due to the institutional harassment, social stigmatisation, political dominance, and fewer cases of punitive verdicts against the offenders. So, the inclusion of capital punishment for rape may result in more hardship to prove the crime of sexual offenders.
Also, more than 65% of the rape victims in our country do not get justice due to the obscure definition of 'consent' and 'penetration' within the legal provisions. Consent in the context of sexual intercourse is not defined in the law.
At the same time, Section 155(4) of the Evidence Act 1872 allows a rape complainant's sexual behaviour to be questioned in court to prove 'she is generally immoral', often resulting in defense lawyers victim-shaming in courtrooms and deploying archaic and stereotypical notions of consent to deny the victims justice.
Besides, while the explanation clause states that 'penetration is sufficient to constitute the sexual intercourse necessary to the offense of rape', it does not define penetration, which in practice results in only penile penetration of the vagina being recognised as rape, but no other forms of rape such as penetration of the vagina with objects and penile penetration of the mouth. It deprives a lot of victims of justice.
Both of these major provisions of rape are in direct contradiction with the Constitution of Bangladesh and with International Human Rights treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
Such obscurities in the legal provisions, suppression by politically dominant organisations, attempts of concealment of crimes by social institutions, and lengthy procedural operations in the judicial forums have made people afraid to raise their voice against such a violent and iniquitous offense.
It is disturbing and alarming at the same time for us to think of the state of human rights in the coming days if this culture of impunity and injustice goes on.
While rape victims in this country get disrespected and ridiculed in the police station while seeking justice, it is almost futile to ask for the modernization of rape laws in Bangladesh. Modernization, by accommodating the elements of human rights and strict implementation of those laws, has become a crying need at this moment in our country to take care of the mental trauma, anxiety disorder, nightmares, fear, loss of confidence, sense of helplessness, self-blame, shame and humiliation, grief and sorrow of the victims. It would also help in the long run to prevent the terrible number of suicides that the victims commit after being raped in our country.
The victimisation of women in social, legal, cultural, and every other sphere of society continues, and they remain marginalised and powerless subjects in society. Other than reforming the socio-legal barriers within society to fight this rape epidemic, empowerment of women and ensuring equal rights in practice are the most significant needs at the moment. For the betterment of society and all of us who are part of it, we must work towards meeting those needs to end this rape epidemic once and for all.
Minhazur Rahman Sabit is a Research Intern at Bangladesh Forum for Legal and Humanitarian Affairs (BFLHA)
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.