Bangladesh’s rape epidemic: Are these a case of deviant sexual behaviour or ‘System’s failure’?

By M Adil Khan 16 May 2019

In Bangladesh incidents of loot, plunder, enforced disappearances, breakdown of rule of law, extra-judicial killings, deaths and injuries in road accidents through reckless driving have become parts of daily news.  Lately, news of audacious rapes, abductions of girls and women and sexual harassments in almost all parts of the country are also becoming common occurrences.

Spates of horrifying gang rape, rape and murder and politically motivated rapes are on the rise and some of the rapes include children as young as 3year old. In most cases, the alleged rapists remain outside the justice system and some use political connections and corrupt police and justice systems to escape justice. Law on rape is also vague and offenders often use these legal loopholes to avoid punishment.

A research scholar at a foreign university recently studied the situation of sexual violence in Bangladesh extensively and observes that sexual violence including rape are much more widespread than what are reported. The scholar infers that given Bangladesh’s male-oriented misogynistic cultural norms, its lax accountability arrangements where politically connected local thugs dictate rules and its corrupt police and politicised justice system work collusively to avoid administering fair justice perpetrators often go unpunished and as a result, most victims do not get justice and majority do not even report rape or seek justice. Another recent report by a gendered human rights agency in Bangladesh concurs and reports that during 2011-2018 out of more than four thousand rape cases that reached the justice system only five accused received some kind of punishments (https://www.thedailycampus.com/crime_and_discipline/21690?fbclid=IwAR3iIZEpJ0Mk6TYEdwIKUkY2jL_7CXCHOKTPDkqDQmyEp_aV-U4BMmxWsEA).

The same report also suggests that Bangladesh’s rape law, a legacy of the British colonial penal code of 1860 that has the provision to question the character of the victims and not the perpetrators where victims often face harassments, is by itself a disincentive to report rape and seek justice. As a result, incidences of sexual violence including rape are lot more than what reported – not more than 5% of cases reported and lot less get justice. Furthermore, in cases where perpetrators are politically powerful, reporting rape and getting justice become far more challenging if not dangerous.

The murder of 19-year-old Nusrat Jahan Rafi, who was doused with kerosene and set on fire at her school at Feni (a regional town in Bangladesh) on 6 April, this year, followed her allegations of sexual harassment by her head teacher is a stark example of risks of reporting sexual violence against someone in position of authority. Apparently, this head teacher has been a known sexual predator and there were numerous complaints of sexual abuse against him in the past, but all in vain. There are allegations that the head teacher organized dousing of Nusrat that eventually led to her death. The head teacher and his gang of perpetrators have since been arrested and now facing trial but given their political connections many doubt justice will be done.

Nusrat Jahan Rafi, who was set on fire and eventually died for reporting sexual abuse.

Referring to the case of Nusrat, the Dhaka based UN Coordinator, Mia Seppo has observes that, “Here, we have a case that is tragic on so many different levels, in terms of the system’s failure, in terms of a girl who is brave enough to stand up against gender-based violence….And what happened is that her brave decision to do so led to more violence, leading to her death.”

Cases of politically motivate rapes which is also linked to ‘system’s failure’ are also on the rise. Most striking of these took place in the aftermath of the December 2018 General Election. A 35-year old mother of four was gang-raped by 10 to 12 ruling Awami League activist thugs in Noakhali’s Subarnachar in early hours of 31st December, 2018, as punishment, for not casting her vote in favour of the ruling party but for the opposition. (shttps://www.thedailystar.net/backpage/news/mother-four-gang-raped-al-men-1681405). The woman eventually committed suicide.

Another audacious and politically inspired sexual abuse occurred more recently, at Sylhet Women’s Medical Hospital. A leader of the Bangladesh Chchatro League (BCL), the student wing of the ruling party, threatened a female trainee physician of the hospital with rape and murder for allegedly, “not attending my ailing friend with due care and promptness.”

When asked about the incident the concerned female trainee doctor explained that the patient was brought by 10-12 of his mates with acute appendicitis pain and demanded immediate treatment. The doctor explained that the case was little complicated and thus would require surgery and that only the senior doctor who was on his way would attend and advise next step. The patient was in acute pain, he was screaming. This agitated his friends even more, and by then they became quite abusive and were disrupting normal work of the hospital. At this stage, the female doctor reminded them once more that no action was possible without the intervention of the senior physician and that, “even if the Prime Minister comes and tells me to do something I would be unable to, without the senior doctor.” Apparently, this is when the concerned BCL leader went ballistic and blurted out the rape and murder theat.

When journalists confronted the concerned BCL leader with the allegation of sexual threat, he initially denied the allegation. But when he was shown the video clip (https://youtu.be/1ol3W3Dnoig?t=7) that revealed the truth he admitted that he did give the rape threat to the doctor but not because she “neglected my friend’s treatment” but because she insulted the “Honourable Prime Minister by referring to her disrespectfully; this is when I lost my cool.”

The BCL leader that threatened the female trainee doctor with rape and murder

When the local BCL leaders were asked about the bad behaviour of their colleague they refused to take responsibility and on the contrary, said that they were annoyed at the doctor’s “disrespectful” reference to the Prime Minister and thus have asked the hospital authority “to investigate the issue of the trainee doctor’s ‘contemptuous’ reference to the Prime Minister.”

This is remarkable and shows the extent the psyche of some have developed into where blind political loyalty has taken precedence over all sense of criminality. This is mainly due to what the ‘system’s failure’ that the UN Coordinator eludes to.

The BCL leaders showed no remorse, no apology and no sense of accountability for what was clearly a criminal act done by one of their colleagues. Instead, like their abusive colleague what concerned them most was the issue of so-called “defamation of the Prime Minister” by the doctor. It is instructive to report that the offending BCL leader who was taken into custody because of local civic protest was released within couple of hours of the arrest, revealing the extent the politically connected nexus of abuse is willing to go to protect an ally who is nothing but a criminal. (https://www.prothomalo.com/bangladesh/article/1593877/সিলেটে-গ্রেপ্তারের-দুই-ঘণ্টা-পর-মুক্ত-সেই-ছাত্রলীগ)

In Bangladesh, breakdown of accountability has been systematic and cultism played a key role in it. The rise of cultist politics in Bangladesh has reached a critical state such that it consistently undermines the rule of law and has become so pervasive that it endangers all aspirations of accountability. For example, in recent times, several journalists, writers and social commentators including a female executive of the Bangladesh Women’s Football Federation who also represents Bangladesh at the Asian Women’s Football Association that criticised the Prime Minister on legitimately, were taken into custody for “defaming the Prime Minister.”

Such is the power of cultism that it has made democratic critical discourses especially those that refer to the Prime Minister a punishable offence.

In the contexts of Bangladesh’s deteriorating accountability provisions and democratic norms and sudden surge in rape that has almost taken epidemic form, the question that must therefore be asked is, what’s causing these – are these due to deviant sexual behaviour or due to what the UN Coordinator suggests, ‘system’s failure’ or both?

Probably both but available evidence suggests that the recent rise of rapes and more generally sexual violence in Bangladesh are not merely the results of deviant sexual behaviour of few strayed individuals but symptomatic of something that are much more fundamental and are governance related. These include but not limited to opportunistically degraded lax accountability arrangements and the corrupt justice system that allow rapists and/or sexual predators to go unpunished and to engage in rape with impunity. Lax accountability, corrupt and politicised justice systems also provide incentives to politically motivated rapes/sexual violence as means of assertion of political control.

In Bangladesh, hierarchical, cultist, patriarchal and polarised politics where  hate is used to divide people and induce submissions and subvert rule of law and where the morally depraved leaderships hardly ever lead by example and instead, abet abuse and widen the accountability holes have created an environment where abuse especially those that relate to sexual abuse occur with glee.  

If I were a leader of the ruling party, I would be very worried of the image it is projecting to the world. The ruling party ‘brand’ is increasingly becoming synonymous to ‘system’s failures’ such that even the head of corruption commission claims that he is too powerless to “investigate big corruption.” Thus, it is little wonder that crimes including sexual crimes are on the rise, are occurring with impunity and at times, are used as tools of political repression. These are bad news for all – the ruling party, the government and indeed, the country as a whole.

This government has done lot of good things but its fondness for abuse as its tool of governance is dulling much of its accomplishments and endangering the very moral fabric that keeps the society together. Therefore, time is ripe to take a deep breath, reflect, and listen to the murmurs of resentments that are simmering below and are waiting to blow out one day for if we don’t as John F. Kennedy once reminded, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable!”

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