Women and girls in Bangladesh are facing increased domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic, highlighting long-term systemic barriers to legal recourse, protection, and social services, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. This crisis comes as Bangladesh enters the final phase of its national plan to build “a society without violence against women and children by 2025.”
In spite of this goal, Bangladeshi women and girls face endemic violence in all facets of their lives. As one women’s rights lawyer said, “Society thinks domestic violence is silly violence, that it’s something that normally just happens in the family.”
The 65-page report, “‘I Sleep in My Own Deathbed’: Violence against Women and Girls in Bangladesh,” draws on 50 interviews to document the obstacles to realizing the government’s goal of a society without violence against women and children. Human Rights Watch found that despite some important advances, the government response remains deeply inadequate, barriers to reporting assault or seeking legal recourse are frequently insurmountable, and services for survivors are in short supply.
“The uptick in violence against women and girls during the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as recent protests against sexual violence, are a bellwether to the Bangladesh government that urgent structural reform is needed,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should take concrete action by creating accessible shelters across the country, ensuring access to legal aid, and removing obstacles to reporting violence and obtaining justice.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 29 women from six of the eight divisions of Bangladesh who were survivors of gender-based violence, including acid attacks. The government has made addressing acid violence a priority, but these cases shed light on the underlying systemic barriers that still prevent even these survivors from gaining legal recourse and protection. We additionally reviewed case files and interviewed women’s rights activists, lawyers, and academics working on acid violence, violence against women and girls, and legal reform in Bangladesh.
Protests have broken out in Bangladesh recently after several cases of sexual and physical abuse, drawing attention to the government’s failure to address a troubling rise in sexual violence against women and girls.
Most women and girls in Bangladesh are affected by some form of gender-based violence. According to a 2015 Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics survey, over 70 percent of married women or girls have faced some form of intimate partner abuse. About half said their partners physically assaulted them, and yet the majority said they never told anyone and fewer than 3 percent took legal action. At least 235 women were reportedly murdered by their husband or his family in just the first nine months of 2020, according to media reports collated by Bangladesh human rights group Ain o Salish Kendra.
This year, Bangladesh marks the anniversaries of two landmark pieces of legislation on gender-based violence: the Nari-o-Shishu Nirjatan Daman Ain (Women and Children Repression Prevention Act), 2000 and Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act, 2010. But Human Rights Watch found that women and girls often cannot seek meaningful legal remedy under these laws, and abusers are rarely held to account. According to the Multi-Sectoral Programme on Violence Against Women, of the over 11,000 women who filed legal cases through one of the government’s nine One-Stop Crisis Centers for women and girls, only 160 resulted in a conviction – about 1 percent.
Survivors we interviewed often said that their husbands or in-laws had physically and verbally abused them for months, or even years before they were attacked with acid, but none of them had reported the violence to the police because they had no support and nowhere to go to escape violence. There are an estimated 21 government shelters and 15 nongovernmental organization-run shelters for a population of over 80 million women and 64 million children.
Many survivors never report abuse out of concern that they would not be taken seriously and fear that without available safe shelter, witness protection, or other support services, reporting abuse could only put them in further danger, Human Rights Watch found.
Salma, 24, said that although her parents paid a dowry to her husband’s family in 2015, her father-in-law beat her repeatedly asking for more money. Her parents said “you just need to endure” the abuse and her father refused to help her seek police assistance. Eventually, her husband and his parents held her down and poured acid down her throat.
When women go to the police, they are often met with disbelief and intransigence. Sadia, 28, said that during the 12 years that she was married, her husband would beat her regularly, but she never felt safe reporting the violence because she did not believe the police would help her. When her husband attacked her with acid in March 2016, the police responded with disbelief. Even after she lost her left eye and left ear, the officer in charge told her, “I don’t think he did it, so we’re letting him go.”
Women’s rights lawyers say that the police often refuse to file a report or simply leave a case in open investigation for years. Often when a woman or girl reports an assault to the police, they demand that she describe the abuse over and over again to multiple officers, risking re-traumatization and encouraging survivors to give up on seeking justice.
Compounding this problem is the fact that with a backlog of some 3.7 million cases, trials are often delayed or drawn out for years. The financial and emotional toll of continuing in courts, combined with fear of, or threats from, abusers without any witness protection law or measures, means survivors are often pressured to negotiate out of court for a resolution that does not adequately reflect the harm they suffered.
Public prosecutors are poorly trained, often not invested in the job, and at times corrupt. A lawyer who had worked as a court observer said that when she was in the court, she observed instances in which the abuser’s family handed money directly to the public prosecutor as a bribe to lose the case. “It’s an open secret,” she said.
In Bangladesh, women seldom have proper access to information and legal counsel, leaving them particularly vulnerable to such corruption and abuse. Obtaining legal assistance is particularly hard for women who are financially dependent upon a husband – who may be her abuser.
The Bangladesh government should take seriously its obligations under international law, its own constitution, and domestic laws to prevent, investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible for violence against girls and women and assist survivors, Human Rights Watch said. This includes effectively weeding out the incompetence and corruption endemic throughout the criminal justice system.
The authorities should also undertake serious prevention efforts, such as comprehensive education and awareness-raising campaigns, and provide accessible services, such as psychosocial support, safe shelter, and legal assistance.
“The Bangladesh justice system is failing women and girls with devastating consequences,” Ganguly said. “Protesters are in the streets calling for change. The government should seize this pivotal moment to implement real reform that could save lives and promote the equal society it envisions.”