Protests rocked the South Asian country of Bangladesh in October 2020 as a video spread across the internet showing the gang-rape of a woman by eight men. This is not the first viral sexual assault video that has resulted in protests within the last year. On January 6, 2020, a protest was held that blocked traffic in the capital city of Dhaka after a student from Dhaka University was raped. Because of these protests, that same month, a High Court in Bangladesh ordered the formation of a committee to address the rise in sexual assault cases, which doubled from 2018 to 2019. The deadline for this formation was 30 days, but a committee still had not been established as of February 2021. What’s more, a new development occurred in October 2020 that resulted in wide-spread protests: the death penalty was instituted for convicted rapists. Because of the stigma of rape in South Asia and the already low conviction rate, this change has the ability to do more harm than good.
The stigma in Bangladesh has made it extremely difficult for victims to come forward about their experiences and has created a cycle of impunity. Many fear being ostracized by their community since it is often the victims that are blamed for the attacks. The victims that do come forward are often shamed, or in extreme cases, punished extrajudicially. In addition, the justice system in Bangladesh has the reputation of systematically ignoring reported rapes at all levels of the system, starting with the police. Many victims do not report their assaults because police have been known to take the side of the perpetrator, dismissing the allegations as false. Ultimately, because of these factors, there is an under-reporting of cases, which in turn results in a very low conviction rate for rapists. Over the last 19 years, less than 0.37 percent of cases resulted in conviction. Because so few cases result in convictions, it is unlikely that the newly-implemented death penalty will make an impact, since a conviction needs to happen for the death penalty to be ordered. Because so few cases result in convictions, many victims do not come forward, and thus the cycle continues. This means that the estimated 1,627 reported rapes in Bangladesh for 2020 is likely just the tip of the iceberg.
In addition to police negligence, the laws themselves are written to exclude certain groups of people. For example, marital rape is legal in Bangladesh. This stems from the colonial era in Bangladesh when the British created a strict definition of rape, stating that it was when a man raped a woman who was not his wife. This definition, which is still in place today with very minor changes, excludes married women, men, and transgender people. This means that under Bangladeshi law, many people who are victims of sexual assault are not able to seek any form of legal justice.
There is another issue in Bangladeshi law that makes prosecution difficult for victims. In the Evidence Act of 1872, yet another remnant of the colonial legacy, Section 155(4) states that “[…] when a man is prosecuted for rape or an attempt to ravish, it may be shown that the prosecutrix was of generally immoral character.” The “prosecutrix” is the victim, often a woman, of the accused crime. This law makes it legal for the attacker to use the woman’s character as a reason for the assault, meaning that a possible legal defense for rape is that a woman’s clothing was too revealing. This law is another reason it is difficult for rape cases to result in convictions.
Many attempts have been made by activists to reform these problematic areas of the law. In 2005, there was a proposal to create a Witness Protection Program. Unfortunately, the proposal has not been passed. This means that when victims attempt to seek legal justice for the crimes against them, they often endure threats and harassment. The government of Bangladesh has shown an overall lack of initiative to reform the laws that make it so difficult for victims to seek justice.
October 2020 Protests
The protests that occurred in October 2020 were the result of a video spreading of a woman being beaten, stripped, and sexually assaulted by a group of men. The video was allegedly released because the woman had not given in to the men’s threats of extortion. The eight men involved were arrested, but protests erupted all over the country demanding that the government address the rise in sexual violence. Protesters took to the streets of Dhaka to march to the Prime Minister’s house, clashing with police on the way.
The government responded by approving the death penalty for convicted rapists. This measure is lackluster and possibly damaging. It was already difficult to convict perpetrators on a rape charge because the punishment required was life imprisonment. The burden of evidence required for a life sentence was high and judges were frequently unwilling to sentence life in prison. The addition of the death penalty only increases the burden of evidence that the victim must prove in order to have their attacker convicted. Also, imposing the death penalty may only encourage rapists to murder their victims in order to keep them silent to avoid chances of conviction. Protesters saw the approval of the death penalty by the government as a method to appease the protesters in the short-term.
There have been two main activist organizations speaking out with plans for reform. The Rape Law Reform Coalition published a ten-point plan focused on reforming Bangladesh’s laws, while also including proposed reforms in education and the creation of government relief funds for victims. Meanwhile, Feminists Across Generations, the second activist organization, has released a ten-point demand list for how to reform society to address the culture of rape within Bangladesh. This list focuses on making Bangladesh a safer place for victims of sexual violence and deconstructing the stigma surrounding rape.
Unfortunately, the demands of the activist organizations have yet to be adopted by the government of Bangladesh. In January 2021, yet another tragic rape made national news as a high-school girl was raped and then died from her wounds. Only four months after the protests and the imposition of the death penalty, yet another case has rattled Bangladesh. Activists continue to demonstrate the need for change by holding candlelight vigils for the most recent victim of this rape epidemic. This recent incident shows the need for continued activism and more international recognition. Only a reform in the laws and implementation of consent and sexual health education within schools will have a chance for deconstructing the culture of rape within Bangladesh.