Nadeen* did not watch the video. But she spent sleepless nights after reading about it. For days, she was unable to think about anything else. “It was as if I was living her horror and pain,” the 25-year-old told VICE News over the phone from Dhaka.
Nadeen is a rape survivor. She was talking about a video that led to widespread protests in Bangladesh this month. The video, which was shot on September 2, showed eight men stripping, torturing and gang raping a 37-year-old woman in the south-eastern district of Noakhali.
When the woman did not agree to the men’s extortion demands, they uploaded the 30-minute video on Facebook. Nadeen was among hundreds of people who read about the viral video. The men were arrested, and the survivor reportedly said, “I only request that they be given death penalty or life imprisonment.”
“Even death is not enough,” said Nadeen. “They should be publicly tortured. It should be telecast to set an example. Death penalty is easy. It’s not enough. They should be tortured the way they torture us.”
The ongoing protests in Bangladesh shifted the spotlight to the rape culture and the impunity the perpetrators enjoy in South Asia.
It started online when social media users used black profile photos to protest the country’s rape culture. The outrage spilled over to the streets in the first week of October, and hundreds of protesters held demonstrations and formed human chains. In some places, the protestors clashed with the police.
But this is a rare case to have been highlighted in a country that recorded, according to one estimate, an average of four rapes a day between April and August 2020.
Ain O Salish Kendra, (ASK), a human rights organisation in Bangladesh, documented nearly 1,000 rapes, which included 208 gang rapes, within the first nine months of 2020. Out of them, 43 women were killed after rape, and 12 died by suicide because of social stigma.
Last week, Bangladesh government responded to the outrage and reintroduced the death penalty for single perpetrator rape under the Suppression of Violence Against Women and Children Act. The law has four categories of rape: single perpetrator rape, single perpetrator rape and murder, gang rape, and gang rape and murder. The last three already attracted capital punishment.
“The legal reform actually has no causal link to demands made by experts for years. It does nothing to address actual barriers to ensuring justice for rape,” Taqbir Huda, a research specialist with Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, told VICE News. “We never had a problem with the severity of punishment. In fact, research has shown that the severity of punishment tends to share an inverse relationship with conviction rate.”
The conviction rate in rape cases in Bangladesh is a meagre 3 percent. International NGO Human Rights Watch put the number at less than 1 percent. “With the new death penalty, the conviction rate will only decrease further,” said Huda. “Believing that punishment is the problem, allows governments to sleep better at night. We have to address the institutional problems.”
This is not the first time brutality of rapes shocked the nation. It goes as far back as 1971, when 200,000 women were reportedly raped by the Pakistan Army. Last year, protests ensued after the death of a 24-year-old nurse, who was raped and pushed off a moving bus. There was another wave of protests the same year in response to a teen’s death after she accused her teacher of sexual harassment and was set on fire for reporting the crime.
Behind the data and the momentary media rabble is the larger, often underreported picture of what survivors like Nadeen go through.
“Rapes happen all the time. But whenever I hear of them, I imagine how painful it is. I see the horror in the woman’s eyes,” said Nadeen, who prefers to not share her story because she has neither reported it nor told her family. The memories, she said, still haunt her. “I did not report it because I barely understood what happened. I was a child,” she said. “But now I know what happened to me was horrifying.”
“Sexual violence is not simply a law and order problem,” Shireen Huq, the founder of women’s activist organisation Naripokkho, told VICE News. “It’s currently come to a head because of the impunity that perpetrators enjoy due to their connections to political and/or governmental power. Sexual violence is an everyday phenomenon.”
Nadeen faced sexual violence again. When she was 22, a colleague in a private firm she worked at attempted to rape her. “I escaped but later, when the man came to apologise, he said, ‘I’m a guy. I can’t control it,’” she recalled. Nadeen shared her experience with her boyfriend, who encouraged her to complain to her employers. “My boss told me, ‘How can he do this? He has a girlfriend.’” The boss ended up dismissing her case. “It was like it wasn’t a big deal at all. I quit the company soon after,” she said.
ASK’s data reveals that 97 percent of the perpetrators in cases of rape and sexual harassment get away. Reasons range from culture of impunity and leniency of law enforcers to improper police investigation.
“You go to the police and they ask you ‘what were you wearing’, ‘why were you out at night’, ‘are you sure you’re not making it up?’,” said Nadeen. “The humiliation is unbearable. That’s why women don’t report. If we’re raped, the society blames us and the system delays justice. Because of the delayed complaint and procedure, by the time they start collecting evidence, the sperm sample vanishes and they don't find evidence in some cases.”
The stigma attached to rape survivors is even more debilitating. “First, society makes us believe that we lost our dignity when we were raped. And then the justice system ensures we’re disgraced at every level,” added Nadeen.
The recent agitations have not changed much on the ground. “Majority of cases are unreported, usually due to fear for their safety,” said Huda. “With no witness protection system, the rapists know that even if the victim goes to the police, she’s still fair game. They attack her again, burn down her house, or break her father’s legs. Many women don’t want to face the repercussions of seeking justice. This happens pre-trial as well as after.”
Activists also demand repealing of Section 155(4) of Bangladesh’s Evidence Act 1872, which allows the accused to prove that the survivor was immoral by divulging intimate—completely unrelated—details of her life to justify or deny rape. “The onus of the trial shifts on the survivor, rather than the perpetrator,” said Huda.
Many activists believe that capital punishment is not a solution to Bangladesh’s rape problem. “The issue is so deeply rooted that we need to start with parents who teach our daughters to stay quiet, or protect perpetrators in their families, or not give girls the confidence to fight back, or not train boys to respect women,” said Huq.
But the fervour for capital punishment is more than just outrage. “It also shows lack of faith in the justice system,” said Huda.
Nadeen said that many demand death because they’ve been pushed this far. “If women were given justice the proper way, I wouldn't have demanded public punishment,” she said.
*Name changed to protect the privacy of the survivor.
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