Protests mounted in Bangladesh on Tuesday over an alleged mass sexual assault during recent Bengali New Year celebrations.
A crowd gathered outside government buildings to demand the government bring the perpetrators to justice and tackle the epidemic of violence against women across the country which has long gone ignored by authorities. If no action is taken, the protests will intensify, they warned.
A group of around 30 young men are alleged to have attacked at least 20 women of different ages during a public holiday last week, when thousands of people gathered on the campus of Dhaka University to mark the first day of the new year.
Liton Nandi, president of the Dhaka University chapter of the Bangladesh Student Union, broke his arm while trying to stop an assault on a woman who had come to the celebrations with a boyfriend. "Around 6pm I heard a woman screaming. I saw a number of men trying to strip her while another group was roughing up her male companion a few feet away," he told VICE News. He and two friends managed to help the couple fight off the attackers, and gave the woman some clothes as hers had been ripped off. "We put the sobbing couple on a rickshaw to their house," he said.
The chapter's secretary Tuhin Kanti Das told VICE News he saw a woman being assaulted who had come to the celebrations with two young children. "As the offenders crowded her, she lost her children and brother," he said. "I could hear her pleading 'Please do not do this to me. I am a mother.' But nobody was listening to her, at least a dozen hands were on her already," said Das, who helped the woman get away from the attackers and find her children and brother.
Witnesses said police present at the celebrations turned a blind eye to the assaults. Businessman Hasinur Rahman said he saw a group of police stand by while a gang of men harassed and stripped a woman, even when they were asked to intervene by other members of the public. "The woman lost most of her clothes within a minute," Rahman told VICE News. "When her husband protested, around five men separated him from his wife, pushed him to the ground and began to kick him mercilessly."
Protester Aninda Saha said a "social revolution" was needed to combat the government's inaction. "Sexual assaults on women in Bangladesh occur on the streets, malls, and other public areas every day," she told VICE News. "But individual protests bring about little change in this patriarchal society."
Studies indicate two out of every three women in Bangladesh experience gender-based violence in their lifetimes, and more than one third of men believe hitting their wife is justified in certain circumstances. According to research by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, girls are regularly harassed and abused on their way too and from school, and sexual harassment is often seen as "part of the culture."
A police spokesman said the assaults were "isolated events" and CCTV footage was being examined to try to identify the perpetrators. But as outrage over events mounted, Bangladesh's High Court called the police "negligent." In a ruling it demanded reports within a month from local police units, the Dhaka Police commissioner and the police inspector general, as well as Dhaka University's vice-chancellor and the home minister, explaining what steps were being taken to bring the offenders to justice.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan told BBC Bangla that he saw no evidence of sexual violence in the CCTV footage, reported the Daily Star newspaper, though the media outlet said it had grabbed 50 screenshots of assaults in just one hour of the tape.
Representatives of the Dhaka chapter of the Bangladesh Student Union met the home minister on Tuesday. "We informed him that we will intensify protests if we do not see any significant development in arresting the sexual offenders by 12pm on Wednesday," said Das.