731 is the estimated number of rape cases involving women and children that have been reported in Bangladesh in just the first six months of 2019. This number was calculated by the Bangladesh women’s council based on newspaper articles, which means that the actual occurrence rates of rape in the country is likely to be much higher. What is known for certain is that the number of reported rapes for 2019 will soon surpass the number reported for the whole of 2018, which was estimated to be around 942 cases.
Occurrences of sexual violence, particularly sexual violence perpetuated against children, has become so commonplace in Bangladesh that readers of national newspapers, like The Daily Star, have started complaining about the repeated use of a generic picture of a cartoon girl crying, which is often attached to such headlines. The thing is, if people are able to complain about how often a cartoon is used in a newspaper, then they are able to realise how sickeningly often acts of sexual violence are being committed. While this matter is regularly getting reported on in the national press, there is little to no coverage of these atrocities reaching the international press. External pressures can help drive a change, but without coverage in international media it is unlikely that those pressures will be applied any time soon.
While the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, has done much in her ten years in office to empower Bangladeshi women, the continued rise in reported offences speaks to the need for further support and intervention. The question is, why is the European Union (EU) not contributing more to the prevention of this cruelty through providing support in the form of expertise and EU programs? The EU is Bangladesh’s main trading partner, and the provider of 690 billion euros to the country in development aid as a part of the 2014-2020 Multiannual Indicative Programme. This demonstrates the EU’s great influential power that could be used to address the widespread issue of sexual violence in Bangladesh.
Fortunately, there are a few ways that the EU can amend their current neglect of this phenomenon. First and foremost, the EU must urge the government of Bangladesh to fully adhere to the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act as a caveat to the continued distribution of development aid. This act, passed in 2000, has a provision (found in section 20) which states that a sexual violence case filed under this act must be concluded within 180 days after charges are introduced against the perpetrator. If a case is not concluded within the mandatory timeframe, investigative and judicial officials must provide a reason. At the present time, this provision is not being adhered to. Not only does this elongate the process of a victim obtaining the justice that they deserve, but many victims are never able to obtain any justice at all since the rate of conviction of alleged perpetrators under the Women and Children Prevention Act is currently less than 1% not surprisingly due to mistakes by the investigative team.
The EU must work alongside Bangladesh to strive for criminal justice reform. Namely, this reform should involve the training and education of police officers, prosecuting officials, and even medical staff on ways to meticulously collect evidence thus ensuring that a proper case can be established against the alleged perpetrator. According to an article by the Daily Star, 90% of rape cases end in the acquittal of the perpetrator because reports compiled by medical staff do not establish that rape has occurred. This is unacceptable. All individuals involved in collecting evidence for a case of sexual violence should be held accountable, which can be ensured by the establishment of proper monitoring mechanisms. This can also help reduce the number of instances of harassment against victims or their families when filing a case by law enforcement officials. These are just a few steps that can be taken to fight the rampant impunity that surrounds cases of sexual violence in Bangladesh and effectively reduce occurrences of rape throughout the country.
The EU must also facilitate in-person discussions with community leaders in order to encourage a change involving the stigma that surrounds rape victims. Victim-blaming is rampant in Bangladesh as victims are often seen as being “impure” or “without honour”. This stigma also extends to the families of the victims and is a reason for the reduced frequency with which acts of sexual violence are reported, as many are afraid of being ostracised by the community. In some cases, families of rape victims report that they are shunned by their neighbours after charges are initiated against the perpetrator. In one particularly harrowing case, involving sexual violence against a child, the family reported that their neighbours went so far as to gossip about the horrifying event that had taken place. Circumstances such as these indicate exactly why the funding of awareness campaigns are so necessary. Victims and their families should be able to look to their community to help with the healing process instead of feeling forced to stay silent.
The EU cannot allow sexual violence in Bangladesh to continue to increase. The EU must not stand by while the victims of these crimes are deprived of the justice that they deserve. This goes against the right of access to justice that is outlined in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, to name a few. In short, the EU must be aware of this rising problem and see it as a call to action. The safety and wellbeing of Bangladesh’s women and children depend upon it.