Power, Public Safety and Women

by Sharmina Nasrin and Aminul Islam

In recent years the rising incidence of violation of human rights has been a major concern in Bangladesh. The state of things continue to worsen. The State has a responsibility. But the irony is that the State itself with its different organs together with criminalised politicians and politicised criminals sometimes abuse power to infringe the rights of weaker and powerless section of the society. Instead of using the power for ensuring public safety and security, it is being abused and exploited, the victims are women in most cases. In a society characterised by inequality and poverty, violence becomes the means of asserting power.

Violence against women is nothing new. It is an outcome of the patriarchal form of the family and society which expresses itself through superior rights, privileges, authority and power assigned to the male sex. Prevailing custom, religion and culture that reflect the tradition of patriarchy have sanctioned subordination, discrimination and even violence against women in both private and public lives. A woman’s subordinated position in the family and society and the resultant violations of her human rights are also reflected in the formal institutional attitudes towards women. This social and cultural inheritance in turn interacts with the operation of macroeconomic and political forces, which also act against the interest of women.

The origins of crime against women lie in the fact that they do not have the power to strike back and they are treated as inferiors not just in this country but all over the world.

Women comprise about one half of the population in Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s politics has witnessed commendable emergence of its womenfolk to the leadership echelons, with two of them being at the helm of state affairs. There are Acts and institutional promises regarding equal opportunities for women, campaigns and movements to ensure women’s human rights. The Government is also committed to the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Despite all these, women are treated as virtual second-class citizens and are subjected to widespread social and gender discrimination. The negative practices of power by the people, organisations or even by the laws of the land entrusted with the responsibility of providing public safety, limit the opportunities for women in education, empowerment, and integration into the mainstream of national development. In this respect mastanocracy both by people in power and people backed by power pose a great threat to women safety causing a rise in violence against women.

The trend in incidences of oppression and physical violence in the country has shown that although overall incidence of violence has increased over the years, violence against women has increased at a much higher rate. From domestic violence to dowry-related, acid-throwing, rape, gang rape and fatwa, there has been an increase in all forms of violence against women in Bangladesh. The table below illustrates the point:

Different forms of atrocities and abuse of power against women:

Womenfolk in the country are subjected to violence and abuse of power almost in every sphere of social life. The forms of violence are:

  1. Family or domestic violence
  2. Violence at social level
  3. Legal aspect
  4. Domestic violence:

    Violence against women in this sphere is most rampant. But it is ignored on grounds of family privacy or community norms. The status of Bangladeshi women is characteristically marked by dependence on men. She is assigned a position of inferiority, subjugation and seclusion in relation to men. In this context, she is expected to possess the qualities of obedience, patience, endurance and sacrifice failing which she is liable to reaction amounting to any degree of violence. On the other hand, within the sphere of marriage and family, men have the monopoly over the means of coercion and direct violence. Husbands demand dowries and even burn their wives.

    Domestic violence also includes torture by husbands and in-laws, abandonment, divorce, oppression of domestic workers etc. In case of domestic or dowry related violence, the relationship of power between men and women is licensed by a customary acceptance of gender discrimination and tolerance of violence.

    Violence at society level:

    Abuse of power and violence against women in the society is alarmingly on the rise. Despite women’s empowerment, increased access to education and even participation in the political process, minimum security for women is not present in her work place or in public life. Women are victims of sexual harassment, acid-burn in our country. The barbarous act of assaulting a woman on Dhaka University campus on December 31st night is a naked example of degradation social values and is indicative of social insecurity of women. The incidences of rape committed in Jahangir Nagar University by the leaders of the student front of the ruling party demonstrate how power is abused against women.

    Assault of the weak by the strong in the form of eve teasing, rape etc. are the manifestations of the male attitudes which treat women as objects up for grabs. There are male inspired myths that rape is essentially an exercise of power, an act of contempt perpetrated on those who can’t retaliate. The crime is a product of the power relations that governs society.

    Despite specific provisions in the Penal Code and other special laws the incidences of acid throwing are on the rise. Violence against women may be the result of lawlessness or impunity of perpetrators. But investigations by human rights and women rights organisations suggest that violence against women is the symptom of gendered power and control.

    Even empowerment of women is not giving adequate security to women. For example in the first five months of 1999, at least four female members of Union Parishad were raped by their male colleagues in Maulavibazar, Noakhali, Jessore and Kishoregonj. The male counterparts have challenged the women leadership through expressing their power in the ugly form of sex harassment.

    Women workers are exploited in Ready Made Garment (RMG) sector where they comprise about 90 per cent of the workforce.

    The Status of Women and the Law:

    The Constitution of the country articulates a social justice paradigm, which ensures equal status to male and female. Article 27 declares that “all citizens are equal before law and entitles to equal protection of law.”
    Article 28 is much more specific regarding the status of women. The first three clauses of the article read thus:

    1. The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of …sex.
    2. Women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of the State and public life.
    3. No citizen shall, on grounds only of sex…be subjected to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to access to any place of public entertainment or resort or admission to any educational institution.
    4. Article 28(4) also provides for making special arrangement in favour of women for their advancement. Article 9 and 10 of the constitution provides for the empowerment of women. Yet discriminatory laws are found.

      Under personal laws of Muslims and Hindus, women do not enjoy equal rights with men. Under Muslim Family Law of Inheritance, a son gets double than what a daughter gets from his ancestral property. Muslim personal law contradicts with the provision of Evidence Act and gives women half weight as witnesses. Under Hindu Law of Inheritance women are deprived of the rights to inherit property from their husband. A Unified Family Code is the demand of the time, which will give men and women the equal status as far as their family affairs are concerned.

      Special laws have been enacted to fight the atrocities against women and children. These are:

      1. Women and Child Repression (Special Provision) Act, 1995 ( repealed)
      2. Women and Child Repression (Special Provision) Act, 2000
      3. Dowry Prohibition Act,1980 amended in 1986
      4. The Family Courts Ordinance, 1985
      5. The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Registration Act of 1974
      6. Muslim family Law Ordinance of 1961
      7. Penal Code, 1860
      8. Suppression of Immoral Trafficking Act, 1933

      We will try to analyse the most recent legislation enacted relating to women and children, namely Suppression of Violence Against Women and Children Act, 2000. This Act was passed by the Parliament on January 30, 2000 with another controversial Act, Public Safety Act, 2000.

      The new law makes provision for the punishment of sexual abuse and sexual harassment. The law also has put restrictions on the Media so that the victims’ privacy could be protected. The introduction of the concept of the Safe Custody is one of the most important features of the new legislation. Section 31 of the Act reads thus: If the Tribunal considers it necessary to commit any child or woman to safe custody during the trial an offence under the Act, the tribunal may pass an order directing the child or woman to be committed to the safe custody, to be situated outside the jail and be a government facility or may commit the child or woman in the custody of any individual or agency which the tribunal thinks appropriate.

      So, the concept of safe custody has got legal recognition by this enactment. The provision of the law clearly spells out that the place of custody must be out of the jail. But the law clearly violates a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution itself- Freedom of Movement. The Tribunal has been given the absolute authority to decide whether the child or woman concerned needs the protection of safe custody or not. The victim’s right to choice has been completely ignored. Moreover, it provides mechanism for the trial period only it is silent on what should be done before the case is sent to the tribunal for the trial.

      Another striking provision of the Act is that the rapist has been given the status of a father. Section 13 of the Act says that the rapist will bear responsibility of the child born out of pregnancy due to the rape. The tribunal will decide where the child will live. If proved rapist, he would be sentenced and detained in jail. It is not understandable how the rapist would bear the responsibility of the child from the jail and how the victim mother would collect money from the rapist. Option to abortion in such cases could be an alternative.

      The definition of rape as given in the new law makes rooms for the rapists to escape punishment. According to the law a man is said to have committed rape who has had sexual intercourse with a woman under the following circumstances:

      1. against her will
      2. without her consent
      3. with her consent, when her consent has been obtained by putting her in fear of death or of hurt
      4. with or without her consent when she is under 16 years of age.

      But in a number of cases it has been observed that victims have failed to prove the element of threat.

      But the daunting challenge we are facing today is the implementation of the laws against violations. When a violation is reported, the police is the first organisation a woman confronts to seek redress. Law is there that the police would take the case and investigate it and provide necessary security to the victim. But there is active connivance of the police in most of the rape cases reported and therefore, it is very difficult to take any action against the culprits. The cases of Shima Chowdhury and Yasmin are the glaring examples.

      Again it is the duty of the police to arrest the abusers and give charge sheet against them. The reality is that the police sometimes under pressure from the political parties and sometimes taking bribe from the abusers and violators do not arrest them and give final report exposing the victims to a more vulnerable position.

      Again it is the duty of the police to arrest the abusers and give charge sheet against them. The reality is that the police sometimes under pressure from the political parties and sometimes taking bribe from the abusers and violators do not arrest them and give final report exposing the victims to a more vulnerable position.

      Again it is the duty of the police to arrest the abusers and give charge sheet against them. The reality is that the police sometimes under pressure from the political parties and sometimes by taking bribe from the abusers and violators do not arrest them and give final report exposing the victims to a more vulnerable position.

      There is virtually no place run by the government, which could be used as safe custody. Place of safety used for children are run by the Ministry of Social Welfare. But the condition is deplorable. Now the jails are being used for safe custody exposing the victims to a more vulnerable situation.

      Mastani basically under the shelter of political parties also contribute to the abuse of power and violations of the provision of law. A section of people have started to believe that they are beyond the jurisdiction of the courts and other law enforcing institutions as they are the activists of some political parties. This encourages them to commit crime no matter against whom. So a concerted effort of all the agencies concerned including government and non-government actors is essential to fight violence against women.

      A gender neutral society is a must for promoting women’s status and ensuring their safety in every sphere of national life. All stakeholders, different organs of the government, non-government organisations, members of the civil society particularly the women organisations, should work together to this end. Social awareness is the key element to change the existing condition. A change in the social attitude is also necessary. Laws should be reformed according to the needs of women and their implementations should be ensured. Power should be directed to create a women-friendly society to have social progress and true justice.

      The authors are Intern, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) and Research Associate, Law and Society Trust respectively.