Last week, in a historical move, Bangladesh introduced death penalty in cases of rape by amending its Women and Child Repression Prevention Act, Section 9(1). As per the amended legislation, a convicted rapist will be punished with death or rigorous life imprisonment. The amendment announced by an ordinance was issued by the President of Bangladesh.
The move came after a wave of countrywide protests over violence against women in nearly every part of Bangladesh. Students, teachers, working professionals, housewives, Left-leaning political workers, religion-based political parties had joined the protest, demanding an end to the culture of impunity.
But the new law evoked a mixed reaction from the protesters and gender experts.
Violence Against Women in Bangladesh
In January 2020, a Bangladesh court ordered the government to form a commission to address the rise in sexual assault and violence against women. The court passed the order after a sophomore student of the University of Dhaka was allegedly raped and physically tortured. The government is yet to form that commission.
This can be taken as the reflection of Bangladesh’s slow trial system in rape cases. Earlier in October, the United Nations released a statement manifesting their “serious concern” over the current situation of an increasing rate of violence against women in Bangladesh.
The conviction rate in rape cases is also disappointing.
Naripokkho, a women’s rights organisation, found that a total of 4,372 rape cases had been filed in six districts from 2011 to 2018, and only five of them resulted in a conviction. In the same period, only 3.56 percent of cases filed under the Women and Child Repression Prevention Act ended up in the court, and only 0.37 percent have resulted in convictions.
According to the Ain-o-Salish Kendra, a human rights organisation, at least 975 rape cases were filed in Bangladesh between January and September 2020. Out of the 975 cases, 208 incidents are related to gang-rape, and in over 40 cases, the victims have succumbed to death.
What Led to the Death Penalty?
On 25 September, a young couple went to visit the Hazrat Shahjalal Mazar Sharif, a common destination of local Muslims, in Sylhet. On their way back, the husband stopped the car in front of the MC College gate and stepped out to buy cigarettes. At that point, a group of MC College students approached the car and allegedly started teasing the wife.
Within a few minutes, the couple and that group of students got involved in a heated argument. At this point, a few students got into the car forcefully and drove to the campus of MC College. The college hostel had been shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite that, some students were there.
After dragging the couple to the college dormitory, the group of students tied the husband and gang-raped the woman. And, they told the couple to go away and leave their car in the college.
After a few days of this brutal incident, a video clip went viral on social media, showing a woman being unmercifully tortured, undressed and attempted to be raped in Noakhali district’s Begomganj Upazila.
The mainstream media and the social media promulgated the two incidents to ask for justice for the victims, with many demanding capital punishment for the rapists in the quickest time.
The biggest protest over violence against women took place in the capital city Dhaka, where thousands of students and teachers gathered at the Shahbag intersection for days. They even demanded the immediate resignation of the home minister for repeatedly failing to protect the women around the country – from the hills to the flatland.
Will Penalty Help Curb Rape & Abuse?
Bangladesh’s veteran women’s right activist advocate Salma Ali reckons the move of amending the legislation is just a rushed act to calm the protest.
Talking to Dhaka-based newspaper The Daily Star, she said, “The decision-makers should have taken the time to consult with grassroots lawyers and law practitioners who deal with such cases first-hand. It’s just a rushed act to calm some of the protesters.”
Asif Nazrul, a professor of law at the University of Dhaka, believes that the death penalty is not supportable to curb the rape and women abuse in the country. He rather said it might prompt the rapists to kill the victims in future to avoid the death penalty, which is eventually a bigger problem.
“I don’t support the death penalty for the rape convicted. It might push the rape victims to death because the rapist might do this to erase the evidence of his wrongdoings to avoid the death penalty. As we all know, in most of the rape cases, the victims are children, weak or physically challenged. In the current scenario, they are just raped or tortured, but not killed. But, after the new law put in the place, the rapists are more likely to kill the victims so that they can’t reveal the truth, which will help the rapists to avoid the death sentence,” Asif Nazrul told The Quint.
“In recent media reports, I saw that some rape cases are running for five years, and none is convicted yet. If the trial system remains as slow as this, no punishment will work to curb the rape and violence against women. If there were proper trials under the existing law and the perpetrators were punished, I don’t think the situation would have been so bad. And at the same time, you can’t amend a law just in two days. There is a bigger procedure to do that. I don’t think the government have followed it in this case. So only introducing the death penalty alone will not curb the incidents of rape in Bangladesh.”Asif Nazrul
In a statement published on 13 October, Amnesty South Asia Researcher, Sultan Mohammed Zakaria, said: “This regressive step is a fig leaf that deflects attention from the lack of real action to address the appalling brutality faced by so many Bangladeshi women. Executions perpetuate violence, they don’t prevent it. Instead of seeking vengeance, the authorities must focus on ensuring justice for the victims of sexual violence including through delivering the long-term changes that would stop this epidemic of violence and prevent it from recurring.”
How Protesters Are Responding to the Amendment
Protestors say that they are not protesting to increase the punishment, but to ensure an end to the culture of impunity.
Nazifa Jannat, a student leader, told The Quint that she doesn’t believe that the death penalty will help Bangladesh to curb the rate of rape.
“I don’t think the new amendment will help us to curb the rate of rape in Bangladesh. What we want most is an end to the culture of impunity. About 1,000 rape cases filed this year, and only five of them have seen a verdict. Before the new legislation, there was also a rigours punishment. But when we rarely see a verdict in the rape case, what does it mean by increasing the punishment,” Nazifa told The Quint.
Anik Roy, another student leader, told that the end of the culture of impunity is the thing that they want most. “See we are not protesting to come up with a new law, what we want is to end the culture of impunity,” he said.
Arunima Tahsin, an activist and a sociology student at the University of Dhaka, told The Quint, “The problem is not about the scale of the punishment, but about the culture of impunity. What will we do with the death penalty when there is no trial at all? And, I think the new law will lead to more death rate in rape cases because the perpetrators will try to kill the victims aiming to avoid capital punishment.”
(The author Saif Hasnat is a Dhaka-based journalist.)