Since the beginning of last year, the epidemic of sexual violence against women and children in Bangladesh has dominated headlines, leading to nationwide protests demanding justice for rape victims. This leads us to an obvious question—when we have existing laws that protect the rights of women and children in Bangladesh, why is justice still proving elusive in the cases of rape and sexual violence?
A recent study by Manusher Jonno Foundation and its partner NGOs, which followed up the current status of 25 rape cases filed from 2012 to 2016 in their working areas, sheds some light on this matter. The study aimed to find the reasons behind lengthy trial procedures and found several anomalies—for example, all the accused were granted bail between 24 hours and 15 days of arrest, although the offence is not bailable under the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act 2000. The study also found huge delays in investigation and charge sheet submissions (majority of charge sheets were submitted six months after the cases were filed, even though the law mandates that investigations have to be completed within 15 working days), continued postponement of hearing dates (some up to 23 times) and delayed verdicts in most of the cases, even though the law mandates completion of cases within 180 days of the date of receipt of documents for trial.
The list is endless—MJF also found victims being blamed and mistreated in the judicial process by police and the defendant's attorneys, failure of the state in bearing responsibility for children born as a result of rape, the continued use of the banned two-finger test in certain remote areas, lack of forensic labs for DNA tests and more. Perhaps most worryingly of all, it found that some of the accused, who are under the protection of local influentials, were going scot-free after misusing section 19(4) of the act—which entitles any person accused of the offence to get bail upon the court's satisfaction to ensure that justice is not hampered—while justice continued to be delayed. The end result is that despite existing laws and the highest possible punishment for rapists, most victims' families were giving up on their legal battles, especially due to financial constraints.
This is a shocking state of affairs that cannot be allowed to continue. What is the point of having laws that protect women and children, only to have irregularities and inefficiencies mar the process to such an extent that justice is denied to them? If the state is not able to implement laws that punish violence, what is stopping society from spiralling into violence and lawlessness? The authorities must demonstrate their commitment to equality and rights and do everything in their power to strengthen the justice system and ensure that the judicial process is not allowed to be manipulated or made ineffective. We cannot lay claim to being a functional society if our judiciary is not able to deliver justice.