While the government has taken steps to ensure victims of gender-based violence such as rape can go to local-level bodies for remedy, these initiatives largely fall flat because of little action and follow-up.
In 2014, the women and children affairs ministry formed a Nari Nirjaton Protirodh Committee (NNPC) in every union with the aim of combating the scourge of child marriage and violence against women in the country.
The role of the committee, headed by the union parishad chairman, is to create awareness about gender-based violence and child marriage by holding a ward-based monthly meeting, according to a gazette published on May 11, 2015.
Each committee also includes three female and three male UP members nominated by the UP chairman, one teacher nominated by the UNO, one community police, one local NGO representative, one imam, and one Nikah registrar (kazi).
The ministry also formed an NNPC in every upazila and district, where the UNO and the DC respectively are the heads of the committee.
At the union level, these committees are supposed to collect information related to such violence and send it to the upazila committee once a month, according to the gazette.
Six years down the line, many of the committees barely function. Some have taken no action or even actively blamed the victims for the incident, raising the question as to whether they are even aware of what their role is.
Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, also the start of this year's 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, the theme of which is "Orange the World: Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect!".
The actions, or lack thereof, of the Eklashpur NNPC in Begumganj of Noakhali is a prime example.
The committee remained non-functional before the horrific September 2 gang rape and torture of a woman in Joykrishnapur village of Eklashpur union, video footage of which went viral on social media in the first week of October, triggering a firestorm of protest.
The victim did not go to the committee as she knew nothing about it in the absence of its activities. She rather went to UP member Moazzem Hossain days after the incident, seeking his help to get justice but to no avail.
"I went into hiding after the incident, and I was not being able to walk after the severe torture and beating. Still, one of my sisters and I managed to go to his house and narrated the torture I endured," she told The Daily Star recently.
"But he did not believe me, rather he told me that those boys were not that bad and that I might have done something wrong."
The head of Eklashpur NNPC and UP Chairman Khalilur Rahman couldn't be reached as he is currently sick. Moazzem has been in jail since his arrest on October 6.
Md Shihab Uddin, member secretary of the committee, said they first sat in October after the incident. He admitted that the committee had, until then, been inactive.
Begumganj UNO Shamsun Nahar, however, claimed all six of the UP committees in the upazila, including Eklashpur, hold such meetings and send their agendas regularly.
Asked how she got the agendas when no meetings were held in Eklashpur, for instance, the UNO said there were no separate meetings on incidents of violence against women and of child marriage. "When the six UPs hold joint meetings, these issues are raised there."
The death of 14-year-old Nurnahar of Kauljani union in Tangail due to marital rape on October 25 revealed that the Kauljani NNPC had no visible activities to stop child marriage.
Bellal Hossain, member secretary of the committee, said they weren't informed about the early marriage of Nurnahar.
He said the committee hadn't held any meeting or awareness programme this year or maintained a record relating to child marriages.
There have been multiple instances where rape survivors and victims of gender-based violence did not receive any remedy from these committees.
Even, Anna Begum, a member of Jhanpa UP of Manirampur upazila in Jashore, was allegedly beaten with the sandal of the head of her committee in August last year, when she asked for an Eid bonus. She was expelled from the committee.
Contacted, the committee head, UP chairperson Shamsul Haque Montu refuted the allegation, saying the woman was of "immoral character and she used to be involved in sex work earlier."
According to the latest report of Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), at least 975 rapes, 208 gang rapes, and 43 murders after rape occurred across the country in the first nine months of this year.
Despite being armed with various laws, the fight against gender-based violence still remains an uphill challenge. The NNPCs have a major role to play in this regard at the grassroots level, experts said.
They stressed monitoring NNPC activities in order to make these more functional and accountable.
Shaheen Anam, executive director of Manusher Jonno Foundation, said there has to be a strict monitoring mechanism so that these committees can be held accountable for their activities.
She referred to how in the Eklashpur gang rape and other incidents of violence against women, the media and rights bodies played an active role in helping survivors get access to remedies.
"But is it possible in every case? The system must be working and every committee must be held accountable for their actions."
A project of ASK has been providing gender awareness and sensitivity training to NNPC members and advocating for lawful mediation in the five most violence-prone districts, since 2017.
Khaleda Khanom, team leader of the project, ASTHA: Strengthening Access to Multi-Sectoral Public Services for GBV Survivors in Bangladesh, said most of these committees were inactive before the rights body started working with them.
"The members of the committees didn't know about their roles. We found most of the people went to the UP chairman and members to report the violent incidents, and they would do both lawful and unlawful mediation in rape or severe injury cases," she said.
"In rape incidents, they would also never maintain confidentiality, which affects the survivors. In the case of severe domestic violence incidents, they would often try to mitigate the issue by sending the victims back to their husbands, without ensuring fruitful measures so that these incidents aren't repeated."
Contacted, Dr Abul Hossain, project director of the multi-sectoral programme on violence against women at the women and children affairs ministry, said they don't usually review the activities after publishing the gazette.
"However, we often tell the DCs to monitor it. The minister and secretaries also urge them to reactivate their activities," he said.
"We just formed the committees, but the UP chairpersons are guided by the local government department. They [LGD] can play an active role here."