Singing the same tune: Ending violence against women now
Law Desk (LD): How do you assess the governmental initiatives against Violence against Women (VAW) in Bangladesh?
Nina Goswami (NG): In the past years, the government has appeared proactive as a response to many incidents of violence and mass reactions to the same. However, the overwhelming number of incidents of VAW and the condition of women in general bear testimony to the fact that the governmental initiatives have not been enough. There are some strategic deficiencies which remain largely unaddressed. For instance, Bangladesh had put reservations on two very important articles of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and for a while, the government appeared positive about withdrawing the reservations. However, the government has recently clarified that it has no plan to withdraw the reservations. For instance, given the reservations, the government will not address the issue of inequal property rights of women by virtue of different personal laws. Property is immensely important and when women are deemed unequal in terms of inheriting or owning property, they automatically get relegated to a subordinate position. When there are reservations put on two of the most significant provisions of the CEDAW, whatever efforts are made, would automatically fall short. Because with the reservations being put, our women will continue to be weak, to have an unequal status, and therefore, to be prone to violence.
LD: We have many laws in our country. The Prevention of Oppression against Women and Children Act 2000 has been made more stringent than before lately. There is also law for tackling domestic violence. Please tell us about the challenges that inhere in the laws.
NG: There are laws; however, there are many challenges too that largely go missing. For example, though the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2010 has been enacted, no steps have been taken by the government to make people aware thereof. Many women do not know about it, and more sadly, the judicial officers and lawyers have not been trained up to apply this quasi-civil legislation. The protection officers also do not know how to attend different cases under the law. The Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) had proposed that the government take initiatives to build mass awareness. Countries such as Sri Lanka, India, separately allocated budget to make people aware through regular training. In absence of such allocation in our country, the law is not used enough to enable us to criticise its substantive weaknesses.
As far as the Prevention of Oppression against Women and Children Act is concerned, lately, the Rape Law Reform coalition of different CSOs, tabled ten proposals. There was no proposal to increase the penalty. Increasing the penalty was something done by the government to appease the public outrage at that time. It is important that the existing laws get implemented. It is important that the laid down penalty gets awarded. Rather than increasing the penalty, it was necessary to change the definition of rape, to enact a law for the protection of victims and witnesses, to amend section 155(4) of the Evidence Act 1872, and to put in place a monitoring mechanism, among others.
LD: How do you evaluate the role played by the CSOs and their partnership with the government?
NG: The CSOs have been successful in putting forward their concerted demands and voicing their proposals together. I see positive role of the CSOs in this regard. Their partnership with government in many cases is positive. Nonetheless, in my opinion, the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs (MOWCA) should have been more active in building effective coalition with the CSOs and facilitating their activities and initiatives.
While enacting the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act, a multisectoral department was set up under the MOWCA to involve CSOs. But this is not seen at present. If there were effective partnership between the MOWCA and the CSOs, things would have been much more constructive and sustainable.
LD: What is your view on the mass movement from recent times? Do you think the people have had a positive impact?
NG: I do not think there have been any organised mass movements as such. When there are incidents of rape, at many places people take part in protests, but without any specific agenda or goal. As we have seen, people demanded death penalty lately and the government accepted it too. However, it was not supposed to be this way. Demands for the implementation of the existing laws and questions on the low conviction rate came in a very disorganised way. Had there been concerted efforts, the mass uproar could have been channelised in the right direction and a positive impact could have been made on the policy landscape in general.
LD: How far has our judiciary performed in this regard?
NG: Whenever a constitutional crisis faced Bangladesh and whenever it seemed as though all doors were closed, we turned to the higher judiciary, and the higher judiciary played a commendable role as well. However, when it comes to the subordinate judiciary, it always seemed as though there were many missing pieces in the puzzle. The subordinate judiciary needs to be made more sensitised with regard to the women question so that the women get a humane response from the judiciary. Subordinate judiciary is the first tier to access justice, and thence, it really needs to have a humane approach to the victim women in general.
In terms of exercising the judicial mind, the judiciary needs to be made more aware. Adequate trainings are to be imparted in this regard. Further, it has to be made sure that the judiciary works independently, being free from any external pressure.
LD: The 16 days campaign against VAW is going on. What are your thoughts on this year's campaign?
NG: Each year we spend a lot of money and celebrate it. This year we are celebrating it again. However, even for the UN, there are different voices. Different agencies of the UN have different mandates and different agenda and we do not see a concerted collaboration among different UN agencies. I think if different UN agencies, CSOs and government could work together, sing the same tune, and make a concerted effort, only then we could hope for an impactful consequence of such campaign. We need to underscore the things to do and navigate our determinations together in the right direction.
LD: Thank you for your time.
NG: You are welcome.