Rape survivors face cruel realities
Sabina, 33, a young professional from Rangpur, tries hard to forget about the horrific day in 2019, when she was raped by her uncle. But even after three years the memory of her ordeal is fresh and has turned her days into a harrowing quest for survival.
Like Sabina, countless survivors of rape find their lives paralysed by the aftershocks of psychological trauma, flashbacks, nightmares, stigma, social ostracism and financial hardship. The Daily Star interviewed seven survivors of rape and found that most who sought justice were traumatised further by a system that, more often than not, lends impunity to perpetrators.
Each of the victim's accounts show the debilitating impact of rape on the victims' lives.
"The struggles that survivors face as a result of being raped are not only limited to psychological harm," said legal researcher Taqbir Huda, who coordinates Justice for All Now (JANO). "Sexual violence can trigger adverse economic events for survivors as well," he added .
The financial harm, in turn, spills over to every other aspect of their lives, which is exactly how it played out for Sabina. Her perpetrator had filmed the rape and used the clips to blackmail her for money. In the end, Sabina paid Tk 8 lakh — from her own savings and by taking a microcredit loan — to free herself from his threats.
But having to pay such a large amount of money left her financially crippled. With neither parents alive she had no one to support her. She could not even afford to buy food and practically starved resulting in her contracting pulmonary tuberculosis. Emaciated and sick, Sabina decided to seek justice. She filed a case at the local police station, after a report was published in The Daily Star. But the search for justice too, brought on another round of agony.
As soon as she filed the case she was subjected to shaming and severely beaten by her stepmother and paternal uncles once. She had to leave her village for what happened to her. She desperately needed a job to survive and eventually showed up at the local UNO office. But they couldn't manage anything for her at the time due to the pandemic.
After a three-month-long tailoring training, she received Tk 16, 000 and a VGD card. "Nothing can be sadder than collecting VGD rice in spite of having a Master's degree," she said with her eyes full of tears.
Sabina now works at a micro-credit organisation in Rajshahi, with a borrowed amount of Tk 20,000 for security money and first month's expenses, she said. During holidays she doesn't go home. She's constantly afraid that people at her workplace will find out that she was raped. The stigma, she worries, will cost her the job that is keeping her alive right now.
"I have nightmares that they will find out about my past," she said, tears crammed in her eyes. "I constantly live in fear," she added.
Like Sabina, another rape survivor, Nasima, 37, has been burdened with financial hardship after she was gang-raped multiple times at gunpoint in 2020. The prime accused is notorious drug trader Delwar, the chief of Delwar Bahini, in 2020. Recently, she was diagnosed with a stomach tumour that her doctors said needs to be removed soon. But bearing the cost of the surgery is out of her reach. She is often in pain, but cannot even afford painkillers.
After the brutal incident, her perpetrators demanded ransom and made illicit proposals. Her husband has since left her, but he too continuously demands money from her. After the gang-rape case received wide media coverage, he falsely believes Nasima has acquired large lump sums from the government and NGOs, she said. In reality, she receives Tk 3,000 for monthly food and essentials, from a group of women's rights activists and Tk 2,000 for the tuition of her son who attended SSC this year.
Nasima lives with her in-laws in a house given to her by the local MP. "Although earlier, I stayed at my father's place, where I could raise ducks, work as a domestic help for others or stitch kanthas for neighbours and get some money, here there are no such opportunities," she said. "Especially, after they [the rapists] hit me in the head, I cannot even thread a needle let alone stitch kanthas," she added.
Nasima doesn't even get to see her daughter, who was married off five years ago. Her daughter's in-laws don't allow her mother to come to visit her because of the stigma associated with Nasima's rape. She is never invited to any family occasions.
Ritu, 22, another survivor, was raped when she was only 13 and had not even started menstruating. "It was unbearable to process that the worst thing imaginable had happened to me, and that too, by my own father," said Ritu.
Though most didn't, Ritu's mother believed her and stood up for her. They left the house together, went through many ups and downs, and filed a report against her father. But Ritu couldn't attend school for years, fearing what other people would think of her if they knew about the incident. She hated herself, blamed herself.
Ritu's early teenage days were spent in court. "I didn't understand what the court was, and why people go there, but I had to go there to describe that horrific experience of being raped by my own father, again and again in front of people," she said.
Now, she lives in a safe home run by a non-governmental organisation, and tries to make up for the childhood she has lost. As she started late, she is currently studying in class nine. "I just want to finish my SSC and take a job to support my poor mother, who left everything for me," she said.
But her hope for justice is withering. Nine years since Ritu and her mother filed the case, it is still in the trial procedure, she said.
The High Court Directive stipulates that trial proceedings of cases under the Nari O Shishu Nirjaton Daman Ain 2000 are supposed to be completed within 180 days after the lower court concerned accepts the case for trial. But the survivors interviewed for this story said they have been waiting for the verdict for years. Most of them have downright lost faith in the justice system completely.
For 18-year-old Samiya, an intellectually disabled girl from Bogra who was raped by her neighbour when she was 13, the search for justice has victimised her family too. Even six years after filing, the case is still ongoing and taking witnesses. Her father, a labourer by profession, had to sell his only 1.5 decimal land for the case.
"Last month, I had to take four witnesses to court, which took around Tk 3,500 including their transportation costs, lunch, and expenses at the court. I had to rent my neighbour's CNG on credit, and pay the rent after working for two more days," her father said.
"But every time after coming from the court, they make fun of me saying what's so wrong with raping a "rejected" girl," lamented Samiya's father.
"But rape survivors and their families should not have to bear the medical expenses and legal costs etc, that arise from rape," said legal researcher, Taqbir.
"Under the draft Crime Victims Compensation Act, the state has a responsibility to compensate victims of violent offences, from a state compensation fund. It is regrettable that the law remains a draft despite being proposed by the Law Commission 15 years ago," he added.
With a legal system that fails to protect rape victims, they continue to suffer physically, psychologically, socially and financially. As such, rape survivors say they are alive but not living.
(Victim's names have been changed to protect their identity)