This happens every month, every week, everyday. Again and again and again. Brutality in the form of torture, sexual abuse, rape and murder has become epidemic in our society. Some cases get coverage in the media and spark reaction among citizens for a while, but most remain unreported and unknown. The ones which hit the headline in the media indicate the scale and depth of the dark side of our society.
While the memories of Tonu, Risha and Khadija are still fresh and alive, here comes another incidence of a heinous crime committed by a 42 year old human-beast from Dinajpur who beat, raped and tortured a girl of only five. Almost at the same time, we received the news of Bangladesh being recognised as a frontrunner among South Asian countries in regards to gender empowerment. Among the 144 countries on the list, Bangladesh secured the 72nd position for gender equality, leaving behind its South Asian peers. Great achievement indeed! Ironically, these two contrasting facets of our country only show how different the micro scenario could be from the positive macro indicators of progress and how gender equality is still a far-away goal.
Gender empowerment is not only about increasing school enrolment of girls, higher participation in the labour market, lower mortality rate, access to micro-credit, getting jobs in the readymade garment industry, or holding political positions. Therefore, such indexes and scores do not reflect the real plight of majority of the girls and women in our society. Beneath such spectacular progress of women in so many fields, there are also stories of humiliation and shame, discrimination and cruelty. The girl who goes to school or college or university does not know what awaits her on the way. From stalking to harassing to physical abuse to murder – she may encounter any of these that can put her dreams on pause in seconds. The RMG worker, who returns home in the evening after a long work day, cannot be assured whether she will reach home safely. Even a minor girl is not safe to play outside or inside her home. They all fall prey to the ugly desires of the men in their own surroundings – relatives, teachers, co-workers, neighbours, classmates and local boys and men. They can be from any age group – starting from teenagers to mature adults. They can be from any profession and any economic cluster. The common factor of masculine perversion brings them together. But is masculinity about committing violence? How does this crime develop in some and not in other men?
Social scientists argue that violence against women is the result of the structure of gender relations in the family, society and state. In this structure, men are considered superior to women and more powerful and capable than them. Women are to be their subordinates. Hence, in this day and age whenever there are incidences of sexual abuse and rape of girls and women, the patriarchal mindset of even high profile people would try to justify the behaviour of the perpetrator as natural and even blame women for having a 'loose' character. The so-called shalish in the villages of Bangladesh, where a group of local powerful men decide and determine the punishment of such crimes, are often only a derision that harasses women. In many cases, the victim herself is humiliated instead of the criminal being punished and handed over to the law enforcement agency. Sadly, the law enforcement agencies sometimes cannot do much due to apparent political connection of the perpetrators.
Social and cultural factors are thus intrinsically linked to the development of violent behaviour and abusive actions of people. Within the family, men are the controlling point and take on the role of domination, whereas women are dependent on them for decision making. Their role is determined by the division of labour and allocation of resources. Outside the family, the society does not like women who are not submissive or have 'minds of their own'. The stereotypical mindset of even the highly educated section of the society hold the view that girls should maintain so-called 'decency' in their outfits and movements. If that is so, then what type of indecency can a five-year-old girl display in her clothes and demeanour? Are girls who wear hijabs spared by these monstrous men?
We do not look at the root cause of the problem. Violence against girls and women should not be explained in isolation. This is about the power relationship between men and women, between rich and poor, between influential and vulnerable. Economics plays a crucial role here. It determines the position of people in the family and society. The exploitative environment that is created through money and power takes advantage of the weaker sections of the society. Girls and women are surely the vulnerable segment. But exploitation also takes place against men who are poor and helpless. Also, the same woman who herself may be dominated by male members in her family can often feel that she has the power to torture impoverished girls and other weaker female members in the family. Mistreating, beating and killing of female house-helps and daughters-in-law by women are not uncommon in our society. Thus, the problem cannot be solved in a piecemeal basis. It needs increased social awareness, stricter laws and their proper implementation, and stronger institutions that can function smoothly to take measures against the perpetrators.