The inescapability of domestic violence
The news last week was dominated by the celebrations of the birth centenary of the Father of the Nation and the pride we felt at reaching the golden jubilee of independence, alongside the concerns over the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic hitting Bangladesh in full force. In between the reports on the visits of foreign dignitaries, the unrest on the streets over the visit of Indian PM Modi and the highest coronavirus infection numbers the country has seen since the first cases were detected in March last year—it is quite likely that the story of 25-year-old Hashi Begum escaped your notice.
Hashi married her husband Rubel Hossain, a day labourer from Cumilla, at the age of 20. Two years later, they had their first child, a son named Nirob. According to Hashi's brother, things between the couple went from "bad to worse" soon after that.
In the first week of March, Hashi took her son to her mother's house in the Korail slum in Dhaka to save herself from what she described as "torture". In the third week of March, Rubel arrived and took her back to Cumilla. However, only a day after that, she returned to her mother's house after Rubel, once again, became violent and abused her. On March 22, Rubel showed up again to "take her home", but she refused. A mediation, or what we commonly know as a shalish, was arranged, which consisted of several elderly neighbours from the area in Korail where her mother and brother live.
At this mediation, Hashi told those present that Rubel tortured her regularly, to the point that the pain was unbearable for her. She begged the elders to not put pressure on her. She is reported to have said, "If you send me back to Cumilla with my husband, he will kill me this time."
The mediation went on till 1 am, and Hashi refused to budge from her stance. Her family and the locals left her with her husband and went home. That was the last time anyone saw her—alive.
The next day, on March 23, her body, as well as the tiny body of her three-year-old child, were recovered from a lake near Korail in the capital's Banani area, weighed down with stones and bricks. Her family alleges that Rubel called Hashi's brother, also a day labourer, at 8 am that same morning and told him to recover their bodies from the lake where he had dumped them.
Why did Hashi and her son have to meet such a terrible end? Why did she have to beg the members of the shalish to not put pressure on her to return to an abusive husband? Why, despite the existence of police, local government officials, NGOs and rights organisations in near proximity, was she so completely alone in this fight?
According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, around 72 percent of married women have, at some point in their lives, faced intimate partner abuse, where over half the cases involved physical assault. According to the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act, domestic violence is not only limited to physical abuse, but also includes psychological, sexual and economic abuse. This definition is considered to be a progressive one, especially since it identifies "verbal abuse" and "controlling behaviour" to be abusive, as well as deprivation of financial resources/property and prevention of the application of legal rights to said resources.
However, while the act has been lauded for giving victims the right to medical services (including psycho-social counselling), legal aid, compensation, exclusive occupation of a shared residence or access to shelter homes where necessary, and for clearly defining the responsibilities of law enforcement in providing assistance to victims of domestic violence—it does not actually criminalise domestic violence as a separate offence and hand out jail terms to perpetrators. It mainly provides civil solutions. As Taslima Yasmin, an assistant professor of law at Dhaka University, writes in Prothom Alo, "there is a common perception that the law has been enacted to ensure a violence-free family environment by a compromising coexistence."
This idea of "compromise", even when faced with violence from a family member, is at the heart of the epidemic of violence against women in this country—the idea that no matter how bad the level of abuse, at the end of the day, domestic violence is still only a "family matter" that should ultimately be resolved, with the implication being that women somehow bring shame upon their families by making such a "personal" issue public. This stigma makes it almost impossible for women to speak up: a 2018 joint research work by Action Aid Bangladesh and Jatiyo Nari Nirjaton Protirodh Forum found that 72 percent of women who faced intimate partner violence have never disclosed it to anyone. Intimate partner abuse is so normalised in our society that unless a woman is physically mutilated to the point where her whole life changes, all actors involved—whether it is law enforcement, local community elders or the victim's own family—will usually suggest the route of conflict resolution with other family members as mediators, rather than seek remedies from the law.
This tendency to focus on mediation is not just at the personal level. Cases filed under the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act can be settled out of court, so even when a victim can overcome social stigma and actually file a case, she can still be pressurised by her husband or his family to settle the case without court adjudication. And if the court is unable to provide her with adequate protections, such as a safe shelter—which is often the case, given how few shelter homes there actually are—or if the case drags on for years, victims are forced to accept outcomes that don't uphold their rights. This was confirmed by a 2015 evaluation of the Act by Plan International, which found a "tendency in the majority of cases for legal counsellors to lean toward mediation, and that women are often not told of all of their legal options".
And this is assuming the domestic violence case is even filed at all. For many women like Hashi, going to the police or even the upazila enforcement officer is just not an option, and we must seriously question why they lack the social capital to be able to do so. However, having the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act to mainly provide civil remedies only makes the whole issue more complicated. Many legal experts have argued that domestic violence should be included in the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act, and it is time for the authorities to seriously consider this recommendation, especially when the majority of violent acts committed against women are cases of intimate partner abuse.
As we begin our new journey to becoming a middle-income country, we must remember that development cannot be constrained to economic terms only. As long as the women in this country are being tortured and even killed by their partners, trapped in abusive marriages without any recourse to justice—and as long as we continue to dismiss legitimate violence as "personal matters"—we cannot achieve the gender equality that every democratic nation should aspire to.
Shuprova Tasneem is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is @shuprovatasneem.