Violence against women and girls is a major global issue. It is no more confined to a specific culture, region or country, or to particular groups of women within a society; it is prevalent in every corner of the globe that impacts women and girls, regardless of their age, race and social status. Global data shows that one in three—35 percent—of women worldwide has experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Bangladesh is no exception. In recent times, the country has seen an alarming rise in child rape, sexual assaults and incidents of violence against women. Daily news reports are filled with bone-chilling, gruesome tales of violence against women unheard of even a few decades ago. A joint research conducted by ActionAid Bangladesh and Jatiyo Nari Nirjaton Protirodh Forum, titled “Spotlight on Violence Against Women in Bangladesh: Trends and Solution”, shows that two out of every three women, around 66 percent, suffer from domestic violence.
Violence against women and girls takes many different forms, including battering, stalking, rape, sexual assault and harassment, child marriage, sex trafficking, domestic violence, etc. Evidence from different studies suggest violent acts against women and girls are not always committed by strangers or in strange places. Most cases of sexual abuse are perpetrated by family members or persons known to the family, such as husbands, boy friends, neighbours, teachers, employers, religious leaders, etc.—and take place in all spheres of life: homes, schools, workplaces, communities, etc. If we are to find ways to reduce violence against women and girls, then we will need a much better understanding of what causes it. Specifically, we need to know why so many men batter and sexually abuse women, and what corrective measures can be taken to reduce this tendency.
The answer to these questions is deeply rooted in our existing economic, cultural and social prejudices and stereotypes, moulded by rigid perceptions of patriarchy. Almost in every society, boys are treated differently than girls who are often less valued and have lower social status. They are generally looked down upon, considered less capable, less important and less powerful than boys. The root of the misconception starts at the very beginning; misogyny takes shape in early childhood. We see this imbalance in almost every society. Gender inequality prevails in both private and public life: at home, at the workplace and in the community. While the world has achieved progress in gender equality and women’s empowerment, in no country have women achieved economic equality with men—women still earn less than men for the “same work” in almost every country. The root cause of wage inequality lies in the difference in how women and men are valued.
Among the many factors that influence our perception of gender, media is the most pervasive: newspapers, films, television serials and programmes often portray women negatively as “the weaker sex”, paired with a belief that men can or should be in charge. A man is viewed as the provider and head of the family, while a woman is considered just a mother, wife, homemaker who has no role to play in decision making. Most advertisements, if not all, also depict women as objects of lust and desire. This reinforces the misconception that women are made for male pleasure. It is this systemic discrimination that denies women their rights and allows men to feel free to use violence against them as a tactic to maintain their superiority.
Different studies also show that men are more likely to perpetrate violence if they were raised in dysfunctional family settings. For example, young boys who are exposed to violence at home are more likely to adopt violent attitudes towards others in adulthood. Other research indicates, when men feel unable to live up to societal expectations of masculinity, or feel that their authority has been called into question, they become more prone to perpetrate violence. In some societies, violence towards women is sometimes considered the right of men even from the women’s perspective. What’s most disturbing is that women remain silent to protect family honour. Statistics indicate that in Bangladesh, 72.7 percent of the women who have experienced abuse never shared their experience with others.
Experts say that when we create a “culture of silence”, we empower violence. Therefore, to combat violence, women must speak out and let their stories be heard. Violence against women is a crime which violates their rights. Women should not feel guilty, embarrassed or ashamed because it’s not their fault—it’s men’s. Unfortunately, the perception in some quarters is that women are responsible for the acts of violence committed against them.
The reality is, men are responsible for violence against women and girls; they are the ones who are committing battery, rape, sexual abuse and harassment, and murder of women and girls. Of course, not all men are violent or aggressive, it is the few bad guys that are doing all these. However, the ones who are not involved in such violent crimes against women and children should not remain quiet. They must play an active role to end this by becoming agents of change. Men need to stand up and help change the culture that leads to these crimes. Jackson Katz, an American educator and social theorist, once said, “We talk about how many women were raped last year, not how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls got pregnant last year, rather than how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls”.
We must empower women and girls by teaching them how to protect themselves. We must also teach our boys how to respect girls and women and consider them as equals. Both men and women must come forward and raise their voice to change this culture of violence against women.
Abu Afsarul Haider studied economics and business administration at Illinois State University, USA. He is currently an entrepreneur living in Dhaka.