The stories seem endless. A couple is ambushed in front of a college by multiple perpetrators, who rape the wife while confining the husband. A 14-year old child bride dies from excessive bleeding from the genitals, 34 days after her marriage. An O-level student is raped by her friend, eventually bleeding to death from her injuries in much the same way. And these are only the most serially reported on stories. We see new cases of sexual violence in the media almost every day.
In 2018, 732 rape cases were reported in the country, according to Ain o Salish Kendra. This almost doubled to 1,413 in 2019. Now with almost 1,000 cases reported in 2020, Bangladesh is seeing more than four rape cases per day on average. These numbers are thought to be just the tip of the iceberg. According to rights organisations, many more cases of sexual violence remain unreported out of fear, and also due to a lack of trust in the justice system.
This lack of faith is not unfounded when you look at the appallingly low conviction rates for rape in Bangladesh, estimated to be around one to three percent. In a 2013 UN multi-country survey of Bangladeshi men who admitted to committing rape, 88 percent of rural respondents and 95 percent of urban respondents said they had faced no legal consequences. Arrests and conviction can often be conditional on the amount of press interest the case generates.
How does the media choose which rape cases to report? A few days before the case of the O-level student, a 12-year-old child with disability was sexually abused in Magura by a neighbour. A few local daily newspapers carried the story where her brother mentions not receiving any attention from the local police or community. The story has since then not peaked anyone's attention and will mostly likely be forgotten.
The lack of interest in the media about crimes in remote regions impacts our understanding of the extent of violence against women, especially poor and marginalised women, and the reasons behind it. While it is unrealistic to expect media to be covering every reported rape case, the severity of the crime, the location and proximity of the case are some aspects that can play an important role in deciding the amount of coverage it will receive. Perhaps more importantly, class, religion and locale are biases that are so ingrained that they often go unnoticed.
More sexual violence reports seem to make the news lately, but much of the coverage is still focused on the rape survivor as the main subject, and not the attacks and the context that enabled them. News stories also often use language that avoids placing responsibility on perpetrators while seeming to imply the victim's consent, whereas the list of questions asked of rape survivors often shifts the blame onto them for bringing on the violence by something they did, said or wore. As Indian journalist Sameera Khan aptly wrote, "Survivors… are attacked twice. The first time is when they are assaulted, the second is afterwards when we as a family, community, law enforcement end up bruising them further by our judgmental words, advice and reactions."
But even those who die after the assault are not spared. Take, for example, the O-level student rape. After the initial reports came out, many started to argue that because the couple may have been in a relationship, the girl had willingly agreed to have intercourse and somehow the whole incident had gone awry, which led to her bleeding to death. The fact that the perpetrator had confessed to the crime became an insignificant factor; the focus was fully on the victim and whether she gave consent. How does someone bleed to death from consensual sex?
Let me make this really clear—going out on a date with a man is not providing consent to being raped or molested. By laughing loudly, smoking, staying out late—women are not consenting to assaults against themselves. They are within all their rights to experience public and private spaces without violence.
At the same time, misleading stereotypes—such as the image of the rapist as a monster—endure. Rape survivors are represented as weak and vulnerable, reflected in the the popular "head-in-hands, crying" representational images used in most of these reports. This then shifts conversations to how to "protect" women and not how to stop rapists. Shifting those perceptions could be a big step in the struggle to stop sexual violence.
The image of the rapist as a monster also shifts attention away from the fact that, worldwide, people are more likely to be sexually abused by a person known to them. This is especially true in the case of children and adolescents, who are more likely to be abused by a boyfriend, family member, relative, family friend, neighbour or an adult in a relationship of trust or authority, according to the UNICEF report to end Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation, 2020. Women are also more likely to be raped by a partner, although in Bangladesh, marital rape is still not a crime under the law.
The overwhelming media narrative of assaults by strangers in public spaces creates a belief in society that the two options available to women are that they can either be secure by staying at home or risk assault when they go out in public spaces. However, the UNICEF report reveals the falseness of the "only safe at home" argument, which can effectively make home the most dangerous place for many women. When we tell women not to go out in public spaces but instead to stay at home safe, we are misreading all the data on reported crimes against women and choosing to be wilfully ignorant. Home, family and friends are no guarantee of safety for women—only the rule of law and effective justice systems are.
The study on child sexual abuse identified three approaches to the prevention of sexual violence—changing social norms, attitudes and behaviour; altering the environmental and situational context that provide opportunities for abuse; and reducing the risks and vulnerabilities of children, adolescents and women to victimisation through programmes for social and economic empowerment.
We need to focus on all three in Bangladesh, but in the case of how we view survivors of sexual violence, social marketing and media campaigns designed to promote awareness and understanding about sexual abuse and exploitation can be an effective response. Such campaigns have been part of international, regional and national strategies for primary prevention promoted by governmental bodies. A 2010 WHO study showed that the most successful media interventions are those that begin by understanding the behaviour of their audience and engaging its members in developing the intervention. The Bangladeshi media can definitely play a part in bringing about this change.
Nasirra Ahsan is a private sector development consultant with the World Bank.