Even before we can catch our breath as we enter a new year, a new decade, rape continues to haunt us, reminding us of its presence, its insidious entry into every lonely corner, street, open area, swamp, abandoned building or roadside bush. An ordinary Sunday evening turns out to be a terrifying nightmare for a Dhaka University student who gets off at the wrong bus stop. Instead of getting down at Sheora (near the airport), she gets off at Kurmitola. It is while she is walking down the footpath, possibly trying to figure out how she will go to Sheora where her friend lives and where she is supposed to go to study, that her attacker pounces on her, drags her into a bush, rapes her and leaves her unconscious. Marks on her body and other evidence indicate that her attacker tried to strangle her.
Now she lies in a hospital, injured and traumatised. Students are protesting loudly, parents are paralysed with fear for their daughters, the minister promises to catch the culprits and seminars are being arranged to talk about this epidemic of rape. It is a re-run of the same story. Over and over again.
The most mindboggling part in this ongoing catastrophe is that we already know most of the reasons why rape has become such an “easy” crime to get away with. It is being called a “social disease” that has been allowed to spread and intensify—the number of rapes doubled in 2019—because the system protects the rapists, not the victims. There is full-scale impunity when it comes to the rapists. They are the ones who can use the loopholes in the system because they are men and hence supremely entitled to enjoy the elevated status given to them by birth from society. The comments under social media posts after a rape incident, including the one involving the DU student, reflect the misogyny that stems from various offshoots of patriarchy, including chauvinistic misinterpretations of religion. But these misguided, bigoted men conveniently ignore the reality of small children, girls and boys being raped inside their homes by relatives or neighbours or even inside the madrasa by teachers assigned to teach their wards about morality and religion. They also ignore the young women who follow religious dress codes and abide by religious conventions and who still become victims of sexual assault, rape and even murder. The names of Tonu and Nusrat keep coming to mind but there are many others whose names we will never know.
Rape, moreover, is being normalised as if a female is always susceptible to this disease as long as certain X, Y, Z factors are present—a lonely path, being alone at home, stepping outside the house, daring to want to get an education or earning a living. Just the day after the news of the DU student’s rape, there was another report of a sixth grader, only 13 years old, being raped by a 20-year-old neighbour and found hanging from a tree; the assumption being that she committed suicide. The rapist in this case has been arrested. Does the arrest guarantee justice for the child? Will his punishment, even if it is the death penalty, bring solace to the parents? Will one or two death sentences really reduce the number of rapes in this country?
These are not easy questions to answer. But while the legal system is not helping bring down the number of rapes, it is perhaps the best bet to deter future rapists. For this, a major overhaul within the system is required. Law enforcers must be instructed to deal with victims with sensitivity and respect; women police should handle cases of rape and sexual assault (this is already happening in some police stations). Police must make sure evidence is not destroyed by taking the victim to a hospital to get immediate medical treatment and necessary tests done. Every public hospital all over the country must be fully equipped to conduct the required DNA test to identify the rapists. This is easier said than done, as many district hospitals do not have the facilities to conduct the tests, which means the evidence has to be sent to labs in other places leading to time delays causing the samples to be denatured. Although the so-called “two-finger” test, a highly unscientific, intrusive and humiliating procedure, to determine whether a female has been raped was banned by the High Court following a writ petition by human rights organisations in 2018, in the absence of proper laboratories, this medieval practice continues in most parts of the country as the first test to establish that a rape has indeed taken place.
The law(s) on rape also have to be reformed to be tailored to our present reality. The Nari O Shishu Nirjatan Daman Ain 2000 (Prevention of Women and Child Repression Act) metes out the harshest punishment to rapists, and has introduced minimum victim protection measures such as the prohibition on disclosing a rape victim’s identity, closed door examination of rape victims in court, and emphasised the need to conduct immediate medical examination of rape victims. But it has still retained the outdated definition of rape and section 155 (4) of the Evidence Act which gives the defence lawyers the opportunity to establish that the victim is of “loose character” based on arbitrary observations that could include the clothes she wears or her lifestyle. Such archaic elements have to be removed from the law if it is to have any significant impact in this bleak scenario.
A Dhaka University student being raped and left unconscious in a busy area speaks volumes of just how far this social disease has reached. It is an indicator of the failure of the state to protect the country’s women and children. Better equipped laboratories, a gender-sensitive police force and a pro-victim legal system can make a huge difference in providing victims with the right legal support and identifying and punishing the rapists. But this will only be ensured if there is no scope for the legal system and its members to be manipulated by the rapists through money and influence. Only those at the helm of power can ensure this.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Senior Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.