When we read about a woman being "gang-raped", then raped again by her "rescuer" (The Daily Star, October 28, 2019), how long do we spend thinking about the unbelievable trauma this woman has gone through? How long do we wonder what happened to her, how she will go on with her life, how she will raise her two-year-old son in front of whom she was subjected to this torture? Do we bother to think whether the child has been scarred for life, whether her husband will be supportive or abandon her, or if her in-laws, her neighbours or even her own family will treat her the same way they did before? Chances are that we will not. News items like these are a daily affair and most readers will either avoid the report (too disturbing to the sensibilities) or quickly go on to the next "more important news", which may be the spiralling price of onions or how the Tigers fared in a Test match.
Apart from a few seconds of pity for the "unfortunate woman", the issue of violence against women is not the top priority for either the media or the media consumers. The biggest fallacy of patriarchy is that women's physical and mental wellbeing do not really matter. This bizarre block of irrational thinking has led to this collective apathy in our culture towards crimes against women and girls over the centuries.
Which is why, despite all the efforts of rights bodies, UN organisations and women themselves to demand the elimination of all forms of violence against women, there is no abatement. But all over the world, it has been established that this perpetual discrimination against women, the worst consequence of which is violence, retards a nation from going forward in every single way. It is therefore not hard to understand why in countries where there is unfettered violence against women, economic and social development will always take a backseat.
And the key reason is unhappiness.
As clichéd as it may sound, when there is no peace or happiness in the home, there is no peace in society. A society where women and girls are being regularly subjected to all kinds of abuse cannot function normally, let alone develop or flourish. Most of all, it cannot be a happy society. A BBS-Unicef survey interviewed women between the age of 15 and 49 and found that 25 percent of those surveyed justified being beaten by their husbands for any one of the following reasons: for going out without telling him, for talking back at him, for not being attentive enough to his children, for refusing to have sex or burning the rice. Can we say that women, who are conditioned to think it is normal to be subjected to violence as part of married life, can be happy?
In a household where the woman is being verbally and physically abused, children will be deeply affected and may suffer from mental illness well into their adult lives. Research has found that children growing up witnessing such violence may become abusive partners or parents, or become victims themselves, as they will accept such abusive behaviour. Violence creates imbalances inside the family. A woman who is in constant fear of being abused and who may even be left physically disabled because of the attacks on her by her partner, is likely to fall into depression and even decide to take her life to escape the trauma.
We don't need sophisticated data to know that when a woman is depressed, which is most likely if her partner is abusive, the unhappiness will seep into every corner of the home, affecting the children and even the abusive partner, and then creeping into the entire community. Just imagine, in a neighbourhood, if one out of every three women and girls experience physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner (worldwide according to UN Women), how functional/happy/productive can that neighbourhood be? It is a staggering fact that such violence is still frighteningly high, despite all the laws being enacted and widespread campaigns by international and local organisations. Now multiply this unhappiness with all the neighbourhoods and in each district of Bangladesh, and you have a gigantic meteorite of unhappiness weighing the whole country down. And this is minus the gross discriminations and unlimited deprivation of nutrition, health, education, recognition and so on that adds to the ill-being that the majority of our women and girls are burdened with.
In this grim backdrop, it would be foolish of our leaders to be in denial mode. Buzzwords like "high growth rates" and "middle income country status" have little meaning when the situation of women and girls is in such an appalling state. There may be more women in the workforce with significant numbers in the corporate sector, but they are still grossly discriminated against in terms of pay, promotion and position. But what is more devastating is that many of them face sexual and other forms of violence from their partners, relatives or strangers on the street. Child marriage, which is a form of violence against girls, is also very much part of our culture, especially for poor families.
The onus is therefore on our leaders—they have a huge role to play. Our lawmakers have the power to make sure that the legal system works for women and not against them. Conviction rates of rape cases have to be higher, with the state protecting the victim and her family during the trial process. A report in The Daily Star gives a harrowing account of how cruelly even child rape victims are treated at the one stop crisis centres of government hospitals—a testimony to the unbelievable lack of sensitivity or empathy for victims of sexual violence. Domestic violence is still considered an inconvenience of marriage that must be endured. We cannot scream "greater social awareness is needed" without creating specific campaigns that will target boys and men so that they realise that when they inflict violence on women and girls, they are in effect destroying the balance and harmony of their own communities, in fact, their own lives. They are in essence, taking our society, and our nation backwards from the path of progress. We do not have an "unhappiness index" to measure the ill-being of citizens. But we definitely have a countless number of women and girls robbed of their right to be happy to know what such an index would look like. Our leaders have the power to change the tragic endings of these stories, a change that is guaranteed to have tremendous positive outcomes on every aspect of development.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Deputy Editor, Op-Ed and Editorial section, The Daily Star.