Saving our girls from stalkers

It's our collective fight

Having barely survived an attack by a group of stalkers on December 10, Lucky Ghosh fights for her life at a hospital in Manikganj, while her stalker Ashikuzzaman, who led the attack on the 15-year-old girl with sharp weapons, has been roaming free. Although Lucky's father has filed a case with the local police station accusing five people including Ashikuzzaman as the main accused, as of writing this article, the police could not arrest him.

The story is pretty much the same in the majority of cases. We only come to know about incidents of stalking when the stalkers go as far as attacking their victims physically, or in the worst cases, rape or murder them.

What is surprising is that sometimes people, who we expect to fight against stalking or sexual harassment, turn out to be stalkers themselves. We came across one such news report in October this year when there were allegations against a 45-year-old teacher of stalking his female students in Tangail. What's more, when the students complained to the headmaster of the school, instead of taking any action against the teacher, he threatened the students with expulsion from the school. The teacher was later arrested and sentenced to one year of imprisonment by a mobile court. There was even a report of policemen stalking a schoolgirl in Khulna earlier this year.

According to Ain o Salish Kendra, from January till November this year, a total of 49 children were sexually harassed by their stalkers. Although there are several laws with provisions to deal with cases of stalking, victims can hardly seek any legal redress under these laws mostly because of a lack of awareness about these laws and also because of the "socially accepting attitude" towards this crime. Moreover, the existing laws are inadequate to deal with the wide range and forms of stalking incidents. So those who work with women and children's rights believe that a specific law is needed to fight this crime. The absence of a specific law is, in fact, giving rise to these incidents. Nina Goswami, Senior Deputy Director, Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) observes that the 2011 HC directive does not cover the stalking incidents that happen in public places such as markets, public transports, etc.

Among the existing laws, section 75 of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ordinance, 1976 provides for imprisonment for three months or fine or both if someone uses indecent language or behaves indecently in public places or streets. Also, the Suppression of Violence against Women and Children Act, 2000 (amended in 2003,) has a provision for imprisonment for a period of five to ten years for provoking a woman or girl to commit suicide.

In 2009, an HC bench came up with some specific guidelines, directives and ruling in its verdict upon a writ petition filed as public interest litigation by Salma Ali, the-then executive director of Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers Association (BNWLA). It issued a set of guidelines defining sexual misdemeanours to prevent any kind of physical, mental or sexual harassment of women, girls and children at their workplaces, educational institutions and other public places including roads across the country. According to the directive, disturbing women and children through letters, e-mails, SMS, posters, writings on walls, benches, chairs, tables, and notice boards, and threatening or pressing them for sexual relations constitute sexual harassment and torture. It also criminalised "teasing" women and children through e-mail or telephone. The HC also directed the government at that time to make a law on the basis of the guidelines.

Then in 2011, the High Court declared stalking illegal and directed the government to consider the offence as sexual harassment. The court also added that incidents of stalking at any place in the country have to be brought under trial in accordance with the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act. It defines sexual misdemeanour as "any kind of provocation through phone calls or e-mail, lewd gestures, showing of pornography, lurid stares, physical contact or molestation, stalking, vulgar sounds or any display of a derogatory nature". The court directed the police to set up separate cells in the police stations to deal with stalking cases. It also empowered mobile courts to deal with cases of stalking until the government enacts a fresh law or amends the relevant law for stopping the crime.

The High Court's directives were very well thought-out and if enforced, could have made a big difference. But there has hardly been any enforcement of these directives.

Although the police are entrusted with a lot of responsibilities, they have failed to perform their duties. Currently, if a victim of stalking files a GD with the local police station against her stalker, the police usually do not take the issue seriously, as has been seen in many cases. They do not even bother to investigate. There were instances where victims of stalking filed a GD with the police station but the police did not take any action and a few days later, the women were physically attacked, or raped or even murdered.

In March last year, a garment worker in Dhaka lodged a GD with the Banani police against four youths who had harassed her. She requested assistance of the police for five hours late at night but was denied a police escort. The next day, she was raped by the same men who had harassed her earlier. (The Daily Star, May 20, 2017)

Moreover, our police stations are still very unfriendly towards the victims. When victims of sexual harassment or stalking go to the police for help, police ask them questions that further harass the victims. Also, the fact that there are very few women police officers at the thana level makes it very difficult for victims to lodge complaints. And setting up separate cells in police stations have not been done in all these years.

Salma Ali, a human rights lawyer and petitioner of the guidelines on the prevention and protection from sexual harassment, observes that the lack of enforcement of the laws is one of the main problems here. According to her, after the High Court's directive to form a sexual harassment complaint committee at every workplace and institution in 2009, only a few institutions have complied. This explains why stalking and other forms of sexual harassments are on the rise.

So our society as a whole needs to be a lot more sensitised towards this crime. A lot needs to be done in making people aware that stalking is a punishable offence. Usually, incidents of stalking are not taken seriously. For instance, when a woman is stalked by someone on a public bus and she protests, sometimes other passengers suggest that she should not use public transport, a common response from the public. Such attitudes only serve to encourage stalkers.

Moreover, in order to change the mindset of people and the future potential stalkers, awareness should be raised against stalking from the school level. Topics of awareness against sexual harassment including stalking should be incorporated in the school curriculum. The government should create a massive social movement against stalking, ensure strict implementation of the existing laws as well as enact a new law, and speed up the trial process to stop this crime.

Naznin Tithi is a member of the editorial team, The Daily Star.

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প্রধানমন্ত্রী শেখ হাসিনা
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তিনি বলেন, 'বৃষ্টির অভাবে দুর্ভোগ আরও বেড়েছে। আমরা বারবার মিটিংয়ে বসে উপায় খুঁজে বের করছি এবং এই দুর্ভোগ কমানোর চেষ্টা করছি।'