One of my close friends from law school is currently undergoing psychosocial counselling for severe depression. I met him over coffee last week, and asked him about it. He refused to say a word. After my repeated requests, he told me, what I perceive is one of the most horrifying stories I have ever heard: my friend is a rape survivor. He had been “raped” by his grandfather when he was a child. While telling me the story, he broke down in tears, and left me in shock. The trauma has been so severe, that he attempted suicide, but his parents saved him. I told him he should file a case and seek justice, but my friend asked me instead: “where is justice”?
Aside from my friend, there are other men reeling from the same agony as him, who have ended their lives as they could not deal with the same trauma. Earlier this week, a man in Gazipur committed suicide after he was reportedly gang-raped and blackmailed by 10 others. Jamal Uddin, now deceased, son of late Ahad Ali from Telihati Tepirbari village of Sreepur upazila, made headlines after he hanged himself in his house after being sexually abused and blackmailed.
His family members told police that the men were demanding Tk 20,000 from Jamal for a while. As Jamal denied paying them, they took him to Bhrindaban-Badshahnagar forest in the upazila, and the 10 perpetrators abused him sexually and recorded it on a mobile phone. They later told him that if he did not pay Tk 2 lakh within the next day, they would upload the footage on social media. Jamal discussed the situation with his family and locals, who advised him to file a lawsuit, but the terrified young man ended up killing himself. He ended the story of his life without turning the page to see what awaited him in the next chapter.
But what if Jamal had filed a complaint? That decision would have been a brave move by an emotionally shattered and traumatised man. However, would justice be served? That question needs some analysis from the legal standpoint. Thinking hypothetically, even if he had mustered the courage to report the incident, under which section would he file the case? The man was raped, an offence that falls under section 375 of the Penal Code of Bangladesh. According to section 375: A man is said to commit “rape” if he carries out “sexual intercourse with a woman” against her will, or without her consent, or with her consent that has been obtained by putting her in fear of death, or hurt, or when the man knows that he is not her husband, and that her consent is given because she believes that he is another man to whom she is or believes herself to be lawfully married, or with or without her consent, when she is under 14 years of age.
The section clearly states that for an offence of rape to be constituted, the victim has to be a female. Therefore, it follows that, even if Jamal wanted to file a complaint, his petition would have failed, just because he is a man, and according to laws in Bangladesh, men cannot be raped. Although penetration is sufficient to prove rape under section 375, the gender limitation in the definition creates a barrier for men, adolescents and younger boys to seek protection under this section. That means, in the eyes of the law in Bangladesh, Jamal was not raped. That also means every male over the age of 16 cannot be raped either. That is because, the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act defines “children” as any person who is not beyond the age of 16 years.
A total of 399 children, including eight male children, were victims of rape and attempted rape in the last six months of this year, according to Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF). Of them, 16 victims, including a boy, died after being raped, while 44 children were victims of attempted rape. Additionally, 49 children, including two male children, were subjected to sexual harassment. While girls and women are protected by both the Penal Code of Bangladesh and the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act, little or no protection is being offered to men aged 16 and above, even though they are being subjected to sexual harassment at educational institutions or workplaces. Therefore, it can be said that Jamal would have fallen through the crack in the law, which only seeks to protect rape survivors who are women or children aged below 16. That also means, access to justice to a rape victim is being denied—on the grounds of his gender. Many organisations are working to reduce sexual harassment of women and encouraging them to speak up about sexual assaults. Slowly, some women are speaking up against sexual harassment, while many are still keeping quiet, and are reluctant to file a case. But what about those men—although much lower in number than women—who are struggling with the trauma of being sexually abused? Where will they file a case? Jamal could have filed a case under section 377 of the Penal Code that says whoever voluntarily carries out carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment, and/or a fine.
The entire dilemma lies in the gender-centric legal provisions which fail to provide adequate support to men subjected to sexual abuse. If not under section 377, men can only rely on grievous bodily harm as their last resort, however, that would also not give much respite, as the petition is unlikely to stand out. Although not as frequent as the abuse of women, there still remains countless unreported stories where men (and boys) have been sexually abused by other men. And their voices have been silenced by force or because of fear and shame. Why is that? Till today, we have no answer.
Sumaiya Zaman works at BRAC.