IN my 35 years of professional experience never have I seen such levels of cruelty and barbarism”, says Ayesha Khanum as she discusses the status quo of gender based violence in Bangladesh.
She paints a stark picture, explaining how the number of reported cases of violence against women has alarmingly increased. She presents me with a graph of the reported cases of violence against women collected from 14 different newspapers in Bangladesh. The tallest column indicated 492 reported cases of rape from January to June. As she tells me about some of the recent incidents that the lawyers at the One Stop Crisis Centre have encountered, it becomes hard to fathom how a 45 year old man can rape a 7 year old. Social issues that gain momentary attention reduce temporarily but then again flair in numbers, such as is the case of Child Marriage, a phenomenon now being termed as an “epidemic” in Bangladesh. Her take on dowry, even amongst the educated class of people, is thoughtful. “Even though dowry is illegal it has morphed into more of a social formality or obligation. Parents of brides still feel the need to buy whole sets of furniture even if the groom's parents make no such demands.”, Ayesha Khanum explains. So the practice of dowry is very much present in today's society regardless of which social class a woman belongs to. When asked to share her thoughts on the existing laws that are there to protect women from violence, she emphasizes the lack of proper dissemination of information. “Yes, educating the people is at its core but most of our magistrates and law enforcers are not even aware of the existence of these laws and their supporting clauses out there”, states Ayesha Khanum. She explains that the means of disseminating information have to be strengthened and more direct. She suggests using billboards and other multi-dimensional methods alongside education to make women more alert about their rights. “This is the down side of belonging to a patriarchal society. Women are always the victims. Her chastity is directly associated to her family's honor and reputation” says Ayesha Khanum.
She goes on to say that the only way to bring these issues under control is by having the parliament address them strongly. “The perpetrators need to be arrested on the spot and punished for the offence as quickly as possible. We live in a society that responds well to 'shock'. So what we need to do is process the charges at the earliest hour so that it sends a shock throughout society to take heed.”
As the interview concluded Ayesha Khanum imparted some words that were thought-provoking as well as insightful; “Women will always be targeted until reproductive rights are acknowledged as their fundamental right by the society”. One can only hope and have faith that women will not always be termed as “vulnerable” and “voiceless”.
Written by Supriti Sarkar