‘Misogyny embedded in the legal system has to be addressed’
Advocate Sultana Kamal is a human rights activist and the founder president of Manabadhikar Shongskriti Foundation (msf). In this interview with Afia Jahin of The Daily Star, she speaks about what perpetuates violence against women in Bangladesh, and the steps that individuals, institutions and the state can take to combat it.
What are the prime reasons behind the increase in sexual violence against women, especially during the pandemic? Is it the culture of impunity enjoyed by men in power, or our archaic laws? Do you think the state is sufficiently committed to ending violence against women?
There is no doubt that it is generally due to the culture of impunity enjoyed by men connected to power that we have failed to bring down the rate of sexual violence against women, despite so many years of struggle by rights activists. Yes, in some cases it is also the set of archaic laws that is responsible for the failure in ending sexual violence against women. Some of these laws are inherently anti-woman. The reason for the increased rate of such violence during the pandemic is said to be the particular situation of squeezed space between individuals. People were confined to limited physical spaces, where scope for conflicts and confrontations increased significantly. But in my opinion, it is mainly the deeply ingrained misogynistic psyche prevalent in families, defining our personal relationships and interactions based on gender, that triggers an increase in the violent treatment of women in any given situation. We, however, must recognise that the state has taken certain steps to deal with the issue in favour of women from time to time—such as pronouncing policies, making very stringent laws, etc. But the lack of strong political will and sincerity to stand up for women and protect their rights and dignity by the state components—from lawmakers to the implementers at the lowest level—makes us wonder if the state is sufficiently committed to actually ending violence against women. More often than not, state actors send the opposite signal to society regarding their stance on ending sexual violence against women.
In general, victims often cannot go to the local authorities for help, especially in the rural areas. How do you think the existing resources can be strengthened and made more accessible to the female victims of violence, so that they do not necessarily have to physically go somewhere to seek justice?
If we look at our constitution mindfully, we will see that a lot of emphasis has been given on enhancing the standard of life of the rural population. It is not only in terms of economic development. The constitution pledges to strengthen the local government system sufficiently to provide all necessary services to the rural population wherein access to justice has been given a very important place. Establishment of village courts can be one example here. Various recommendations have also been presented by concerned citizen groups to lawmakers throughout the decades, such as conscientisation and education of both the receivers and givers of justice, reform of legal procedures, building proper institutional facilities (including a competent Alternative Dispute Resolution System) at local levels, etc. In addition, training on gender and children's rights have been recommended as ways to strengthen existing resources and make justice more accessible to female victims/survivors of sexual violence without them having to physically travel out of their own areas. The problem lies in the weak implementation of these endeavours.
It was found in 2019 that only three percent of cases relating to violence against women and children result in convictions. How can this poor rate of conviction be improved so that there are more cases where the victims get justice?
First of all, a strong conviction on the part of relevant institutions to provide justice to the victims/survivors of sexual violence is necessary. It is also important to strengthen the capacity of these institutions in terms of increasing the number of courts, appointing the required number of judges, and ensuring transparency and honesty in the administration of justice.
It often seems that our legal system allows victim-blaming. As such, why have we not been able to abolish the Evidence Act? Does it reflect the misogyny embedded in the legal system? Do you think eliminating this act, if it happens at all, will be enough to make sure that victims are not further victimised in court?
Eliminating the section of this act that is related to proof of sexual violence will definitely be helpful, and a step forward in making the justice system women-friendly. But eliminating the act only will not be enough to make sure that victims/survivors are not further victimised in court. As I said earlier, the misogyny embedded in the legal system has to be addressed to ensure fairness to women seeking justice against sexual violence.
As with any social issue, violence against women also needs to be combated on the individual level as much as on the national level. But given how deeply entrenched this issue is in our society, what can conscious individuals do to help reduce violence against women? What kind of reforms are needed in the police force and legal system to make sure that victims get justice?
There has to be a common culture nurtured in society by individuals and conscious citizens so they feel morally duty-bound to speak up against all kinds of violence—particularly violence against women. It has to begin with raising one's voice against sexual violence in the family, spreading that voice to the societal sphere, and also creating pressure on the state to take all appropriate measures to protect women in and outside the family, and these efforts have to be constant. Gender equality education and training for all is also required in order to weed out people's tendencies to allow violence against women. This has to happen at schools, universities, and all state institutions, including law enforcement and judiciary. Legal reform in family laws as well as the Evidence Act is another important area to work on. It is also high time we paid attention to follow the directives given by the High Court to end sexual violence against women in 1999 and 2016.
How do we make communities more protective of women and girls? What kind of strategies can be adopted to combat violence against women and girls in private and public spaces? Do you think our formal education system can address this issue?
The present formal education system that we follow is openly discriminating and gender-insensitive. It requires a serious effort to imbibe the principle of equality and equal dignity for women in our social and community psyche—something which has not been given enough importance or attention by the policymakers. Our society is generally aware of women's rights and empowerment now, but still has problems in accepting women in equal positions as men at home and outside. Rather, there is either an explicit or implicit approval in the community for sexual violence against women—as if in retaliation to the reality of women's increasing emancipation in every sphere of life. This is seen as a threat by our society, which is informed by patriarchal concepts of women-men relationships. I believe that an appropriate educational and cultural strategy should be considered with high priority to combat violence against women and girls in private and public spaces.