“I Sleep in My Own Deathbed” Violence against Women and Girls in Bangladesh: Barriers to Legal Recourse and Support

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On April 7, 2016, soon after the end of evening prayers, Sadia, 27, heard her husband calling her to come down to the street. As she got to the door, however, he stood flanked by two men, blocking the exit. On her husband’s order, his companions doused her with nitric acid. “My husband stood watching as my dress fell straight off and my necklace and earrings melted into my skin,” Sadia said. After four surgeries and almost four months at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, Sadia lost both her left ear and left eye. “He was trying to kill me,” she said when Human Rights Watch met her a year later.

Acid attacks are one particularly extreme form of violence in a pattern of widespread gender-based violence targeting women and girls in Bangladesh. In fact, many of the women interviewed for this report endured domestic violence, including beatings and other physical attacks, verbal and emotional abuse, and economic control, for months or even years leading up to an attack with acid. For instance, during the 12 years that Sadia was married before the acid attack, her husband beat her regularly and poured chemicals in her eyes three times, each time temporarily blinding her.

According to a 2015 survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), over 70 percent of married women or girls in Bangladesh have faced some form of intimate partner abuse; about half of whom say their partners have physically assaulted them. Bangladesh human rights group Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) reported that at least 235 women were murdered by their husband or his family in just the first nine months of 2020. According to another prominent Bangladesh human rights group, Odhikar, between January 2001 and December 2019, over 3,300 women and girls were murdered over dowry disputes. These numbers, however, are based on media reports and are likely only a fraction of the true levels of such violence.

Violence against women and girls in Bangladesh appears to have further increased during the Covid-19 pandemic with NGO hotlines reporting a rise in distressed calls. For instance, the human rights and legal services program of BRAC, a major nongovernmental organization in Bangladesh, documented a nearly 70 percent increase in reported incidents of violence against women and girls in March and April 2020 compared to the same time last year.

This crisis comes at a time when Bangladesh is marking the anniversaries of two landmark pieces of legislation on gender-based violence and entering the final phase of its national plan to build “a society without violence against women and children by 2025.” In spite of this goal, this report finds that the government response remains deeply inadequate and barriers to reporting assault or seeking legal recourse are frequently insurmountable.

Sadia says she never felt safe reporting the violence her husband committed against her during their 12-year marriage because she did not trust the police to respond properly, and feared that it would only enrage her husband and place her at further risk because she had no support. This lack of trust in police is tragically common, and is compounded by the fact that shelter services are so limited in Bangladesh that for most survivors there is nowhere to go to escape abuse.

At the same time, violence against women and girls is so socially normalized that survivors often don’t feel violence against them is something that would be taken seriously or is worth reporting. When asked if she would file a police report after her husband forced her to drink acid, Joya, 19, said her father told her “maybe later.” “What’s the point in complaining?” she asked. The same 2015 BBS survey that found that over half of married women and girls had suffered some form of abuse, also found that over 70 percent of these survivors never told anyone and less than three percent took legal action. As one women’s rights lawyer put it: “Society thinks domestic violence is silly violence, that it’s something that normally just happens in the family.”

This report draws on 50 interviews to document the deep and systemic barriers to realizing the government’s goal of a society without violence against women and children. We interviewed 29 women from six of the eight divisions of Bangladesh who were survivors of gender-based violence, including acid attacks, as well as women’s rights activists, lawyers, and academics to understand the deep and systemic barriers to legal recourse and protection that survivors face.

Among Bangladesh’s efforts to combat gender-based violence, the government’s success in addressing acid violence stands out in particular. Since passing robust legislation alongside effectively coordinated civil society campaigns, acid attacks dropped dramatically from 500 cases in 2002 to 21 recorded attacks in 2020, at time of writing.

As one lawyer explained, acid cases are the ones where it is “easiest” for survivors to gain justice and support because of an active, well-coordinated, civil society response and because the government has focused significant efforts. But even in these cases, legal recourse remains unattainable for most survivors of acid violence.

This shortcoming points to one of the most glaring failures in the government’s efforts to address not only acid violence, but gender-based violence more broadly: the immense barriers to securing justice. As a lawyer from the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA) said: “The number one obstacle to stopping gender-based violence is the criminal justice system.”

This report finds that not only is the criminal justice system failing women and girls who have survived gender-based violence, but that additional failures in response, protective measures, and services seriously hinder survivors’ ability to access the justice system in the first place.

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