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     Volume 4 Issue 47 | May 20, 2005 |

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Human Rights

Every Woman's Worst Fear

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Earlier this month, two singers who were to perform at a May Day function at Nilphamari, were gang-raped. The women were invited from Dinajpur to perform at the function at Gayabari Union of Dimla upazila. But the night before the programme, some 10 men broke into their room at Gayabari Union Parishad (UP) and raped them. Among the rapists were, allegedly, the son of the Gayabari UP chairman, the UP secretary and a number of UP members. The chairman apparently threatened the victims to keep mum and sent them home.

Two days later, an 11-year-old schoolgirl was raped and strangled to death in Rajshahi, possibly by her landlord's son.

The two cases have little in common. Little, except that every time something like this happens, it is yet another woman who has to pay an abhorrently high price, either with her life, or with living like she is dead. From six-month and three-year-olds to women whose fathers or husbands were involved in land disputes; from groups of Hindu women -- some with grandchildren -- to little girls who go to Arabic teachers for lessons; from daughters of the rich to garment workers walking home, no one is spared the shattering experience of the physical and psychological violation. Not even a married woman who is raped by her husband (in fact, rape within marriage is illegal in only a handful of countries) or the woman who has just been raped and goes to the police for help -- where she is raped again by the policemen. Rape even follows the rampage of war as its direct aftermath. It seems to be the ultimate weapon men use to punish women.

According to Mohila Porishad statistics, 588 women were raped in 2004, 338 were gang-raped and 148 of them were killed after being raped.

Why do men do it? Enough theories have been propounded. The biological explanation is the need to satisfy male sexual desire. Sociologists claim it stems from the frustrations of living in an industrialised society. Feminists say it is to establish male domination. Different schools have different theories on why rape occurs.

It's actually a combination of everything and at the base of it all lies society. For not every rape-prone society is industrialised. When a three-year-old is violated, it can hardly be attributed to lust. When it's only the Hindu women in a community being raped after the elections, they can hardly be the only ones who catch the fancy of the perpetrators. When 10 men rape a woman one after another, they cannot all be mentally unbalanced or sexually aroused at the same time. But whatever the pretext, directly or indirectly, society reinforces at every step the right of men to do as they please to fulfil their needs and wants. "Rape is clearly related to the association of masculinity with power, dominance and toughness," writes sociologist Anthony Giddens. "The sexual act itself is less significant than the debasement of the woman," he adds.

One would think that a woman who had to endure something as torturous as rape would be the one society would want to protect, sympathise with, help rehabilitate. But, from filing a case at the police station to being medically examined, from being psychologically stripped in court to being sensationalised in the media, a woman is raped over and over again at every step and every level of society even after the actual, physical crime has occurred. Thus most women who are raped don't even report it because of the scandal and humiliation they will have to face every day of their lives after it happens.

As a result, about 30 percent of all incidents of rape that occur actually go to court, estimates Advocate Rehana Sultana of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association (BNWLA). Only 10 percent of those that do, get a conviction. And though the maximum punishment is death, it does not seem to be enough of a deterrent to stop such crimes from being committed. Because, in a patriarchal system such as ours, it is always the man who is favoured.

Even if a woman is brave enough to face the world and tell her story, more often than not, she will not be believed. The defence will accuse her of lying outright. Her whole sexual history, whether true and relevant or not, will be brought before the court. She will be accused of being an immoral woman of "bad character" or that she had actually consented to the act, or at least not protested explicitly. It's funny how no one realises that few women would go through the whole unfair and unrewarding process to falsely accuse a man of trying to rape her.

If a woman who reports rape does not happen to have any marks of injury when she goes to the police station to file the initial report, her story is hardly considered. After being raped, most women bathe -- sometimes over and over again -- to try and wash away the pain and the shame. While that purpose is not served, the medical evidence, which would lend some credibility to the case in court, is destroyed, says Advocate Sultana. Eye witnesses would make the case stronger, but men don't usually go around raping in public. Even if there are witnesses, they hesitate to get involved in such cases, says the lawyer. Thus the woman's case often remains weak.

The possibility of justice not being served, the fear of social stigma and threats made by the perpetrators compel many women to simply not report rape at all. Most women would rather -- and understandably so -- not go through the whole post-rape trauma inflicted by society, while others are forced to compromise when the rapist or his family pays them off or agrees to marry the victim.

Life after being raped is little short of death for a woman. Stigmatised at every level of society, she will not even be eligible for the one thing women in our society are traditionally expected to do: marriage. Questions have been raised about how divorcees and widows who have been with other men of their own accord frequently remarry while a woman who has been raped due to no fault of her own but forced against her will, is shunned. It seems that, somehow, the fault has to be the woman's. Whether it was the time of night when she was out or the clothes she wore, whether it was because she had had relationships with other men before, or even with the very man who violated her, the woman must somehow have asked for it.

For a long time it was believed that women can stop rape by resisting, i.e., by keeping their legs closed together. Tell that to a three-year-old being raped by a 35-year-old man. It is also thought that women are raped by strangers. Tell that to the girl whose neighbour, cousin, brother-in-law or even father, violated her. It is not only young, attractive women who are raped, not all rapes are rooted in sexual desire and most rapes are not spontaneous. The 40-year-old who was raped by two 20-something-year-olds will tell you that.

Rapists do not discriminate on the basis of class, colour, culture or anything else. By picking the weakest they only reveal their predatory instincts. Rape is simply something any man can degrade any woman by doing. And rape is not something that happens to "someone else". It's every woman's fear no matter where she goes and what she's doing. It's the one thing in life where she knows she is at the mercy of men, for it's the one weakness she possesses simply by being a woman.

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