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    Volume 9 Issue 5 | January 29, 2010|

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Human Rights

Nowhere to Turn
For many women, the psychological torment of sexual harassment leaves few avenues of escape

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Over 20 years ago, a first year HSC student called Lina (not her real name) showed up in college with the skin of her face burnt. She was being harassed (more commonly referred to as 'eve-teased') by a man, and to avoid the unwanted attention and admiration, Lina applied a concoction of toilet cleaner and other ingredients in order to disfigure herself and ruin her appearance, the reason behind her torment. For as long as her friends can remember, Lina's face did not heal from the self-mutilation.

More recently, Nashfia Akand Pinky, a schoolgirl of Class 9, made news headlines after having committed suicide by hanging herself from a ceiling fan. The apparent reason: a man slapped her in public. According to preliminary police investigations, the girl was in a relationship with the 35-year-old driver by profession, Murad. According to unofficial reports, however, Murad had been harassing her for almost a year. Whether or not she gave in to forming a relationship with him as a result of this, remains unconfirmed and, at this point, irrelevant.

Simi, the student of fine arts; Trisha, the girl who drowned while trying to escape the men chasing her; Pinky. The stories of girls and women who have been provoked to commit suicide by 'eve-teasers' are common -- even the few which make it to the public eye via the media.

According to a research report released by the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association (BNWLA) in 2008, over 81 percent of women throughout the country reported being harassed at some point in their lives, with the percentage rising to 87 for girls between 10 and 18 years of age and 82.5 for women between 18 and 30 years of age. From 2006 to the first half of 2008, eve-teasing was a contributing factor in the suicides of 12 girls.

Examples of eve-teasing range from staring lustfully, to making indecent comments in person and over the phone, whistling, pinching, singing songs, making vulgar gestures and chasing the girls/women.

Simi, Trisha, Rumi. The stories of girls and women who have been provoked to commit suicide by 'eve-teasers' are common -- even the few which make it to the public eye via the media.

This description will ring an uncomfortable bell for most women who have ever gone out, to school, work, shopping, walked the streets or sat in their rickshaws, scooters, buses or cars. No one is free from it. Just because not everyone makes news headlines, does not mean that everyone does not face it in some form or another, if not in every form, at some point in their lives. Harassment leaves women feeling insecure and afraid at the least, but can have several consequences, one of which is of the women wanting to take their own lives. It seems to be the easier way out, for facing the consequences is far from it.

According to a report in The Daily Star on the same day on which the news about Pinky was published, a 16-year-old girl in Brahmanbaria was continuously harassed on her way to school by a man by the name of Enamul Mia, aged 20. At one point, he raped her. Afraid and ashamed, the girl did not report the incident. She was married off by her family but when, a month into the marriage, medical tests revealed that she was seven months pregnant, she was divorced by her husband. A village arbitration by influential locals sentenced, by means of a fatwa or religious edict, the girl to 101 lashes of the whip and fined her father Tk. 1,000, with the threat of social isolation if he failed to pay. Enamul Mia was not punished.

While rape cases themselves are non-compoundable -- that is, they cannot be settled in private, thus making the above arbitration illegal -- strong laws to prevent harassment are absent. Under Section 509 of the Penal Code of 1860, any act, conduct, or verbal abuse used to disgrace women is punishable by law. The provisions are, however, minor compared to the consequences for victims. The punishment for words, gestures or acts 'intended to insult the modesty of a woman' is simple imprisonment for up to one year, a fine or both. Under Article 76 of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ordinance, 1976 the penalty for 'teasing women' is a maximum of one year's imprisonment or a fine of Tk. 2,000 or both.

Article 10(2) of the Nari o Shishu Nirjaton Daman Ain 2000 (a law enacted for the protection of women and children from repression, last amended in 2003) addressed harassment somewhat. However, after amendment in 2003, that section of the law was eliminated and justified on the grounds of it being manipulation of the law.

A new provision under Article 9 states that if a woman is forced to commit suicide as a direct consequence of somebody's wilful dishonour/sexual harassment/assault, the guilty person will be liable to a maximum of 10 years' and a minimum of five years' imprisonment. Not only is the punishment inadequate, but 'wilful dishonour or assault' itself may be difficult to prove, allowing perpetrators to get away.

The criminalisation of sexual harassment as per the High Court rules issued last year was seen as a victory for human rights activists who had been pushing for the sexual harassment policy for years. Now the wait is for the policy to be drafted into law. But policy or law, implementation remains key. Expecting change in the form of a raised level of consciousness which will reduce harassment has obviously proven futile. Strong laws and their effective implementation must be ensured in order to prevent not only the physical deaths but also psychological murders of women.

But while we wait for policies, laws and their implementation, young women continue to make news headlines for all the wrong reasons. Others just keep it to themselves, hoping against hope and all the odds that one day the problem will go away; wanting to believe that one day, they will feel safe and secure about living their everyday lives.


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