When Justice Kills
In the name of justice, women in Bangladesh, irrespective of their race, religion and social status, continue to pay the price with their life because of a flawed legal system, social pressure and distortion of religion.
On January 23, 2011, fifteen-year old Hena Akhter was raped by her married cousin from the same village and her family was forced to accept village arbitration which imposed physical punishment in the name of religion on the injured girl, who was denied of immediate medical treatment. Only after she took her own life on January 31, did the law enforcers take an interest in bringing the arbitrators and the rapist to book.
Twenty days later, on February 21, 2011 Serafina Mardi died from burn injuries, after she had set herself ablaze four days earlier. A year ago, on April 4, 2010, she was gang raped by nine men of her village. Surpassing the legal system of the country, Serafina too was forced to accept community arbitration that promised her 1.4 lakh taka from the nine rapists and a vague undertaking of marriage by one of the rapists, Nirmol Murmu. Unfortunately for Serafina the judgement did not materialise and unable to bear provocation by her rapists who moved about freely in her community, the young girl finally committed suicide.
At first instance, the crimes that took place in Chamta, Shariatpur on January 23, 2011 and the other in Amtulipara, Godagari, Rajshahi on April 4, 2010 appear far from related. While Hena belonged to the majority Bengali Muslim community in southern Bangladesh, Serafina grew up among the marginalised Christian Santals of the north. However, the dissimilarities in their larger social background did not make any difference in the way their respective communities treated them. In both cases, the local community sidelined the law of the land and used religion for their own benefit to impose farcical justice on these unfortunate girls– killing one and compelling the other to take her own life.
Unlike Hena, Serafina's family was able to file a rape case, but, community leaders along with the Shurshunipara Catholic Church, in an attempt to save the unity of the community forced the victim's family to withdraw the case. On April 23, 2010 they arranged arbitration and imposed an out-of court-settlement with the victim while the rape case was still under trial. The disturbing question in both the cases is how the existing system of law was totally ignored and the victims were forced to accept arbitration judgement by local community leaders. Referring to the arbitrations that took place in Hena and Serafina's case, Nina Gowsami, lawyer of Ain O Salish Kendra, a legal aid and human rights organisation, says: "Such arbitration has no validity. There should be no arbitration for rape case as it is completely non-compoundable." Citing the above cases, Nina adds that the victims' families never voluntarily go for arbitration rather they are forced to accept the judgement imposed on them because of the muscle power of the perpetrators.
In both cases the local community leaders sought help of religion to carry out their abominable act. While the Imam of the local mosque Hafez Mafiz endorsed Hena's dorra(thrashing), Reverend Bernand Tudu considered as the guardian of the parish, did not intervene while arbitration went on in the church's premise, which was an injustice on Serafina. However, the question arises whether religions, like Islam and Christianity, dictated by their Holy books - the Quran and the Bible - at all support such arbitration. Islamic scholar and academician Dr. Shamsher Ali says: "There is an established system of law in this country for rape cases. Other than cases like marriage and inheritance, we do not apply Islamic law for social mishaps like rape." He further adds that although there is specific punishment mentioned in the Quran for cases of adultery, nothing for rape is stated. Referring to Hena's case he says: "As we are not governed by Shariah Council, such village arbitration has no basis at all. When anybody uses religion to dictate such justice, religion itself is being maligned."
Father Advocate Albert Rozerio, Secretary General, Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace in Bangladesh and Legal Advisor, Dhaka Catholic Archdiocese, defends the action of Reverend Bernand Tudu, saying: "The initiative for the arbitration was not taken by the Father. As Fathers we always want peace and since our Christian religion preaches peace, Father Tudu must have supported the arbitration thinking it as a good step towards peace and settlement." In reply to whether Church has the authority to carry out arbitration and deal with crimes like rape Father Albert says: "Each religious community or parish is under one or more parish priest. To assist him, a parish council is organised, which looks after the education, health, social justice and legal arbitration of the community. The president of the parish is a Father and there is an understanding that to maintain the peace of the parish they are allowed to take any decision. But this does not have any legal basis. It can work only as a support to the existing law of the land but has no legal power." Father Albert adds: "We have Cannon Laws to govern a congregation, but for crimes like rape, murder, robbery the law of the state has to be followed."
Although rape, its trial and judgement has not been specifically mentioned in the Holy books, the Quran and the Bible, this does not make the crime any less heinous neither pardonable. Yet rape victims and their families are forced to accept judgement by illegal arbitration because of the lengthy and complicated legal framework of the country. "Families often look for prompt remedy so they bypass the legal system. Although there is a time frame for the trials under the Nari-O-Shishu Nirjatan Daman Ain 2000, but it is hardly followed because of non-participation of public prosecution as well as police. Since police has more cases than they can handle they often request for time extension for investigation. Meanwhile, the perpetrators are released on bail and they frequently harass and threaten the victim and her family. This also gives them time to call local arbitration and impose out-of court settlements.”
Besides, local community and religious leaders, the entire legal process played an inexplicable role in dealing with the rape cases of Hena and Serafina. In Hena's case, the investigation officer and police inspector wrongly filed the case and the civil surgeon and doctors of Shariatpur Sadar Hospital came up with a false post-mortem report. In Serafina's case the public prosecutor and the lower judiciary did not question Serafina's statement when she said she had filed a false case of rape, even when her medical report clearly showed she had been gang raped. The court informally knew about the illegal out-of-court settlement and acquitted the nine rapists. Nina says, "Government was the plaintiff in this case. As long as the government does not withdraw the case, trial can still be held even if the victim withdraws and witnesses do not cooperate. The trial of Serafina's case could have been carried out using the medical report and other documents. Unlike Hena's case where High Court has taken up the initiative, interest of the lower judiciary in Serafina's case is not perceivable."
Apart from being members of the weaker sex, both these young teenage girls - Hena Akhter and Serafina Mardi had the misfortune of being born to poor families. As a result the worth of their life could easily be traded for the larger good of their respective communities – to the extent of protecting their rapists. As long as society's attitude towards rape and the victims do not change, and the legal system continues to fail in delivering quick and exemplary punishment to rapists, girls like Hena and Serafina will continue to make the headlines for the wrong reason and the vulnerability of women irrespective of their religion, race and social status will continue to amplify.
Trapped in a Nightmare
A fourteen-year-old, living in a small community, in a remote village did not know much about the world. She had reached puberty, but in many ways she was still a child who led a sheltered life, and was raised to trust the people she had grown up knowing, the very same people who ruthlessly stole her innocence, and led her to a violent death.
Serafina Mardi's fate has shown us once again the ugly reality of our society, which seems to surface more frequently with every passing day. Rape, a grievous violation of human rights, has now become a regular phenomenon seen in our dailies. The news is reported, and the crime goes unpunished, but what becomes of the victims who survive the assault? Are they given the care they need to recover? What went on in Serafina's mind, to compel her to take her life almost a year after her rape?
A few months after her rape, Serafina Mardi's cuts and bruises healed, and no outward sign of the trauma remained. In her mind, however, there were deep wounds still cut wide open. "If being raped was not damaging enough to her mental state, going back to the community and facing her tormentors made things much worse," says Ishrat Rahman, a clinical psychologist at the National Trauma Counseling Centre. According to Rahman, a victim of rape goes through several stages of psychological trauma after her attack takes place.
The aftermath of rape has both immediate and long-term effects on the victim's mind, and the healing process is lengthy and difficult. The symptoms, which can be seen shortly after the incident, are the display of unpredictable and intense emotions. The victim may startle easily, may have fresh memories and intrusive thoughts about the incident, nightmares and loss of sleep and concentration. They can also react violently toward themselves and exhibit abnormal behaviours such as swearing, crying etc, if faced with triggers which remind them of the incident. This type of behaviour was observed in Serafina, when she returned home from the safe house, where she had been recovering steadily.
"The sight of her rapists, roaming around like nothing happened, triggered these responses in her," states Rahman. "People in our society are often insensitive and do not have the skills to interact with trauma victims. Unfortunately, the community members did not make things easier for her. She was made to feel unwanted, unclean and became an outcast, and all this added to her deteriorating mental condition."
Rahman shares that the immediate symptoms of rape trauma are diagnosed as Acute Stress Disorder, and the persons going through this phase feel numb, detached and in a daze and their world seems unreal to them. They have trouble remembering the details of their assault and subconsciously try to block them out at the same time; they relive the feeling of being assaulted repeatedly through thoughts, memories and nightmares. They also avoid all things that remind them of the incident and experience increasing anxiety.
Within a few weeks of the attack, the victims go through an acute phase of the Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS), during which they feel shock, disbelief, humiliation, confusion, shame, and guilt, particularly if the rapist is an acquaintance, which was true in Serafina's case.
They also experience realistic flashbacks and a strong attempt to disconnect themselves from their emotions. They may also be in denial and try to convince themselves that the incident did not take place. During this phase, constant reminders from others about the assault may do further damage to the victim's psyche.
Depending on the victim's personality, they may react in an expressive style, which would involve, rage, screaming, crying, shaking, ironic or uncomfortable laughter and restlessness. They may also react in a controlled style, which involves calm, quite, and rational outward behaviour while facing severe inner turmoil. They may feel unsafe, causing anxiety and difficulty with intimate relationships. They may also try to return to normal social interaction and consequently, find themselves unable to do so because of the lack of trust in everyone.
The reorganisation phase follows closely, as the victims begin to attempt to put their lives back together the way it once was. The feelings of anxiety, fear and anger still resurface during this phase. In Serafina's case, she was given the option to either become a nun and give up the life she knew, or marry one of her tormentors and return to her village to have her honour restored. "To a fourteen-year-old child, the desire to return to familiar surroundings and get back her life, combined with pressure from family and village leaders, may have prompted her to accept, but the loss of control over her own body and mind can cause havoc in a victim's life," says Rahman.
"A feeling of intense fear of further attacks, the fear of being dependent on someone she has no trust or respect for, may have made her feel paralysed with distress, a marriage like that would have been deeply disturbing and traumatic for her,” says Rahman. However, threats to her family and a large financial settlement overshadowed the well being of the child.
According to Rahman, after three months have passed, the long-term effects of untreated rape trauma begins to surface. Conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may develop, which include loss of self esteem, avoidance of triggers, extreme distress when reminded of the trauma, irritability, hyper vigilance, memory loss, clinical depression, anxiety, loss of appetite and severe flashbacks.
Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) can also be seen in such victims, a condition in which certain emotions, thoughts, sensations and memories are separated from the rest of the psyche. This is also referred to as splitting, depersonalisation, derealisation and psychogenic amnesia. While DID is an effective defence mechanism to deal with trauma, if it becomes habitual, it can evolve into a psychopathology. A severe form of dissociative disorder is multiple personality disorder, where the victim develops one or more personalities, to cope with the traumatic events. This condition however, is widely debated among mental health experts.
Rahman shares that "OCD or obsessive compulsive disorder is likely to develop in rape victims. They have unwanted thoughts about the rape and create rituals to avoid these thoughts. Because they cannot control their impulses, they often end up engaging in self injurious behaviours and even suicide.” Sleeping disorders and panic attacks are also common symptoms, which develop in the long run.
"The impact of such an event affects children differently than it does adults. Children are more vulnerable and therefore more severely affected,” says Rahman. “ They often suffer from developmental disorders and mental retardation, they become mute, blind or paralysed, with no apparent physical cause, they may also develop personality disorders. They are extremely insecure and frightened at all times and can wake up screaming or wetting their beds. They may also develop a fear toward the opposite sex," she continues. "Unfortunately in Bangladesh, mentally challenged children are the ones most targeted for sexual assault, because they either do not understand, or are unable to report the incidents.”
"The only way to save these victims is to provide them with extensive counseling, not just for them, but their families too; but there aren't enough mental health professionals in Bangladesh to cater to the needs of the entire population,” Rahman relates. “In fact, there is only one National Trauma Centre in the entire country and it is located within the capital, and is not accessible by everyone, and this too was only set up in August 2009!"
Rahman opines, “People need to be made aware of their unintentionally cruel behaviour toward rape victims, through newspapers and educational television programmes, so communities can change their mind-set and stop punishing the victims. Our people are also in need of better education systems where they can receive value based education and religious education. Illiteracy and ignorance are our biggest problems. They also need proper legal counseling, so they do not settle these matters at village arbitrations outside the courtroom. The law enforcement needs to be rid of corruption so they can actually do their jobs and help the victims rather than the perpetrators."
"The government has begun to take some steps by creating laws and training counselors and NGO workers with basic skills so they can visit remote areas and identify and refer victims to places where they can get proper care. Laws are also being created, but the question of proper implementation still remains," she continues.
All said and done, at the end of the day, all we have is a fourteen-year-old child, who not only went through an unimaginable physical trauma, but was forced to relive the humiliation everyday for 10 months, until it left her mind broken beyond repair. Some say she set herself on fire because her marriage to her tormentor did not take place. The question we must ask ourselves is, what kind of barbaric society forces a child to think that marrying her rapist is her only chance of living a normal life?