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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 32
August 11, 2007

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Human Rights monitor

Combating impunity of another kind

In Bangladesh, women make up roughly 49% of the population. They bear a disproportionately greater share of the country's poverty and are discriminated against in both the public and private sphere. Class based, repressive and community mind-sets, certain social behaviours, unchallenged economic dependence and financial insecurity, and high illiteracy keep the majority of the women out of an equal position within the family, society, and the overall development process of the country.

Gender violence is one of the serious issues in Bangladesh and unfortunately, one that is most neglected by various agencies of the government. Despite specialised criminal laws for protecting women the Suppression of Violence against Women and Children Act, the Dowry Prohibition Act, the Child Marriage Restraint Act, the Acid Crime Control Act, to name a few instances of violence against women- especially domestic violence and rape have not decreased in any significant manner. The major reasons why women do not get justice are access to justice, police corruption, and mismanagement of vital evidence and ignorance of the law.

In light of the above, in March 2007, Odhikar and Action Aid Bangladesh decided to collaborate on an awareness-raising programme on the issues of rape and acid violence and the laws involved with the goal: To create effective and friendly environment in support mechanism for the victims of acid violence and rape by the state duty bearers.

A study by Odhikar revealed the following:
Despite the fact that in most cases the victim knows the violator, the perpetrator often escapes the law through bribery, power and a culture of impunity. In some instances, the protectors of society have become violators, as members of law enforcement agencies are accused of rape and sexual abuse, but are rarely brought to justice under the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Penal Code.

Acid violence is a relatively common form of violence against women in Bangladesh. The first documented case of acid violence was in 1967 when a young girl had acid poured on her by her 'admirer' when his proposal of marriage was refused by the girl's mother. There is evidence in recent years that there has been an increase in acid attacks.

Victims are attacked for many reasons - because a young girl or woman spurns the sexual advances of an admirer or rejects a marriage proposal. Recently, however, there have been acid attacks on children, older women and sometimes also on men. These attacks are often the result of family or land disputes, dowry demands or a desire for revenge. Acid violence drastically changes the life of the victim including education, employment and other aspects of normal life. Survivors often have to face social isolation that further damages their self-esteem and confidence and undermines their professional and personal future.

What of the availability of acid? Unfortunately, acid it sold openly in chemist and homeopathy shops and local medicine dispensaries and can be found in goldsmith workshops and shops selling and repairing car batteries. It is also openly sold around the tannery and handloom factories. Despite the law, there are no checks as to the trade in acid and other corrosive substances and those selling the liquid ask no questions. There is even, allegedly, a good trade in cross-border smuggling in acid, which may play a role in contributing to the high rate of acid violence in the border districts.

Adding to the relevant criminal liabilities under the Penal Code for rape, attempted rape, kidnapping, hurt, and grievous hurt, etc., the Suppression of Violence against Women and Children Act 2000 provides for severe penalties for perpetrators of violence against women. A further significant step has been taken by the Government by enacting the Speedy Trial Tribunal in November 2002 for the quick trial and disposition of five specified offences including murder and rape.

The President of the Peoples' Republic of Bangladesh approved the Acid Control Act 2002 and the Acid Crime Control Act 2002 on 17 March 2002. The laws were promulgated to meet the demands that acid crimes be controlled and perpetrators receive swift punishment and that the trade in acid and other corrosive substances be guarded by legal checks and balances to prevent their easy accessibility.

The Acid Crime Control Act, this law aims to rigorously control acid crimes. It houses stringent punishments ranging from the death sentence to life imprisonment, to between three to fifteen years imprisonment and a hefty fine. The Act provides that if the Acid Crime Control Tribunal feels that the investigating officer has lapsed in his duty in order to 'save someone from the liability of the crime and did not collect or examine usable evidence' or avoided an important witness, etc., the former can report to the superior of the investigating officer of the latter's negligence and may also take legal action against him.

The Acid Control Act 2002 has been introduced to control the “import, production, transportation, hoarding, sale and use of acid and to provide treatment for acid victims, rehabilitate them and provide legal assistance”. The National Acid Control Council has been set up under this act, with the Minister for Home Affairs as its Chairperson. Under this Council, District-wise Committees have been formed albeit, only in six or seven Districts to date. Members of the Council include the Minister for Women and Children Affairs, Secretaries from the Ministries of Commerce, Industry, Home Affairs, Health, Women and Children Affairs, and representatives from civil society as specifically mentioned in the law. This allows for a broad spectrum of representation. More importantly, according to this law, businesses dealing with acid need a license to do so, and the government has arranged for a Fund to provide treatment to victims of the violence and to rehabilitate them, as well as to create public awareness about the bad effects of the misuse of acid.

Despite the Laws, why do annual figures on reported incidents of rape and acid violence remain high? There are several reasons for this and for why the law is not being implemented properly. The victims are largely from the poor and underprivileged section of the society in many cases contrary to the perpetrators. Since the poor struggle for access to justice, acid and rape victims face the same. There is yet to be a separate, modernized Investigation Department with trained investigators in the police force and overburdened police are unable to carry out their investigation duties properly. Many NGOs have called for the formation of a separate department, but pleas fall on seemingly deaf ears. Furthermore, there is not follow-up done as to whether businesses are procuring licenses for the sale and trade of acid. Many doctors are reluctant to come to court to give evidence. Lack of sufficient judges and judicial officers in the lower courts causes delay in hearings and cases are either not heard on time or remain pending.

Many of the above findings are applicable to other sectors where lack of implementation of the law causes serious damages in matters pertaining to violence against women such as dowry-related violence. This being the case, why are no steps being taken to rectify the matter? Issues of violence against women still remain in the back seat. Non-government organizations are doing their bit to create awareness against rape and acid violence and the social and legal repercussions they have. The government is now legally bound to do its share, under the new Laws. A lot of power has been given to the National Acid Control Council and district level committees and they must gear up their activities and not wait for NGOs to prompt them into action.

Odhikar and Action Aid planned the programme “Ending Impunity of Acid Violence and Rape” with specific purposes in mind Ensuring legal support and justice to victims and monitoring the implementation of the Acid Laws, including encouraging the setting up of DACC where there are none. In order to do this, Odhikar will have to carry out advocacy work with police, judges, lawyers and local administration about the consequence of the acid and rape victims and explore their cooperation to ensure punishment of the perpetrators. It will also have to organize collective action (social and legal) against perpetrators of acid attacks and rapists. Thus, the target groups aimed for are members of the present and future district level acid control committees, local government representatives, police officers, lawyers, journalists, judges/magistrates, doctors, department of women affairs, teachers and NGO leaders.

Odhikar scans 11 news papers every day, every year and as per news papers reports of 2004, 2005 and 2006 the districts of Sirajgonj, Satkhira, Khulna and Barisal came up as the most rape and acid prone areas. On 19 20 May 2007, a workshop was organised by Odhikar and AAB regarding acid violence and rape, the social impact of these crimes and the relevant laws governing their punishment. Also included in the programme was issues about fact-finding, court visits, how to attend meetings of the District Acid Control Committees, why cases fail in the court and the accused person gets acquitted, etc.

Odhikar's human rights defenders and Action Aid's local level partners have taken a keen interest in the work and some fact-finding has already been carried out. In the matter of acid violence, Odhikar in closely monitoring the case of Taslima Khatun and her two daughters 7 year old Sharmin and 6 month old Selina, who fell victim to acid violence on 07 May 2007 in Sirajgonj. The case of seven-year-old Nasima, a rape victim is also being monitored in Khulna. Liaison with the police, the District Acid Control Committee (Sirajgonj) and the Nari-o-Shishu Nirjaton Protirodh Committee (Khulna) are also being maintained in order to ensure proper justice is met.

Source: Odhikar report.


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