By Laila Khondkar
Oct 3 2016 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh)
The following news (published by a leading Bengali national daily on September 30, the National Day of the Girl Child) has been haunting me since I read it:
In the last one and a half years, 24 girls below three years were raped.
It was also reported that most of the perpetrators were known to the children. I keep on thinking about the long-term negative physical, mental and emotional consequences the children will face after experiencing such sexual violence. Once again, I am reminded of the importance of strengthening the child protection system of Bangladesh at the national and community level in order to prevent and respond to violence. According to Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum, based on media reports, during January to August 2016, 291 girls were raped (39 gang rapes, and 13 girls were murdered after rape). Many cases are often unreported. So what we see is just the tip of the ice-berg, and that should be enough to be alarmed. Due to lack of reliable baseline data, it is challenging to comment on whether violence against girls has actually increased or whether we know more about it due to increase in reporting. However, observations suggest that the society has become generally more unsafe for children, especially girls. Just think about the amount of time mothers spend to accompany their children to schools/coaching centres; many of them wait there until the classes end.
Recently while talking to a group of women in their early 40s (most of whom are parents of adolescent children), one commented, “When we went to school, our parents did not hesitate to let us go by ourselves in our chauffeur driven car, but now we cannot even do that for our boys; it’s unthinkable to do so for girls.” All of us can remember horrifying stories from recent months where girls were brutally killed or mutilated for not responding to love proposals of young men or for other reasons. Girls have also committed suicides after not being able to deal with the pressure of rape or sexual harassment. Lack of safety of girls is one of the reasons for which some parents decide to arrange their marriage, as they consider this will deter men from harassing girls. In this context, how will our girl children realise their full human potential? Have we been able to create an environment where girls can dream freely about their future and the contribution they want to make to society without being constrained by the fears of violence?
Playgrounds for children are diminishing in Dhaka and other major cities. The ones that remain are mostly used by boys. Our girls hardly have any access to outdoor sports or public space. Despite the challenges, Bangladesh Under-16 Girls’ Football Team (most of whose players hail from villages) continues to make us proud through their achievements. Sadly, last month, the footballers were harassed by some men while using public transport. Shouldn’t we be ashamed of this? Until we stop treating girls and women as sexual objects and do not respect them as human beings, sexual violence will continue.
Recently, we have also witnessed reports of harassment over mobile phones and the internet. While technology creates new opportunities for education, entertainment and communication, it has also led to new forms of violence against women and children. We have to be pro-active in addressing this.
The culture of impunity regarding violence against women and children must end. The following numbers may be sufficient to make the point: 22,386 women and children have received treatment from the One Stop Crisis Centres (started in 2001) of ten government hospitals for rape and other forms of violence till 2015. Five thousand and three cases were filed; there have been 820 verdicts, and only 101 perpetrators were punished. This means that the rate of completing trials is 3.66 percent and only 0.45 percent perpetrators were brought to justice!
Our justice system is not women and child friendly. They are not treated with dignity and the process makes them suffer the trauma all over again. There are huge delays in resolving the cases. In addition, societal stigma manifested by character assassination of the concerned women, and the influence of powerful people (usually family members of the perpetrators), who want to divert the course of justice, are discouraging for anyone, and many families are not able to continue the process. There should be speedy trials for cases related to violence against women and children; media should also follow up on the cases until those are closed.
It is very important that we empower girls and develop their self-confidence so that they do not decide to end their lives after facing sexual violence, and can challenge patriarchal norms. It is critical to sensitise men and boys on how to treat women with respect. Evidence suggests that engaging men and boys contributes to reducing sexual and gender based violence, and some of them can work as change agents in their communities. The capacity of parents should be developed in raising children in a way that boys and girls become respectful to each other. There is a tendency by media to portray women and men in roles that conform to gender stereotypes (e.g. women are depicted as being conscious only about their physical beauty, giving disproportionate emphasis on their roles as wife and mother/caregiver, dependent on someone, while male are shown as powerful, providers for women etc). The reality is completely different: many women are excelling in education and various professions, and contribute significantly to the economy, politics, culture and society. It is thus imperative to promote positive, strong role models for girls.
We should stop tolerating violence. Not being able to end this will be our collective failure. Let us take a strong position and do everything we can to protect girls and women from violence.
The writer is Director, Child Protection, Save the Children.
This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh