DESPITE visible progresses in women’s empowerment, Bangladesh still lags way behind in ensuring women’s safety and security, as is evident in the increase of violence against women in the recent past. Violence, in diverse forms, against women continues unabated because of, as rights activists say, a culture of impunity, delay in justice dispensation, undue political influence and the age-old patriarchal structures of thoughts and mind-sets. When the country observed, along with other nations across the world, International Women’s Day, with the theme ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world’ on Monday, there appears to have been a sharp increase in violence against women amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. Reports of at least 1,627 rapes were published in newspapers in 2020, keeping to an Ain O Salish Kendra tally. The number was 1,413 in 2019, 732 in 2018, 818 in 2017, 724 in 2016 and 846 in 2015, suggesting a gradual increase. Besides, 53 rape-related deaths were reported in 2020, according to the ASK data. The amendment to the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act in October 2020, driven by a widespread protest against violence against women, with death sentence as the highest punishment for rape appears to have brought no respite.
Besides sexual violence, there has been a worrying increase in domestic violence amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. The Ain O Salish Kendra data shows that at least 554 incidents of domestic violence were reported in 2020, while the number was 423 in 2019, 409 in 2018, 442 in 2017, 394 in 2016 and 373 in 2015. At least 240 women were killed, with 89 for dowry, by their husbands in domestic violence in 2020. Another worrying trend that appeared amidst the outbreak is the increase in child marriage. There was a 7 per cent increase in child marriage, as a report by Manusher Jonno Foundation shows, in 2020. While experts attribute the rise in domestic violence and child marriage to the sudden financial frustration experienced by most families during the COVID-19 outbreak, women appear to have been left to their own with declining access to legal redress. The COVID-19 outbreak and its economic fallout have also pushed many women entrepreneurs to a more difficult situation than their male counterparts. Different studies show that women entrepreneurs and female workers in the informal sector have been hit the hardest by the economic shock induced by the COVID-19 outbreak. What has come to worsen the situation is a reported gender disparity in the disbursement of stimulus packages.
All these point to a further marginalisation of and an increase in violence against women in a time when Bangladesh is set to celebrate the 50th year of its independence. Women are still faced with multiple barriers in society, family and workplace. The government must, therefore, address these issues and ensure not only safety and security of women, but also an equal participation of women in all spheres, especially the economy and political leadership, to register a truly gender-neutral development. The government must deliver on its promises to ensure women’s empowerment and emancipation.
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