THE rhetoric of women’s empowerment used as tool to garner support for the political party in power for the third consecutive terms seems to have failed to protect women. According to Ain o Salish Kendra, 189 women and children were raped and 34 women fell victim to attempted rape in January–March. Victims of sexual harassment and stalking, especially school students, commit suicide or fall victim to further violence as legal system and society fail to protect them. The fate of a madrassah student in Feni illustrates the situation. On April 6, the girl, an Alim examinee of Sonagazi Islamia Senior Fazil Madrassah, was set on fire as she refused to withdraw a case that was filed against the institution’s principal for sexually harassing her in late March. In her statement, she related the same to a doctor in the presence of a magistrate and a police official. After the arrest of the principal, the victim’s family was threatened and there were supports mobilised for the accused. The failure of the law enforcement agencies to protect the victim after the lodging of the complaint is blatantly evident as, keeping to law, she was entitled to legal protection.
The girl, who suffered 80 per cent burn injury in the attack, is now fighting for life at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital burn unit. The administration has suspended the principal and police have arrested eight people in connection with the attempted murder filed by the victim’s brother, but the masterminds of the attack are still reported to be at large. The family and local people say that the accused used his political and social influence to evade legal action in similar incidents in the past. Rights group have raised the issue this culture of impunity earlier that some political leaders patronise rapists and sexual harassers in the shadow of power. In addition, they have also expressed concern about the normalisation of violence in society when any socio-political disputes are tackled with violence and, often, with gendered violence. The concerns are not unfounded as two women were gang-raped in Noakhali in 2019 for campaigning and casting vote for opposition candidates in the national and upazila council elections. The government should know that it cannot preach women’s empowerment while it nurtures a political culture of violence and allows impunity for sexual violence.
The government’s commitment to ensure proper treatment of the madrassah girl of Feni is commendable. But it must also investigate the negligence of the law enforcement agencies in their failure to protect the victim after the complaint of sexual harassment was lodged. More importantly, all perpetrators must be brought to justice without any bureaucratic delay in the legal mechanism as low conviction rate in cases of violence against women are said to be the prime reason for the rising number of rapes in the country. Seeking justice only to face such attacks would, otherwise, discourage women in future to take action.