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The 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence (GBV) is as good a time as any to acknowledge that access to justice remains a distant dream for most survivors in Bangladesh, and many other parts of the world. While Bangladesh’s progress against certain socio-economic indices has led it to being dubbed as a development miracle, gaps in our justice institutions remain.
In order to achieve Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs), countries must ‘provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels’.
More specifically, under SDG Target 16.3, countries must promote the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all. One of the ways progress towards achieving this target is officially monitored is by measuring the proportion of victims of violence who reported their victimisation to competent authorities in the past 12 months (SDG Indicator 16.3.1).
In the past 40 years, Bangladesh has introduced a number of laws and policies to ensure justice for violence against women and girls (VAWG), such as the Suppression of Violence against Women and Children Act 2000, which mandates that each district have a special tribunal to deal with VAWG cases, and the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2010, which was the first law to specifically and comprehensively address one of the leading forms of GBV, ie domestic violence.
Since 2000, the Government of Bangladesh has also been establishing One Stop Crisis Centres across the country as part of its Multi-Sectoral Programme on Violence against Women, in an attempt to ensure that survivors of sexual and gender-based violence are able to receive all necessary services under one roof, including medical treatment, counseling and all the support needed in taking legal action, such as assistance from the police, DNA testing, legal assistance from lawyers and shelter.
So far, 12 such centres have been set up in all eight administrative divisions in the country. Yet data from these centres shows that out of the 49,047 survivors of physical assault, sexual assault and burn violence who sought treatment from the centres across the country until July 2021, only 14,284 chose to file cases. This means 71% of survivors who went to these centres to seek medical treatment or other support services, opted for one reason or the other, to not file cases against their perpetrator.
Even more alarmingly, a multi-country study conducted by the United Nations which surveyed perpetrators of rape found that in Bangladesh 95% of men from urban areas and 88% of men from rural areas who reported raping a woman or girl said they faced no legal consequences (such as arrest or jail). Even where survivors are able to file cases, investigations are delayed, and trials are prolonged, and ultimately there are very few convictions.
For instance, a 2015 study by BRAC University found that the conviction rate in VAWG cases in three districts was as astonishingly low as 0.86%. These statistics demonstrate that the vast majority of survivors are unable to seek justice for the crime committed against them, and therefore point to the inaccessibility and inefficiency of justice institutions, such as the public prosecution system.
That is precisely why strengthening the public prosecution system has been selected as one of the core advocacy areas in BRAC’s Gender Strategy 2021-2025. There are at least three ways in which the public prosecution system can be strengthened, by directly addressing the main challenges hindering access to justice by GBV survivors, as outlined below.
First and foremost, our justice institutions, which serve as the entry point for GBV survivors who wish to seek justice, require gender sensitivity.
For most survivors, going to a mostly male (if not all-male) police station to report and narrate the details of the crime, especially if it is of a sexual nature, is a daunting experience. This is typically followed by intrusive and intimate medical exams in crowded hospital rooms, which often take place without the survivor’s express and informed consent. When the case eventually goes to court, the defence lawyer can subject the survivor to moral policing through a series of humiliating questions during cross examination.
This is why thorough and comprehensive gender sensitivity training must be institutionalised for all justice sector actors, such as police officers, forensics, public prosecutors, lawyers and judges so GBV survivors are treated with gender responsiveness and sensitivity throughout the justice seeking process.
Secondly, due to the misplaced social stigma associated with GBV, particularly those of a sexual nature, survivors typically wish to avail a quick and discrete legal remedy.
Filing court cases does the exact opposite: it goes on for years, if not decades, due to seemingly endless adjournments and deferred hearings due to non-appearance of witnesses and it has a tendency to generate publicity. Introducing an online complaint mechanism, as mandated by the Supreme Court in 2016, could enable GBV survivors to bypass some of the socio-institutional barriers and file cases more easily.
Thirdly, survivors who dare to seek justice face repeated threats to their safety from the perpetrator’s side (who are typically at a power advantage) and constantly live under fear of reprisals and revenge due to the lack of an institutionalised victim and witness protection system. It is precisely this protection gap which allows the perpetrator’s side to threaten survivors or their family to the point that they are compelled to relocate their home, forced to abandon the prosecution case or are prevented from filing a case in the first place.
The draft Victim and Witness Protection Act (first proposed by the Law Commission in 2006) must be enacted. This law would allow for institutional protection, emergency shelter, psychosocial support and/or relocation, as required, of survivors and witnesses. Most crucially, it will ensure institutional protection continues until the safety of the survivor and prosecution witnesses is no longer under threat and until satisfactory alternative arrangements have been made.
While ensuring access to justice for GBV survivors will certainly remain a daunting challenge for the coming decades, strengthening the public prosecution system in the three ways outlined above would go a long way towards making the justice system more accessible and responsive to survivors of gender-based violence, and make the attainment of SDG 16 a lot more possible.
BRAC Gender, Justice and Diversity Programme works on creating a gender equitable working environment in BRAC communities and conducts evidence-based advocacy at the national level for law and policy reform to ensure gender justice.