Have the laws for “Cruelty against Women” actually served for the betterment of women in the Bangladeshi society?

Have the laws for “Cruelty against Women” actually served for the betterment of women in the Bangladeshi society?

1. Introduction

The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 recognized violence against women as one of the crucial problems with the relationship between men and women. The Conference observed that women are subjected to acts of violence by men throughout the world[1]. Cruelty or violence against women which is a major problem all over the world is of growing concern especially in developing countries. Bangladesh being an underdeveloped nation has a large number of women facing violence and cruelty from the men, who are believed to be the ‘superior sex’ by most people in the male-dominated Bangladeshi society. In fact, crime against women is increasing at an alarming rate, and the everyday stories of torture and cruelty against women are being reported on a regular basis.

Cruelty against women means forcible acts of physical, psychological, or sexual abuse of women[2]. This kind of violence may occur on an individual level or in the family or within the general community. According to study, fourteen per cent of maternal deaths in the country are caused by violence against women[3].

Various laws exist in the national legislation, which have been made with the purpose to improve the current situation of women in Bangladesh. One such law is Prevention of Cruelty against Women Act (2000), which later has been amended to Prevention of Cruelty against Women and Children Act (in 2003). Enacting laws is only the first step towards bringing about a change. In order to prohibit all forms of cruelty and violence against women appropriate implementation of the law needs to be ensured.

The objective of this essay is to shed light on the major sections in context of cruelty or violence towards women. Firstly, an overview is given of the social context of violence against women in Bangladesh. Then there is a discussion of the scale and social dimensions of particular forms of violence. Thirdly, a brief analysis is provided of the “Cruelty against Women act” designed to protect women. Last but not the least the fact whether the act has actually served for the betterment of the female population of Bangladesh.

2. Overview of the situation

‘Gender inequality, leading to gender violence, is deeply embedded in the Bangladeshi social structure; all Bangladeshi social institutions permit, even encourage the demonstration of unequal power relations between the sexes.’ (Jahan, 1988:200) In a male-dominated civilization, such as that of Bangladesh, a subordinate status of women is manifested. This is as a result of various practices, manners and customs which are directly or indirectly used for inducing cruel acts against women..

3. Scale and social dimensions of various forms of cruelty

Cruelties against women have many faces in Bangladesh, starting from physical or mental torture for dowry, indecent assault, rape, trafficking of women and children, to acid throwing, and so many more[4].

a. Battering of women.

Acts of domestic abuse constitute the most universal form of violence against women. The battering of women within the household appears to be widespread throughout Bangladesh[5].

According to recent studies, 49% of married women face cruelty in the form of physical violence at the hands of their partners[6]. One of the primary reasons for this act is the demand for dowry during a marriage. Often husbands beat their wives for dowry demands, and sometimes because it is perceived that the wife had been unable to fulfil her household duties or was unable to be .properly humble and obedient[7]. These problems are especially persistent in the lower classes of the society. The perceived legitimacy of men beating women is further compounded by the absolute poverty and powerlessness of most of the rural population of Bangladesh. “Many men vent their own frustration at their poverty and inability to fulfill their role as the male provider, according to gender based norms, by battering their wives[8].

b. Murder

Murder is also common amongst spouses often for escalation of dowry demands. The murder of women by their husbands and in-laws is associated with both the escalation of dowry demands, if her she is lacking in her household skills or if she is disliked by her husband for any other reason. The problem arises with the lack of evidence in such crimes. It is difficult to prove such crimes in court as its occurrence is within the household, and there aren’t any witnesses. They are often made to look like accidents or suicides.[9]

c. Acid-throwing and Mugging

Acid throwing or willful disfiguration of women has increased along with fatal mugging. Women’s increased presence in the public sphere, transgressing the traditional boundaries of purdah, or veil, is a source of outrage among many men which has resulted to an increase of attacks of this kind on women[10]. 181 women suffered acid attacks during the year 2000.  The most common motivation for acid-throwing attacks against women is revenge by a rejected suitor; land disputes are another leading cause of the acid attacks.  Few perpetrators of the acid attacks are prosecuted.  Often the perpetrator flings the acid in through an open window during the night, making cases difficult to prove[11].

d. Kidnapping and Abduction

There has been an increase in kidnapping for ransom in Bangladesh. Sometimes this is done by rival political parties with a motive of revenge and often girls and women are abducted for immoral purposes[12]. Poverty in rural areas has often led women to fall into traps of false job promises by many corrupt agents. Some of these girls are sold at brothels within the country and some are exported to India, Pakistan and the Middle East.

e. Trafficking and sexual exploitation of prostitution

There is extensive trafficking in women for the purpose of forced prostitution within the country and to other countries in Asia. Often girls in Bangladesh like in many other countries are forced to choose this profession. And once in this profession, they are hardly ever able to go back leading a normal life. Poverty is also one of the main driving factors for women to choose this profession. Often they also believe that they had no alternative skills with which to secure a livelihood[13].

f. Rape

Rape is the most repugnant type of violence and is increasing in countries like Bangladesh. Gang rape and custodial rape are two new alarming trends[14]. There have been numerous news paper articles about a group of four or five youth breaking into a home, and after binding the hands and feet of the parents, raping their daughter(s) in front of them. Members of the law enforcement have also been reputed to have sexually assaulted women who were supposed to be in safe custody. The burden of evidence is put on the female victims, which again is a problem as often due to delays in the medical examination and loopholes in law, offenders get the benefit of the doubt. The law prohibits rape and physical spousal abuse, but it makes no specific provision for spousal rape as a crime[15].

g. Violence resulting from Fatwa

The recent surfacing of violence related to issuance of Fatwa (religious decree) by village moulavis (priests) and to implementation of punishments is in contradiction to the law of

the land. As such, it is punishable by the Penal Code. However, in recent years, such incidents have threatened the security and rights of women, especially the rural poor women[16]. Fatwas have been aimed at controlling female sexuality and reducing women’s economic independence.

4. Legal Provisions on Violence Against Women

‘Mahila Parishad’[17] created pressure on the government to enact laws to protect women from such cruelties as rape, trafficking and sexual exploitation, abduction, acid throwing, murder and domestic abuse. The government then enacted laws and denounced the dreadful crimes in public. The two main laws that were framed by the government were, The Cruelty to Women (Deterrent Punishment) Ordinance (1983) and The Dowry Prohibition Act (1980), The Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act 1982 and The Women and Children Repression (Special Provision) Act 1995[18].

According to The Cruelty to Women Ordinance kidnapping and abduction, acid throwing attacks on women, will result in the death penalty or life imprisonment for causing the death of a rape victim. The same is to be applied to a husband and his family under the Dowry Prohibition Act, for the murder or attempted murder of a woman for dowry. Article 376 of the Penal Code mandates two years imprisonment, a fine, or both, for the rape of a woman by her husband. Article 342, however, requires that a woman undergo a medical examination immediately after rape, which in practice minimizes the possibility of a conviction being made. If in any legal case, including cases of violence against women, if the accuser is absent, the case can be dismissed. This highly discriminates against women who may be intimidated by their husbands or in-laws into staying away from court. As a result, convictions for rape and other violent crimes against women are rarely made, because women are unaware of their legal rights. Often convictions in such cases relating to violence against women are not made as legal institutions are male-dominated and often inaccessible or unsympathetic to women, because of the difficulties of proving the case, legal loopholes, and because of an underlying undervaluation of women[19].

In order to safeguard women’s position in the society, the government had further amended laws. The Nari-o-Shishu Nirjatan Daman Ain, 2000 (Law on the Supression off Violence against Women and Children, 2000) and The Women’s Act, 2000 – expanded the definition of rape considerably, although it still did not include marital rape. It made sexual assault and sexual harassment punishable offences[20].

There was also a The Cruelty to Women (Deterrent Punishment) (Amendment) Act (No. 37 of 1988). This act amends the Bangladesh Cruelty to Women (Deterrent Punishment) Ordinance 1983 to do the following:

1) Change the maximum penalty under Sections 4 and 6-8 from transportation for life to imprisonment for life

2) Change the penalty under Section 5 from “punishable with transportation for life or with rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to 14 years” to “punishable with death or with imprisonment for life or with rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to 14 years and shall not be less than seven years;”

3) Add a new offense of attempting to commit offenses under Sections 4 and 5 of the Ordinance.

Section 4 of the Ordinance deals with the kidnapping or abduction of women for unlawful or immoral purposes; Section 5 with trafficking in women; Section 6 with causing death or grievous hurt for dowry; Section 7 with causing death in committing rape; and Section 8 with attempting to cause death or causing grievous hurt in committing rape.

5. Has the laws for Cruelty against Women actually served for the betterment of the society?

Recent trends suggest that the legal measures have proved inadequate to curb or eliminate violence against women. There are various support systems and legal aid and shelter operated by the government to make the law enforcing agencies more accessible to victims of violence. However as per the magnitude of the problem, these support groups only cover an insignificant proportion of victims. In spite of the presence of the act, there has been a substantial rise in the number of rape, abduction, and murder of women throughout the country. The trafficking of Bangladeshi women to neighboring countries such as India and Pakistan still remains a major human rights concern. Over 5000 Bangladeshi women and children are smuggled out of the country every year. There have been several cases of brutal murder and rape of women and children throughout the country. In 1998 the government brought forward the Suppression of Violence against omen and children Bill 1998. The act was enacted to protect women and children from various forms of violence. It had been enacted after the sudden rise in violence in 1997[21].

The major problem is that the judicial system is slow and social prejudices prevent taking steps to redress women’s grievances. As a result, most women continue to suffer injustices silently in the hands of their husbands, in-laws or miscreants. Peoples attitudes towards accepting a society which treats both genders equally have not changed sufficiently Recognition of women’s rights have been slow in Bangladesh especially due to – ignorance, poverty, lack of education, religious fundamentalism, political instability, inefficiency, corruption and disregard of the rule of law. Bangladesh has had women Prime Ministers, but neither the leader of the party in power nor the leader of the opposition have done much to bring about political empowerment for the masses of women[22].

In some aspects the laws are still flawed as the accused are still able to find loopholes in them. Till a large extent these laws require a certain degree of participatory effort. With a few recent example of effective implementation of the gender-sensitive laws, women are beginning to develop some confidence in the legal system. According to Faustina Pereira in 2000, “The effective implementation of these laws is a collective process, which requires the right combination of national policies, activism of judiciary, and administrative organs of the state along with participation of stakeholders and development initiators.”

6. What steps should the government take in order to improve the current situation?

The Constitution of Bangladesh proclaims that women shall have equal rights with men. In order to enforce that the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs should take drastic steps such that they are able to eliminate abuse of women. They are:

(a) Provision of legal aid through various organizations

(b) Provision of accommodation, medical treatment and primary education for abused women and children

(c) Conducting training courses on computer operation, shorthand, typewriting etc for them and training them in various trades with a view of facilitating their employment and empowerment.

7. Conclusion

The first part of the paper discussed the essence on the issue, “Cruelty against Women”. It shed light on the reality that this is something extremely common in our country. Most of us belonging to the middle class and upper class section of the society have a very limited idea of how big this problem is. Cruelty and violence against women is widespread and especially prevalent in the working classes of the society. The primary reason for this is poverty. Whether it is for dowry money, or earning money through forced prostitution, women have been exploited and are continuing to be so in our country. The Islamic Laws and even the constitutional laws of Bangladesh directly or indirectly discriminate against women. If the government could actually make laws that would not contradict Article 28(1): no discrimination on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth; and Article 28(2): equal opportunity for men and women in all spheres of state and public lives; then such issues would seize to exist.

For the women to remain confined within the home, to wear burkhas (veils), to have unequal right of inheritance, to play a subordinate role in the family and in the society, and countless other discriminatory practices are all a kind of silent violence against women. These are the practices from which various forms of cruelty against women originate from. Therefore, in order to stop violence against women such practices need to be eliminated. Just by enacting laws, the social structure of Bangladesh can not be changed. It is important to raise awareness amongst both men and women about the equality if their rights. Women along with men have the equal ability to contribute to society, if allowed to do so.

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[1] The Fourth World Conference on Women was the largest conference ever held by the United Nations and the largest global conference hosted by the Chinese government. It was held at the Beijing International Conference Center on September 4-15, 1995. The conference was attended by 17000 representatives from 189 countries and territories, the UN organizations and its specialized agencies as well as government and non-governmental organizations concerned.

[2] Cruelty is the deliberate and malicious infliction of mental or physical pain. As applied to people, cruelty encompasses abusive, outrageous, and inhumane treatment that results in the wanton and unnecessary infliction of suffering upon the body or mind. Legal cruelty involves conduct that warrants the granting of a Divorce to the injured spouse. Phrases such as “cruel and inhuman treatment,” “cruel and abusive treatment,” or “cruel and barbarous treatment” are commonly employed in matrimonial law. The term comprehends mental and physical harm, but a single act of cruelty is usually insufficient for divorce; a pattern of cruel conduct must occur over a period of time. This ground of divorce is of diminished significance due to the enactment of no-fault legislation by most jurisdictions.

[3]An estimated 14 percent of maternal deaths in Bangladesh are caused by violence against women, while 12,000 to 15,000 women die annually from hemorrhaging and other health complications, according to a U.N. Development Program 2008 report.

[4] See, Bayes, J.H. and Tohidi, N.E. “Globalization, gender, and religion: the politics of women’s rights in Bangladesh’ P-222

[5] Beating and physical abuse of married women occurs widely in Bangladesh and is under reported, beacuse patriarchal norms promoting unequal gender relations in the family prevail here. The husband’s right to abuse his wife is recognized by the family and society. The in-laws often aid and abet the husband in beating, abusing and torturing his wife especially in joint families.

[6] According to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 49% of women who have ever been married have experienced physical violence at the hands of their husbands, and that women who pay a dowry at marriage are more likely to experience physical violence versus marriages without a dowry demand. While national legislation exists such as the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1980, the Prevention of Cruelty against Women and Children Act (2000 as amended in 2003) and the Acid Crime Control Law (2002 as amended in 2006), the convention tries to determine the extent till which these acts are helping the women of the Bangladeshi society.

[7] Akanda and Shamin (1983:14) cite the case of Roushan Ara in Rangpur who was beaten to death for failing to stitch two buttons onto her husband.s shirt; Gardener (1991) describes women in Sylhet being beaten for infractions such as the evening meal not being ready on time, or tasting it whilst cooking. Hartmann and Boyce (1983:89) cite the case of a woman whose husband beat her .because the chickens stole a few grains of rice., in a village in Rajshahi Division, North-West Bangladesh.

[8] See, Kabeer, N., (1989) Monitoring Poverty as if Gender Mattered: A Methodology for Rural Bangladesh, IDS Discussion Paper 255, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton

[9] The murders are often staged with bodies being suspended to resemble a hanging, insecticides being poured down the dead woman’s throat or burning being passed off as a cooking accident.

[10] See, Khondker, R., 1990, Violence and Sexual Abuse: Legal Case Studies from

Bangladesh, Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, Dhaka

[11] According to the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices on February 23rd, 2001, by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, , there were 81 dowry-related killings during the year and 181 women suffered acid attacks during the year

[12] See, Gupta, ‘Human Rights of Minority and Women’s: Women and Human Rights Development, P-213

[13] See, Gupta, Human Rights of Minority and Women’s: Women and human rights development, P-214

[14] Gang rape, or mass rape, occurs when a group of people participate in the rape of a single victim. Custodial rape is a form of rape which takes place while the victim is “in custody” and constrained from leaving, and the rapist or rapists are an agent of the power that is keeping the victim in custody.

[15] According to the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices on February 23rd, 2001, by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, a total of 3,516 rapes and 3,523 incidents of spousal abuses were officially reported during the year.  Of the spousal abuse cases, 2,814 were related to disputes over dowry.  Of the 2,130 alleged rapists that were prosecuted, 63 persons were convicted.  The Government reports that other rape cases are under trial.

[16] Traditionally in Islam Muftis, or men learning in religion, exercised the authority to give fatwas or judgements on civil matters based on their interpretation of the Islamic Laws. Their jurisdiction lay in legal settlements of disputes outside the court system.

[17] Bangladesh Mahila Parishad  is the largest women’s organization in Bangladesh. It has 59 offices all over the country and provides legal aid services to women. It also maintains a shelter home for victims  of violence.

[18] See, Bayes, J.H. and Tohidi, N.E. “Globalization, gender, and religion: the politics of women’s rights in Bangladesh’

[19] See, Bhuiyan, R., “Bangladesh: Personal Law and Violence Against Women.” in Schuler (ed.)

[20] See, Pereira, F., “The fractured scales: the search for a uniform personal code”

[21] In 1997 as many as 420 women were killed and 487 raped. Among these more than 100 killings were related to dowry disputes, 26 were victims of fatwas, and about 200 women were victims of acid-throwing by local men. Out of 487 victims, 192 were minor girls.

[22] See, Purkayastha, B., and Subramaniam, M., “The power of women’s informal networks: lessons in social change from South Asia”