This October, a wave of protests and rallies spread across Bangladesh following several high-profile sexual assaults. In response, Bangladesh amended the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act to allow the death penalty for rape. This response from the government does not protect women victims of sexual assault, but rather deters them from reporting and decreases conviction rates. It also represents an impermissible application of the death penalty, giving rise to additional human rights violations. As in many other nations that have made capital punishment available for rape, this response is merely a smokescreen to avoid meaningful reform and temporarily quell calls for change.
The first of these assaults occurred on 5 January when the rape of a second-year student from Dhaka University sparked a widespread day-long protest led by thousands of University students. In response to this outcry, the High Court of Bangladesh ordered the law ministry to form a commission within 30 days to address the rise in sexual assaults. Nine months later, this commission has yet to be formed. The second assault occurred on 25 September. Six members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League- the student wing of the governing party in Bangladesh- were arrested and charged following the crime, a gang-rape of a woman in the city of Sylhet. Tensions in Bangladesh finally peaked when news of the earlier gang-rape of a woman in Noakhali district, which took place on 2 September, went viral in early October. Footage of the attack circulated on Facebook after her attackers released the video. Although eight people were arrested in direct connection with this assault, the resulting protests and social media movement had a significant impact. Hundreds of Facebook and Twitter users changed their profile photos to an empty black space and social media platforms were utilized by demonstrators to organize human chains, rallies, and demonstrations in cities across Bangladesh.
Sexual assault in Bangladesh is a pervasive and systemic problem. According to Ain-o-Salish Kendra, a Bangladeshi human rights organization, over 907 women and children were raped in the first nine months of 2020 alone. Of these reported assaults, more than a fifth were gang-rapes. These numbers only capture a small fraction of the true number of sexual assaults in Bangladesh, as most survivors face significant hurdles to reporting and accountability. Bangladeshi women and children who are victims of sexual assault face widespread social stigmatization, threats, and a systematic barring of access to justice and accountability. Survivors of sexual assault who go to the police often face reluctance to file cases, gender-based bias, victim-blaming, and humiliation. Minimal access to legal aid, medical care, safe shelter, witness protection, or psychological and social counseling characterizes Bangladesh’s typical response to assault survivors. Additionally, the Bangladesh government has yet to pass long promised and expected sexual harassment and witness protection laws.
Adopted in Bangladesh in 2000, the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act [“Act”] outlined punishments for sexual offenses, the trafficking of women and children, murder for dowry, sexual oppression, and other sexual violence crimes. Instead of creating a system for accountability, this Act has produced little change in Bangladesh. About 3.5% of cases filed under the Act have ended up in court. Altogether, the conviction rate for rape in Bangladesh is below 1% according to information gathered by Human Rights Watch. The wave of October protests prompted the Bangladesh Cabinet ministers to approve an Amendment to the Act on October 12. Whereas the Act previously stipulated life in prison as the maximum sentence for a rape conviction, the Amendment affirmed that anyone convicted of rape would be punished with “death or rigorous imprisonment for life.”
Imposing the death penalty for rape fails as a deterrent and as a mechanism for justice for sexual assault survivors. Stricter punishments are proven to have an inverse correlation with criminal convictions. Taqbir Huda, a research specialist at Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, cautioned that allowing capital punishment for sexual crimes may result in lower conviction rates. Societal and governmental ambivalence toward rape and its victims is expressed through a high maximum penalty, such as the death penalty, which decreases the possibility of convictions or the imposition of any punishment. The introduction of the death penalty for rape also does nothing to address the core societal issues that lead to high rates of sexual assault in Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh Government should instead work to combat harmful stereotypes that make women and children more vulnerable to sexual assault, increase training on sexual assault for police and prosecutors, and establish protection measures and adequate remedies for victims.
The ramifications of the Amendment allowing for the death penalty for rape are already apparent. On October 15, in the first conviction since the introduction of the death penalty for rape, a Bangladesh special tribunal sentenced five men to death for the 2012 gang rape of a 15-year-old girl. The death penalty for rape in Bangladesh serves no meaningful legal, procedural, or social purpose. As best stated by Sultan Mohammed Zakaria of Amnesty International, “executions perpetuate violence, they do not prevent it.”
To learn more about the effects of establishing the death penalty for rape, please join us next Thursday, December 10th, at 7:00pm CST for a presentation with panelists Amy Bergquist, Kaarin Long, and Zaman Ashraf. Click here to register: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_H-M15xkHRTKLKSGsCzy4mw
By Anna Conrad, law student at St. Thomas University and legal intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program