Upswing in women's repression as cases pile up
According to the NGO 'Ain O Salish Kendra' (ASK), a total of 3,376 women were killed or forced to commit suicide between 2017 and July 2022 across the country due to incidents of repression or torture. The annual figures for such incidents have hovered between 500 and 700, while the number of killings has surpassed that of suicides. These figures have been arrived at on the basis of statistics obtained from 9 national dailies, some online news portals, as well as own findings of ASK. The incidents occurred under the broad headings of sexual harassment and violence, rape, dowry, and familial torture. The statistics show that maximum number of killings took place at the hands of husbands and their kin. But the incidents involving own family members were also not insignificant in number.
On the other hand, statistics provided by the police headquarters and published in the print media show that a total of 7,350 cases were filed between January and July this year alleging women's repression. Of these, the rape cases alone totaled 3,523, and other cases 3,827. There has clearly been an upswing in cases involving rapes and other acts of women's repression (killings for dowry, abductions, etc.) since 2018, when annual figures for these two categories of crimes were 3,949 and 6,409 respectively. Besides, whereas the proportion of rape cases in the total was 38 per cent in 2018, that percentage has gone up to over 48 per cent since 2020.
The national emergency service '999' has also reported that the number of calls related to women and children's repression is rising rapidly. As many as 11,959 calls related to such repression were made till July this year, which included 619 for rapes, 314 for attempted rapes, 268 for sexual torture, 31 for threats of rape, and 1009 for sexual harassment. In contrast, the total number of calls made annually involving similar complaints totaled 12,169 in 2021; 6,331 in 2020; 3,115 in 2019; and 2,292 in 2018. In the backdrop of a nationwide movement against sexual violence, the government amended the relevant law in October 2020 to make death sentence the maximum punishment for rapes. But it does not appear to be having any positive impact on this pervasive crime in a male-dominated society like Bangladesh.
Another recent report in a leading Bangla daily highlighted the plight of thousands of repression victims, who were moving from police stations to courts year after year in the hope of getting justice. According to official figures, there were 43,114 cases related to women's repression pending for over five years in 99 women and children repression prevention courts of the country up to June 30 this year. The total number of under-trial cases in these courts was 178,231. That implied, the trials of over 24 per cent of these cases were continuing for more than five years.
The Supreme Court informed on September 12 that the under-trial cases in the higher and lower courts stood at almost 4.20 million. But on analysis, it is found that not much progress is being made in cases lodged under The Women and Children Repression Prevention Act, 2000. Less than 2 per cent of these cases that were running for over five years could be resolved during the first six months of the current year.
It has been found on enquiry that delays occur in all stages of investigation and litigation due to various reasons. In case of rapes, delays frequently occur in obtaining medical certificates and DNA reports. As a consequence, the framing of charge-sheets gets deferred. Then in the courts, the dates of hearing are usually set with gaps of long intervals. After that, it often becomes difficult to ensure the attendance of witnesses. But insiders claim maximum delay occurs in eliciting depositions from the physicians and investigation officers (IO) of the cases. This happens especially when they are transferred elsewhere, in which case it may require months and years to obtain their testimonies.
According to the provisions of The Women and Children Repression Prevention Act, the trials of cases under it should be completed within 180 days. The law also stipulates that actions should be taken against the responsible physicians if the medical examination is not completed very swiftly and within justifiable time-limit. But there is no mention of time-frame for DNA reports. The police often complain that their shoe-soles get eroded when they walk around hospitals to get the DNA report.
As mentioned earlier, there are allegations that the hearings are scheduled in the courts with long gaps. Lack of sufficient space in judicial courts also contribute to these delays. For example, two tribunals in Dhaka reportedly have to share the same room from morning to afternoon. Besides, the witnesses often fail to arrive, although it is the responsibility of the prosecution to ensure their attendance. They often cannot be traced when their addresses change. Besides, many witnesses are not interested to provide testimony. They are sometimes forcibly brought to court when the court issues arrest warrants against them. According to an insider, maximum delays occur during the submission of depositions. If it could be expedited, then the cases could be resolved swiftly.
There are also allegations that some false cases are lodged under The Women and Children Repression Prevention Act. But ironically the women are used as pawns in many such instances. And not all the cases that are 'proved' to be false are actually false. Allegations cannot be proved due to many other reasons like delays in taking up the complaints, filing cases under wrong sections, lack of proof in testimonies, destruction of evidence, failure to ensure attendance of witnesses, etc.
Justice delayed is justice denied. As pointed out by the former adviser to the caretaker government Advocate Sultana Kamal, people lose faith in the judicial system if there are delays in trials. The victims suffer from fatigue with regard to both time and money. Examples of disruptions faced by victims in leading a normal life are also not rare. On the other hand, the criminals get a wrong message, and their criminal tendencies tend to rise instead of falling.
Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.