While dialogues surrounding women's empowerment and equality have been heavily generated across the globe in recent times, women in our South Asian communities are still subjected to experiences of violence and abuse. According to a report by SDG Fund, nearly two out of three women in Bangladesh have experienced gender-based violence during their lifetime, and domestic violence remains a common and largely underreported occurrence.
According to the VAW Survey 2015 by BBS, only 1.1% of married women who faced physical or sexual violence from their partner reported to the police. Survivors of violence often do not report their experiences due to a lack of information regarding the local services in the country. With an aim to solve this problem and make information accessible to these survivors of violence, BRAC launched a local service mapping website called "Shongjog", to support survivors of gender-based violence in availing services from state and non-state actors.
Shongjog website, launched in December 2021 through BRAC's Safeguarding unit, is a user-friendly database and is also available in the widely used bKash app. The mapping was conducted primarily through a census in 61 out of 64 districts covering 435 Upazilas across Bangladesh. Through this service mapping website, all the survivors of harassment and violence will gain access to information and services, in order to recover from their traumatic experiences.
When a survivor of violence and abuse decides to report their traumatic experience and seek redress, they go to the police station first. According to a report in 2021, there are 15,163 policewomen in the Bangladesh Police, which is only 7.92% of the total workforce. Only officers of the rank of Sub-Inspectors (SI) can conduct investigations. Currently, there are only 797 female SIs in the police force. It is expected that a survivor of violence would be more comfortable describing her story to a women investigation officer rather than a male officer. At present, as the number of female officers is grossly insufficient, many survivors of violence and abuse are questioned and investigated by males.
To get a detailed medical exam, the survivor of violence and abuse has to be sent to the One Stop Crisis Centres (OCC). Currently, there are only 13 One Stop Crisis Centres (OCC) in the district cities of Dhaka, Rajshahi, Chittagong, Sylhet, Barisal, Khulna, Rangpur, Faridpur, Cox's Bazar, Noakhali, Pabna, Bogura, and Cumilla offering integrated services. As a result, the majority of the survivors of violence including women and children living outside cities, in the Upazilas and in rural areas, often face impediments in visiting or accessing these centres.
Although 67 One-Stop Crisis Cells are established in 47 districts and 20 Upazilas, they do not provide the same integrated services as the One Stop Crisis Centers and rather work as a liaison platform for victims who come to hospitals seeking medical treatment for injury caused by violence. As such, in the absence of integrated services victims of violence would think twice before reporting an incident.
Healthcare services for survivors of violence and abuse, like Upazila level medical services and DNA testing centres are inadequate and not accessible to all women. At present, there are only 7 DNA sample collection centres in Rajshahi, Chattogram, Sylhet, Barishal, Khulna, Rangpur and Faridpur Medical College Hospitals. In the case of survivors of rape where DNA testing is vital evidence of rape, women coming from rural areas are bound to visit the very few medical centres available at the district level.
After getting necessary medical services, a survivor of violence and abuse is sent to a Women Support and Investigation Center previously called "Victim Support Center (VSC)" for immediate shelter. Currently, there are only 8 Women Support and Investigation Centers across the country.
When the survivor of violence or abuse is produced at court, the local magistrate usually sends them to a government shelter home or a civil society/NGO operated shelter home if there is no guardian to provide the victim with shelter. Such shelter facilities provide longer time support up to a period of six months. According to the Human Rights Watch report, there are only 13 longer-term government shelters for women and girls in Bangladesh.
The Ministry of Social Welfare introduced the social safety net (SSN) to improve the lives of vulnerable, left-out families and individuals who did not benefit from growth. However, the existing SSNs are inadequate and only a small number of women come within their purview. Livelihood and IGA related projects under the relevant ministries do not generally prioritise GBV survivors into any specific eligibility criteria.
In case of family disputes and domestic violence, survivors who do not report their cases, often seek redress through the Union Chairman. If survivors are dissatisfied with the dispute resolution, they are referred to district legal aid offices which exist in all 64 districts of Bangladesh. But due to the absence of legal aid offices in Upazilas and rural areas, women living in villages and remote communities often face difficulties in seeking justice.
As the main objective of Shongjog is to strengthen and increase the access to information and support from local service providers for the survivors of violence, an immediate intervention from all state and non-state actors; Government institutions, NGOs, INGOs, law enforcement agencies and community leaders, is needed in mitigating the above-mentioned gaps. This "Shongjog" website will not be a sole BRAC initiative, rather it will be an initiative of the entire Bangladesh, with increased contribution and support from all stakeholders involved; only then, will we be able to ensure survivors of violence and abuse can avail smooth access to information and services from local institutions and support them to recover from their scarring experiences.