Why is Bangladesh still seeing a rise in violence against women?

The 999 helpline has seen a steep rise in reports by women of harassment and domestic violence in the past few years

Marium Sultanabdnews24.com
Published : 18 Sept 2022, 07:48 PM
Updated : 18 Sept 2022, 07:48 PM

Sadia Saki, a student at Jahangirnagar University seeking a master's degree in public administration, experienced harassment on public transportation in 2021. 

Since her exam was approaching and educational institutions had just reopened following a prolonged closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, she was staying in her dorm at the time. 

One day, after tutoring in Bosila, she was heading to Savar from the Gabtoli bus terminal in Swajan Paribahan bus. She was calculating how long the bus would take to reach her campus as it was getting dark. 

But before she arrived, Saki got into an argument with the bus driver's assistant over his demand for an ‘increased fare’.

"The conductor said in a terrifying tone, 'You are a girl. Do you really want to go home at night?' Hearing this made me angry and worried. But as I was getting close to the campus, I started calling my friends. Then they realised that I'm a university student. So the bus just dropped me off in front of the university and sped off.” 

Saki regretted that she was unable to do anything that day because her friends were late. But, a few days, ago she experienced the same type of harassment. This time she dialled the National Helpline Number 999. 

"It happened after the price of oil increased. It was almost 8 pm. I was going to Shishumela from Mohammadpur after finishing my tutoring. I offered the helper half the fare [the student discount]. As a result, a quarrel ensued and the entire situation deteriorated quickly. Then I dialled 999. I gave them the licence plate number of the bus, which was written on the wall. After seeing that, the helper accepted the half fare,” she explained. 

Saki’s case illustrates a growing trend in reporting harassment against women in a country where gender-based violence is prevalent. 

Data from the National Emergency Service Number (999) show distress calls are on the rise. It has received 13,416 calls in the last eight months of 2022, compared to 12,169 throughout the entire year of 2021. 

Distress calls showed an upward trend during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when the authorities recorded 6,331, up from 3,115 in 2019 and 2,292 in 2018. 

Calls to 999 show a disturbing pattern and corroborate the past data. Over 70 percent of married women or girls in Bangladesh have faced some form of intimate partner abuse; about half of them say their partners have physically assaulted them, according to a 2015 survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics and the United Nations Population Fund.

“Nowadays, we have helplines which is a good thing. In contrast, 999 is just one helpline among many. So, the real picture is bigger. Many incidents continue to go unreported,” said Maleka Banu, general secretary of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, an organisation for women’s rights. 

WHICH CALLS ARE MOST COMMON? 

In the last five years, 999 received 10,207 calls from all over the country related to violence against women. Out of those, it has received 3,552 calls in the first eight months of 2022 compared to 3,292 in the previous year. 

What's worrying is that a total of 9,313 calls were about domestic violence by husbands in this period. Of these calls, 45% came in the first eight months of 2022. 

Over the past five years, the total number of calls for rape and sexual harassment cases were 5,770 and 2,669, respectively. 

The government and private sectors in Bangladesh have also been running numerous programs for many years to prevent acid attacks and the dowry system. However, people are still dialling the helpline about these issues. 

Last year saw 9.16 million calls to 999. So far, the number stands at 5.52 million this year. Between December, 2017 and August, 2022 the emergency helpline received 40.42 million calls, but the majority – 59.25 percent – were prank or blank calls.

 WHY HAVE CALLS GONE UP SO SHARPLY 

"I can't say that crime is increasing, and I'm not sure whether the awareness is rising or not,” said Tabarak Ullah, additional DIG of police and the head of 999. “But I can say that 999 has gained people's trust, which is why they are using it more.” 

Noting that 999 got a higher number of calls during the COVID-19 epidemic without any publicity campaign, he said, “At that time, we didn't place any advertisements in the newspapers. We didn't advise anyone to dial 999. Instead, the government advised contacting 333 or 16263. But we’ve still received a lot of calls.”

Tabarak Ullah said that many policemen got infected with COVID-19 and perished because the police didn't have enough protective equipment at that time. 

When asked how they assist people in instances of harassment, he responded, "If someone calls from Thakurgaon and says I'm being harassed, we'll instantly connect the phone to the Thakurgaon Sadar Police Station. My part is then done.” 

In this regard, 999 Police Inspector (Media) Anwar Sattar said, "We don't know what kind of actions the police will take, but after providing assistance, we dial the caller again after some time has passed to find out if the problem has been resolved." 

Bangladesh Mahila Parishad's Maleka Banu believes that there are many women who don’t have the technical expertise or support to contact the helpline. Most women don’t have the self-confidence to dial 999 and request assistance either, she said. 

“Every complaint has a consequence. If the violence towards me worsens after I complain, that won't be beneficial. However, it's good that a girl now has a platform to express herself. The police administration and the state are both standing next to her. We have been trying for so long but do not have the same level of power as the state." 

In 2010, Bangladesh passed a progressive law, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act, an important step in defining domestic violence outside dowry violence to include physical, psychological, sexual, and economic abuse. The act laid out important protections for victims and criminalised the breach of protection orders. 

But the law is still not widely utilised in Bangladesh, according to Maleka Banu. 

The family plays the most important role in avoiding domestic violence against women, and the state should strictly focus on that, according to the Professor Tania Haque of the Women and Gender Studies Department at Dhaka University. 

"Today, we are witnessing fathers abusing their daughters. This type of unimaginable occurrence is happening now because of the deterioration of our humanity. And, in these cases, very few individuals speak up or dial 999 for help.” 

The human-to-human relationship is more important than gender-based discussion, Tania Haque said. Referring to parenting and marriage, she said, "You will find less violence in that family which has love, bonding, and respect." 

“Perhaps you believe that I'm speaking on a much broader scale. In truth, I'm not. The topic of discussion is the same: family.”

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher