DHAKA – Long-term systemic barriers to legal recourse, protection, and social services have contributed to increased domestic violence against women during the COVID-19 pandemic in Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
The rights group said in a report that despite some significant advances, the government response remained deeply inadequate to curb the violence.
Barriers to reporting an assault or seeking legal recourse were frequently insurmountable, it added.
The services for survivors were in short supply in the country, the report said.
The report comes as Bangladesh enters the final phase of its national plan to build “a society without violence against women and children by 2025.”
“In spite of this goal, Bangladeshi women and girls face endemic violence in all facets of their lives,” HRW said in the 65-page report.
The rights watchdog interviewed at least 29 survivors of gender-based violence from across Bangladesh for the report.
“The uptick in violence against women and girls during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as recent protests against sexual violence, are a bellwether to the Bangladesh government that urgent structural reform is needed,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The government should take concrete action by creating accessible shelters across the country, ensuring access to legal aid, and removing obstacles to reporting violence and obtaining justice.”
Bangladesh saw massive protests recently after several cases of sexual and physical abuse, which drew attention to the government’s failure to address the crisis.
Protests began in early October after a video of a woman being sexually abused and assaulted by a group of men in the southern district of Noakhali came to light.
Although the event took place in early September, the video, which quickly went viral before a court instructed to take it down, was shared the day before the start of the protests by one of the accused.
Earlier in September, a group of youth involved with the ruling party allegedly raped a newly-wed woman at a college hostel in northern divisional city Sylhet, triggering a national outcry.
In the wake of protests, the government on Oct. 12 amended a law, introducing the death sentence for rape.
“By introducing the death sentence, the government tried to show us they are sincere. But it’s a wrong step. Whatever we were supposed to achieve by 2025, it will take us many, more years to achieve that because of government policies and inaction,” prominent women rights activist Farida Akter told EFE.
“I am not just disappointed, rather angry,” she said.
At least 235 women were reportedly murdered by their husband or his family in the first nine months of 2020, according to media reports collated by Bangladesh human rights group Ain o Salish Kendra.
“Due to the pandemic situation and lockdown, income source for both male and female member of the family reduced. Women, who would work, stopped earning which reduced their importance in family contributing to the rise of domestic violence,” Akter said.
Human Rights Watch found that women and girls were often unable to seek legal remedies under these laws, and the authorities rarely held abusers to account.
According to the Multi-Sectoral Programme on Violence Against Women, of the over 11,000 women who filed legal cases through one of the government’s nine One-Stop Crisis Centers for women and girls, only 160 resulted in convictions – about one percent.
“The Bangladesh justice system is failing women and girls with devastating consequences,” said HRW’s Ganguly in their report.
“Protesters are in the streets calling for change. The government should seize this pivotal moment to implement real reform that could save lives and promote the equal society it envisions,” she added.