Thesis on Acid Violence against Women in Bangladesh

Acid throwing is one of the cruelest and most despicable forms of violence against women in Bangladesh today. To prevent acid violence the past government passed two laws: Acid Crime Control Act 2002 and Acid Control Act 2002. Despite these laws most of the perpetrators have neither been prosecuted nor punished. No systematic studies of the reasons for impunity in acid violence have been carried out in Bangladesh. Therefore, the main purposes of this research are to explore why so many perpetrators of acid violence against women are not punished and to suggest ways to end this impunity.

Documentary research, in-depth interviews and observations using a qualitative case study method involving twelve cases were studied in Satkhira and Sirajgonj districts of Bangladesh. Two of these cases resulted in prison sentences for the perpetrators. During the fieldwork various information from different perspectives was gathered to get a holistic and contextual understanding of each case. In order to conduct the research, I focused on (1) related documentation (2) interviews with acid survivors and their families, (3) interviews with police and court officials, (4) NGO’s activists.

The two successful cases had received strong NGO and media involvement, suggesting that these institutions need to play a greater and more consistent role in this issue. It was found that patriarchy and poverty were structural factors in all ten cases of impunity and there was always a mixture of other factors such as bribery and intimidation, interference of traditional justice system, lack of evidence and police unwilling to investigate. This research suggests the need to establish social monitoring of police stations and courts which deal with the criminal offenses related to acid violence cases. It is also necessary to ensure the security of victims and witnesses during the prosecution of acid violence cases. Civil society should pressure electoral candidates to make a commitment to not giving support or protection to perpetrators. The government has to ensure that victims get legal assistance as stipulated in the law.

The People’sRepublic of Bangladesh is situated in the southern part of Asia. It is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is also the most densely populated and one of the most backward nations. The total population of the country is 149.7 million according to UN report 2004. According to UNDP human development index2004, Bangladesh ranked 138 the position, which is behind most other less developed countries. According to world development indicators, which are prepared by the World Bank, Bangladesh’s per capita income is increasing. Until 2004, the Bangladeshi per capita income was 440 US$. The birth of Bangladesh in 1971 was a unique phenomenon. It was the first nation-state to emerge after waging a successful liberation war against a postcolonial state. The nine-month-long liberation war in Bangladesh drew world attention because of the genocide committed by Pakistan which resulted in the killing of approximately three million people and raping of nearly a quarter million girls and women (Jahan, 1997). Bangladesh spent 15 years under military rule and, although democracy was restored in 1990, the political scene remains volatile. For the last 29 years, Bangladesh has been practicing a limited form of parliamentary democracy. As a result there are numerous non-state actors playing significant roles in addressing social issues, particularly the struggle for socio-economic rights and justice.
The name Bangladesh means ‘land of Bengalis’, a race, which dates back to the times of antiquity when several aboriginal races resided in the subcontinent of India. The Bengali’s have a mixture of Mongoloid, Dravidian and Aryan blood in their veins and the Turkish, Arab, Persian, Afghan, Portuguese, Dutch, French and English traders, sailors, settlers and colonizers of Bengal have also left their mark (Khan, 2001).

Bangladesh is a relatively religiously homogenous Muslim dominated country. About 87% of the population is Muslim, 10 percent is Hindu and the rest follow various indigenous beliefs. There are also a number of Christians though there are numerous statute laws governing them (Sobhan, 2004). Most of the Muslim people belong to the Sunni and follow the Hanafi School of jurisprudence. More than 80% of people live in rural areas.

In Bangladesh, poverty is the main root cause of all types of violence. After independence of 38 years, unfortunately Bangladesh has not been able to end its ‘cycle of poverty ’. Political violence is common and violence against women pervasive. It is not just committed by abnormal, psychologically disturbed individuals. Rather it has reached epidemic proportions and it cuts across all divisions of class, race, religion, ethnicity, and geographical region. However, it is difficult to agree on a universally accepted definition of violence against women.

It has only been during the last decade, as a result of women’s efforts, that violence against women has been recognized as a human rights violation. In the most general sense, any crime committed against women can be termed as violence against women. The UN definition set out the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, and in the Beijing Platform for Action, defines violence as follows “Violence against women includes any physical or sexual act against women (or girl) which meets or surpasses a minimum level force, including pushing, hair-pulling, hitting, smacking, slapping and being held down by a man’s weight so that the women can not move, and which denies the woman ability to control contact” (Pickup, 2001).

This was adopted by 189 countries as the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, as an appropriate policy and advocacy tool and framework for direct interventions.

Religious and cultural norms, discriminatory and defective laws, the denial of appropriate property rights and the failure of implementing international instruments relating to women’s rights and other related factors have created a negative environment for women who are commonly perceived as burdens to their families consequently rendering them vulnerable to various forms of violence and exploitation. However, according to the laws in force in Bangladesh, the term ‘violence’ is defined as ‘criminal force’ and ‘physical assault’ inflicted on a person (a woman). Section 350 of Penal Code 1860 provides that whoever intentionally uses force to any person without that person’s consent, in order to commit of any offence, or intending by the use of such force to cause, or knowing it to be likely that by the use of such force he will cause injury, fear or annoyance to the person to whom the force is used, is said to use criminal force to the other. The offence of physical assault has been incorporated into section 351 of the Penal Code. The Penal Code does not specially define the crime of ‘sexual assault’ but has definitions for ‘rape’, ‘criminal intimidation’, ‘insult and annoyance’. In the early 1980’s a new kind of crime against women gained momentum: the throwing of acid on the face and body, especially of young women to permanently disfigure them. So horrifically that people would recoil from them and cast them into social isolation. This crime had become so prevalence that a separate new section had to be inserted in the Penal Code by virtue of the Penal Code (Second Amendment) Ordinance.

During the decade of the eighties and the nineties in the twentieth century, young women between the ages of 10-25 were the primary targets of this crime. With growing social resistance against acid violence, particularly by the women’s movement, the proportion of incidents due to spurning of romantic proposals has declined. In recent years, enmity over land property has become the major motivation for acid attack, and although women remain the major target, roughly 35% of the victims today are male. As mentioned, Bangladesh is a very poor and over-populated country. Land ownership is a major factor affecting people’s survival in rural areas. That is why; land dispute related disturbance is part of daily life. Women are usually not owners of land property. But women are also vulnerable in land related disputes. Violence because of romantic rejection or refusal of sexual relation is rooted in so- called conservative societies. Unfortunately, male and female relationships are not open in the Bangladesh society. As result of strained relationship or mutual ill feelings, males are provoked to throw acid. The causes of acid attacks have changed, but the main target is still women.
The most recent statistic available from the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) stated that, most victims of acid violence are between the ages of 18-22 and 25-30 and from poorer socio-economic backgrounds. However the number of incidents is quite high. In 2008 alone, more than 133 persons nationwide were victimized by acid violence according to Odhikar (A Coalition of human rights organization). Of them, 73 were women, 34 men and 26 children. It can generally be stated that victims come from a more powerless background than the perpetrators. Perpetrators are also from such groups and social backgrounds. In the Bangladesh context, most people from these age groups are directly involved in anti-social activities. In particular, lacks of employment opportunities have created conditions whereby male youth are vulnerable to drug addiction, and used as muscle power for partisan political forces.