Published on: December 13, 2020, 12:00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 01:13 AM, December 13, 2020

Pragyna Mahpara

What happens when the home becomes a prison and the companion a monster? In Bangladesh, a country with a high rate of domestic violence, it is a sad reality for countless women and children. The Covid-19 lockdown has made matters only worse. According to data from Ain o Salish Kendra, 483 women were reportedly tortured by their husbands during the period of January-October 2020, 43 percent higher than what was reported in the same period in 2019; a similar trend can be observed in the number of women murdered by their husbands. A telephone survey with 53,340 women conducted by Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) found that by June a total of 11,025 women had faced domestic violence since the lockdown began. The question is, despite having adequate legislations, why is the country failing to protect its women and children from domestic violence, particularly during these trying times.

The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection), or the DVPP, has several progressive provisions, including protection orders for women, right to reside in the marital home, temporary custody of children, and recovery of personal assets and assets acquired during the marriage. The DVPP Act 2010 was a result of an outstanding collaboration between the women’s movement and the government. The movement began in the late 80s when Naripokkho and a few other organisations started raising the issue of domestic violence as a violation of women’s rights. However, when the Women and Children Repression Act 2000 was passed, it failed to address the issue of domestic violence and abuse. Subsequently in 2002, various civil society organisations, women’s rights groups, and legal activists researched domestic violence laws of neighbouring countries and initiated drafting a legislation. Under the “Caretaker Government” in 2006, these organisations came together to form the Citizen’s Initiative against Domestic Violence (CIDV) coalition to advance the agenda of legal reform. In 2008, the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs (MOWCA) decided to draft the law through the Multi Sectoral Project on Violence against Women. This sped up the process, created donor pressure, and facilitated the involvement of women’s rights actors, lawyers, the judiciary, and other civil society actors. Eventually, the Awami League government adopted the DVPP Act in 2010.

It has been 10 years since then and yet the Act does not appear to have a significant impact on domestic violence in Bangladesh. It is true that because of strong social norms and stigma around the issue—for example, consideration of “breaking the family” as a matter of intense shame, consideration of domestic violence as a private matter, and the severity of social repercussions for speaking up against such violence—too many cases remain unreported. This is a major reason for the persistence of domestic violence, despite the Act.

But there are major limitations in the implementation of the Act as well. MOWCA officers still lack adequate training and resources. The number of one-stop crisis centres is inadequate and monitoring mechanisms are yet to be developed. At the Union Parishad (UP) level, there is no operational linkage between the UP committee on violence against women and enforcement officers. Despite efforts to make law enforcement officers more accessible and gender-sensitive, they are often reported to be hostile or, at best, indifferent, because of the same reasons as why most domestic violence cases are not reported. A similar attitude is prevalent among other service providers, such as the judiciary and the medical staff.

Further loopholes in implementation have surfaced during the pandemic. At the beginning of the lockdown, no provisions were made for domestic violence cases. Department of Women Affairs officers and partner organisations were not given directions on how to handle incidences and complaints of domestic violence during the lockdown. For the first three months of the lockdown (March-May), service providers and law enforcement officers were busy dealing with the Covid situation, and thus domestic violence cases were not prioritised. Law enforcement agencies were also busy distributing food and essentials among poverty-stricken people. Shelter homes were unable to admit survivors due to lack of testing kits. There were no instructions from MOWCA to local officers regarding the provision of support and service to survivors during the crisis, and the helpline (109) only provided advice or referrals, but no direct support. If survivors reported to the police stations for filing complaints, instead of registering complaints, they were referred to organisations such as Brac’s Human Rights and Legal Aid Services. The Nari Desk (women’s desk) at the police stations became inactive. Trials did not take place, as the courts were closed countrywide.

Gradually the issue of domestic violence started receiving attention from the mainstream and social media and organisations working on it, trying to create a sense of urgency. The shelter homes are now able to admit survivors if they come after being tested. The CIDV and the Rape Law Reform Coalitions proposed introducing virtual courts and an ordinance, allowing courts to hold trials digitally; this was approved by the prime minister. But many survivors do not have access to mobile phones or the internet. So, the success of the initiative is doubtful, as access to justice has now become synonymous with access to technology. And the National Recovery Plan of the government does not address violence against women at all, which makes one wonder whether the government truly realises the severity of domestic violence during COVID.

In a predominantly patriarchal society with strong gender norms and stigma against women, like that in Bangladesh, enacting legislations against domestic violence is already a herculean endeavour. Add to that, the weaknesses in implementation and the absence of urgency and priority from policymakers. Then the question remains, is 10 years enough; or will it ever be enough?

Bangladesh has urged its development partners and the private sector to support national efforts for post-Covid recovery. Initiatives for combating climate change and health distress are given significant priority. However, VAW issues are not addressed under these. This dilutes the recognition of the severity of domestic violence cases during the Covid period. Prevention and redress of DV in this period should be integrated with the recovery plan.

Violence which occurs in the family space is not a personal or familial issue but is a violation of the right to bodily integrity; it should be treated the same way as the violence that happens in public or at the workplace. This understanding has to be developed among service providers, law enforcement authorities, communities and families so that those who are affected are supported to speak out, protest the abuse and seek remedies.

Pragyna Mahpara,
Research Associate,
Brac Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD),
Brac University

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