Monday, December 10, 2007, 1:49 PM

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                               Gender Harassment at home & work in Bangladesh


Sigma Huda


1. Introduction:

Even twenty years ago, the so-called gender harassment, more broadly- gender based violence (GBV), was not considered to be an issue worthy of national policy level attention or concern in Bangladesh. Victims of violence suffered in silence, with little recognition of their plight.  This began to change in the 1980s as women's groups organized locally and internationally to demand attention to the physical, psychological and economic abuse of women. Gradually, GBV has come to be recognized as a legitimate human rights issue and as a significant threat to women's health, dignity and well being. In the context of Bangladesh, the statutory sanctions of the Prevention of Oppression Against Women and Children Act, 2000 can be seen as a significant milestone.[i]

Art. 19(2) of the Bangladesh Constitution ensures that the State shall adopt effective measures to remove social and economic inequality, and to ensure the equitable distribution of wealth among citizens, and of opportunities in order to attain a uniform level of economic development. Art. 28 (2) of the Constitution expressly provides that women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of the State and of public life. In addition, various laws have been enacted and amended to protect women's rights, notably-

  • The Muslim Family Laws Ordinance, 1961
  • The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Registration Act, 1974
  • The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1980
  • The Family Court Ordinance, 1985
  • The Child Marriage Registration Act, 1992
  • The Oppression of Women and Children (Special Provision) Act, 1995.
  • The Prevention of Oppression Against Women and Children Act, 2000

The Government of Bangladesh has in the recent time undertaken several initiatives towards integrating a gender agenda into the broader national policy and planning framework. These include, among others, formulation of the Five-Year Plans since 1990 adopting the mainstreaming of a women's development approach; establishment of the National Council for Women's Development (1995); Declaration of the National Policy for Advancement of Women (1997); adoption of the National Action Plan (NAP) for Advancement of Women; Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs (MOWCA) and the Women's Development Implementation and Evaluation Committee. As part of the implementation of the NAP, a Policy Leadership and Advocacy Unit (PLAU) has been created under the Policy Leadership and Advocacy for Gender Equality (PLAGE) Project of MOWCA.

However, despite all these efforts, gender policy advocacy is still far from adequate in Bangladesh. The social sectors widely contain only "budgetary” provisions targeted at women. This is often also prioritized as women specific projects and, being usually donors funded activity, not part of the core portfolio of the relevant government sectors. Gender mainstreaming has been interpreted in a reductive way, leading to the rhetorical inclusion of women across all sectors, rather than a rethinking of broad policies and conceptual challenges to the overall framework of development planning. The public sector efforts thus need to put greater emphasis on strategic needs and interests of women through comprehensive packages of gender aware leadership promotion based on enhanced economic, social and political participation of women in the process.[ii]

2. Gender Based Violence: General Observation

With women constituting about 49 percent of its population, Bangladesh is one of the seven countries in the world where men are outnumbered by women. Still, women bear disproportionately larger share of the country's poverty and hold much lower status than their male counterparts in every sphere of life. Statistical indicators of the status and progress in human development in Bangladesh point to unacceptable high levels of deprivation and discrimination against women. Oppressive and repressive age-old traditions and community mind-sets, unquestioned social norms, unchallenged economic dependence and financial insecurity, high illiteracy, ignorance and invisibility of women in private and public life keep women out of balance-share within the family, society, workplace, and   the   overall development process of the country.

Indeed, gender inequality in Bangladesh is manifested through socio-economic differences and the stratification of authority and assets between sexes through a socialization process sanctioned by complex stigma and outlook. The patrilocal residentship and matrilineal kinship culture continues to place women in a relegated role of nurturing, resulting in a denial of equal and equitable opportunity to safeguarding their needs and interests. Thus, women are systematically discriminated in terms of food intake, access to education, health, employment, political participation, decision making including choice of marriage, divorce, reproductive rights, rights to inheritance and sharing of assets and resource distribution.

Gender based violence/harassment is perpetrated at family, society and other levels in many forms including domestic violence, sexual assaults, acid throwing, trafficking and forced prostitution, among many others. While these physical dimensions of GBVs may be the most readily identifiable, the psychological abuse, deprivation and seclusion are also important factors contributing to the degradation process.

In the hierarchy of gender-based power relations, adolescent females occupy the lowest rung. Their opportunities for self-development and autonomy are limited due to societies' denying them access to education, health care, and gainful employment. On top of this, many are confronted with sexual coercion and abuse, often starting at a very young age.

There is an increasing consensus that the abuse or exploitation of women and girls, regardless of where it occurs, should be conceptualized within the socio-legal framework of gender-based violence. The official UN definition of GBV was first articulated in the 1993 Declaration, as follows:

The term "violence against women" means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.

Another important dimension of the problem is that the backward and forward effects of GBV in terms of "psychological vulnerability" (in addition to the health, social and other vulnerability factors stated above) is often characterized as women's continued perceptions of susceptibility to physical and psychological danger, the perception of personal powerlessness, as well as the loss of power and control in her relationship with the male counterparts.

3. Gender Based Violence: The Family/Domestic Arena


Dowry-related violence is a common feature in Bangladesh, affecting the lives of many women. Other than specific acts of violence such as killings, torture, throwing of acid, sex selective abortion, female infanticide, forced suicide and the like, dowry demands affect the lives of women socially and culturally in a much deeper manner. Fundamentally, they undermine the equality of women and create culturally accepted forms of discrimination against them. They can affect the life of a girl from the very start as preference for boys often begins with the parental realization that the burden of finding dowries falls on them as soon as the child is born. However, despite punitive sanctions against the practice of dowry imposed by a law enacted two & a half decades ago (Dowry Prevention Act, 1980),[iii] as well as efforts by activists and women's rights organization to eliminate this menace, the numbers of dowry related VAWs continue to climb.[iv]

Early/Child Marriage:

Another aspect of gender violence emanates from the practice of early or child marriage. A UNICEF study on the consequences of early marriage reveals that Bangladesh stands fourth in the world in early marriage ranking where 51% of girls below the age of 18 years are already married.[v] Early marriage has profound physical, intellectual, psychological and emotional consequences, cutting off educational opportunities and chances for personal growth. For girls, it will almost certainly mean premature pregnancy -which causes higher rates of maternal mortality - and is likely to lead to a lifetime of domestic and sexual subservience. Teenage girls are also more susceptible than mature women to sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS. Poverty is one of the major factors underpinning child marriage in Bangladesh where poverty-stricken parents are persuaded to part with daughters through promises of marriage, or by false marriages, which are used to lure girls into trafficking & prostitution abroad. In Bangladesh, the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 has been amended by an Ordinance in 1984 so that the minimum ages of marriage are now 21 for men and 18 for women. The legislation provides penal sanctions for those who knowingly participate in the contracting of an under-age marriage, but does not invalidate such marriages.

Fatal and Sexual Violence (Rape/Incest/Murder/Suicide):

The number of women who are murdered, beaten, tortured, or raped is astronomically high in Bangladesh. Many of the women who are subjected to sexual violence die by suicide. Ironically, incest, the sexual abuse of family members, & rape by intimate family relations are among the least reported & least addressed crimes in the Bangladesh society. Young girls in particular are prey to the sexual advances of stepfathers, uncles, cousins & other relatives who take advantage of their innocence & trust. Although incest is fairly common in Bangladesh, the issue is rather taboo & the popular press rarely highlights the problem.

Adding to the relevant criminal liabilities under the Penal Code of Bangladesh, the Suppression of Violence Against Women and Children Act 2000 provides for severe penalties for perpetrators of violence against women. Moreover, a significant step has been taken by the GoB by establishing the Speedy Trial Tribunal in November 2002 for the speedy trial & disposition of five specified offences including murder & rape.

However, although relevant laws contain very harsh punishments, experiences indicate that these provisions cannot effectively deter offenders or ensure their prosecution due to various loopholes. In fact, the law has been misused more frequently than has it provided relief. First, there are some inherent problems with the law regarding definitions and clarity. Second, because the punishments are so severe, e.g. death penalty for dowry-related violence, that either victims do not wish to file cases or women are too eager to file wrongful suits. Third, although the law has introduced strict punishments, law enforcement has not been improved to enforce the laws.

Other Major Issues


According to Islamic teaching, a fatwa is a religious edict based on Islamic principles pronounced by a religious scholar. In Bangladesh, however, what is commonly termed as a 'fatwa' is an endemic misuse of the process, since the village mediation bodies (shalish) which often involve Muslim clerics deciding on various matters where the punishments they mete out range from whipping to stoning in some extreme instances. Many women who are commonly the victims of the so-called fatwa (often for so-called anti-social or immoral activities) commit suicide in order to save their family honor. The fatwa process cannot impose any punitive judgments. A Bangladesh High Court decision in 2001 ruled that any fatwa or 'legal opinion' not given by a court is unauthorized and illegal.[vi]


Hilla is a practice of forced marriage where a divorced woman is compelled to marry a second husband in case her first husband pronounced divorce on her but expresses his desire to remarry. Hilla is thus not only a humiliation for the wife but an outrageous gender based harassment. This form of marriage is strongly discouraged in Islam (although approved); nevertheless, hilla still remains a frequent occurrence in rural Bangladesh.[vii]


Although adultery is a crime under the Bangladesh Penal Code committed by both men and women, there is a certain social tolerance for the crime when a man is the perpetrator. Rather than holding the man responsible for his infidelity, the society generally blames his wife for failing to build a strong family & for failing to meet her husband's needs & desires. An adulterous man faces only slight rebuke for his actions, & society generally pressurizes his wife to tolerate the infidelity. As a result, the wife endures the humiliation of her husband's adultery & also faces the risk of numerous sexually transmitted diseases. On the other hand, when a wife is caught committing adultery, the community responds harshly; the woman's neighbors gossip about her, young men make indecent proposals to her, family members refuse to socialize with her, & so on. Furthermore, the community mind-set stands by as the husband subjects his wife to violent physical abuses.

4. Gender Harassment at Work:

Women in Bangladesh, who face harassment from males, lack any access to avenues of social or legal redress. The sensational 2001 case of Simi Banu tragically highlights the need for the law to protect not only female 'modesty', but also the very right to equality. Conventional explanations of 'shame-suicides' fail to explain, for instance, why in her suicide note Simi Banu wrote that the kind of harassment she had to endure was "worse than being raped and left by the wayside". It could very well be that shifts in social, economic and legal discourses in the past two decades (see the Introduction above) that have allowed women like Simi to 'opt out' of mainstream cultural ideologies of womanhood.

Again, by the same token, it is precisely because some women are not willing to submit unquestioningly to notions of purity and pollution that violence against them has taken on new, extensive forms. For several reasons, an analysis of Simi's case illuminates many of the murky issues in this debate. First, she was a professional woman who was explicit in her rejection of the narrow, constraining 'traditional' female identity: she sought a broader social identity as a human being deserving human dignity. Second, she was never physically assaulted, yet she committed suicide. Third, at least according to available evidence, the incident did not involve any form of political retribution.

On the other hand, the problem of gender harassment is not always of powerlessness in a straightforward manner. To take an example from India, the suicide of High Court Advocate Sangeeta Sharma in Andhra Pradesh, India on 15 June 2000, due to alleged sexual harassment by fellow lawyers, is illustrative. The Sharma case provides a critical reminder of how social power dynamics, in a highly gendered form, are played out to induce silence.

Sexual harassment may be quid pro quo, which refers to sexual advances or requests for sexual favours when presented as a condition of work, or it may take the form of the creation of a hostile, intimidating or offensive workplace such as male colleagues viewing pornographic material at the office. Harassment may be physical, verbal, gestured, written, graphical or emotional and the spreading of sexual rumors, for example, about a "bad" female colleague all entail forms of sexual harassment.

Of course, all men are not harassers. But men also need not be in superior positions to harass their female colleagues. Although they are the usual perpetrators, co-workers, colleagues, outsiders and even subordinates may be harassers. Men seem to do it simply because they are men, wrongly thinking that their sexual impulses are unavoidable and that they actually please women, oblivious of how offensive and even terrifying it may be for women who are subjected to it.

A particular dilemma of gender harassment in Bangladesh is the silence on the part of the survivor about the incidence. As to the causal factors for this, many studies[viii] indicate that reasons for this 'compelled silence' include fear of reprisal as well as that of losing one's job and thus one's livelihood. Not only will it make those at work more hostile towards the accuser, but if a woman publicly claims to being harassed, her family may also stop her from working, not to mention the social condemnation which follows along with the initial hostility for crossing social barriers of private and public life when getting a job in the first place. Some women remain submissive to the male-dominated society in which they live. Others do not know from whom to seek advice or assistance to stop the harassment. Professional women also have somewhat of a position to uphold and respectability to maintain for which they may not report harassment. On the other hand, it is not only young and attractive women who are harassed. Some women's vulnerability even increases because of their marital status or their belonging to a minority group or religion such as for separated, divorced or widowed women who are not only more likely to be subjected to sexual harassment but also to the strongest forms of harassment.

There are ways to prevent sexual harassment, of course, and the first thing to do is to report it. Section 10 of the Women and Children Repression Prevention (Amendment) Act, 2003 deals with sexual oppression and harassment by which perpetrators of the crime are legally punishable. Many organizations have their own gender policies (while many others don't) and some have a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment.

Exploitation and harassment of female garment workers has been a regular feature since the inception of the industry. The perceived 'low' social status (which translates into lack of social protection) combined with often very late working hours and inadequate transport facilities, ex-poses female garment workers to all sorts of insecurity and harassment both at the workplace as well as on the streets. The conditions of garment work give a kind of license to young men, making garment workers 'fair game' for male attention.

Legal definitions of sexual harassment vary widely. In some countries, it is defined narrowly and refers only to unwanted sexual advances or conduct. Legislation in other places is much more comprehensive. Notably, the bulk of sexual harassment laws concern the question of workplace conduct. However, for working women in Bangladesh, harassment in public is an added occupational hazard, one that is not always accommodated in legal vocabulary or in anti-harassment laws. In Bangladesh, the Suppression of Violence Against Women and Children Act of 31 January 2000 for the first time made sexual harassment a criminal offence punishable by law, albeit in very general terms.[ix]

However, in the absence of specific legislation addressing various aspects of gender exploitation & harassment in Bangladesh, an alternative approach could be drawn upon the constitutional provision of the country that guarantees protection of every citizen's right to equality, freedom from discrimination, and freedom of movement. A recent Supreme Court judgment from India is instructive in this regard. In the case of Apparel Export Promotion Council versus AK Chopra, (1999 SOL Case No. 36),[x] a female employee of the firm complained of attempted molestation by her boss. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, which argued, among others, that physical contact with the female employee was not an essential ingredient of the charge of sexual harassment, given that the statement made by "Miss X" shows that the conduct of the respondent "constituted an act unbecoming of good behaviour, expected from a superior officer." The judgment goes on to state:

It was not the dictionary meaning of the word 'molestation' and 'physical assault' which was relevant. The entire episode reveals that the respondent had harassed, pestered and subjected Miss X, by a conduct which is against moral sanctions and which did not withstand the test of decency and modesty and which projected unwelcome sexual advances. Such an action on the part of the respondent would be squarely covered by the term 'sexual harassment'.

5. Concluding Note:

The current gender harassment law in Bangladesh provides a point of departure, even if its language is troubling. Working women face a double hazard, inside the workplace as well as on the street. There are no written codes of behaviour on the street and, in any case, 'moral codes of decency' are applied selectively. This is a social reality that must be addressed in the law. More-over, gender harassment laws need to accommodate various forms of gender based harassment/violence which are not explicitly sexual. It may very well be that the hostility being expressed through harassment is a sign of male social power, not sexual power. Assuming that laws that refer to female modesty are inherently limiting, it is advisable to take a cue from the Indian Supreme Court judgment cited earlier, and stress the violation of a woman's right to equality, and freedom from all forms of discrimination. These are rights that are enshrined in the Constitution of Bangladesh. Again, to fill lacuna in existing legislation, reference should also be made to international legal documents, including those of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and CEDAW, to which Bangladesh is a signatory.

Enacting progressive laws by itself will not, however, suffice to change the situation. As we all know, it is critical to ensure that existing legislation be implemented and that those in charge of law enforcement be held accountable for their actions. By the same token, the efficacy of laws will be constantly undermined if social attitudes, especially widespread cultural tendencies of blaming the victim in cases of sexual harassment, are not transformed. This requires, among other things, serious gender-sensitisation training for those charged with protecting the rights of citizens, especially police personnel and judges. There can hardly be legal or police protection if the authorities a priori assume the "guilt" or "moral laxity" on the part of women complainants.

Finally, gender harassment at work today necessitates that it must not only be the struggle of activists, scholars and legislators but should also be a part of  corporate   social responsibility to develop codes of conduct, zero tolerance gender policies & institutional strategies in combating gender harassment & violence, both at workplace & beyond.


[i]. In addition to the general equality and non-discrimination clauses in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a number of other international instruments ratified by Bangladesh specifically address the issue of women's rights to equal and equitable treatment before the law. These include-

·      The Convention on the Political Rights of Women, 1952

·      The Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, 1967

·    The Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict, 1974

· The ILO Convention (No.111) concerning Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation

·    The Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), 1979.

CEDAW, considered to be the international bill of rights of women, provides the basis for realizing equality between men and women through ensuring equal access and opportunities in political and public life including the right to vote and to stand for election, the right to education and employment, and the rights to equality in the areas of healthcare, economic, social, legal, marriage and family relations. In addition, the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women, 1995, the Copenhagen Declaration and Program of Action of the World Summit for Social Development, 1995 also emphasizes on gender equality and equity in every sphere of life.

[ii] . A recent 58-nation study on 'Women's Empowerment: Measuring the Global Gender Gap" (released on 16 May 2005) conducted by the Switzerland based World Economic Forum addressed the gender gaps on the basis of five critical parameters set by the United Nations Development Fund for Women; Bangladesh has been placed at the 39th position by the study.

[iii] . Also, the Government of Bangladesh has recently issued appeals to all heads of public and private universities and the education board to wage war against the practice of dowries in the country. Source: Written Statement of the Asian Legal Resource Center (ALRC) on 'Dowry-related violence against women in Bangladesh' (E/CN.4/2005/NGO/49) submitted to the UN Commission on Human Rights at its Sixty-first Session (April 5, 2005, Geneva).

[iv] . A recent survey by the Bangladesh Human Rights Organization, and Bangladesh Women Lawyers Association revealed that in 2001 there were 12,500 cases of women repression, in 2002 the figure rose to 18,455 and in the year ending in 2003 the figure climbed to 22,450. In the year 2004, a total of 267 women victims were reported in the media due to dowry related violence. Among them, 165 were killed, 77 tortured by acid violence and one was divorced and 11 committed suicide due to incessant dowry demands (Source: report on human rights violations in Bangladesh by one human rights organization  (Odhikar, 2005).

[v] . "Early Marriage: Child Spouses" UNICEF (2001).

[vi] The sensational judgment passed on a suo moto rule by Justice Golam Rabbani and Justice Nazmun Ara Sultana (31 January 2001).

[vii] Section 7(6) of the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance 1961 states: "Nothing shall debar a wife whose marriage has been terminated by talaq effective under this section from remarrying the same husband, without an intervening marriage with a third person, unless such termination is for the third time so effective."

[viii] See, for instance, Dr. Shahnaz Huda for Forum on Women in Security and International Affairs (August, 2001).

[ix] Section 10 (2) of the Women and Children Act states that any man who, in order to satisfy his lust in an improper manner, outrages the modesty of a woman, or makes obscene gestures, will be deemed to have engaged in sexual harassment & will be sentenced to rigorous imprisonment (maximum seven years) & fines.

[x] This 1999 judgment took its cue from the landmark Indian Supreme Court case of Visakha vs. The State of Rajasthan (1997).