It is the eve of Eid-ul-Azha. A little girl goes to a neighbour’s house to apply mehendi on her hands. A skip in her step. Innocence playing in her eyes. Cut to the next scene, and her hands are not being adorned by henna but are rather being tied with rope by two men. She struggles with their rough, overpowering hands and as she is about to scream, they gag her with a strip of cloth and mercilessly gang-rape her. She watches in horror, appalled and powerless.
As much as I would have liked the above extract to have been derived from a fictitious and tragic novel, this is the reality a 12-year-old girl from Bhola had to live with on the day before Eid. She fell prey to this monstrous duo who lured her into their apartment under the pretext of giving her mehendi and then subjected her to this terror. And all we know now is that she is just another victim of the staggering 471 cases of child rape from the first half of 2019 alone—according to Child Rights Advocacy Coalition (CRAC)—and that she is in DMCH, bleeding intermittently. The story then gets more twisted. The alleged rapists, within the next few days, were killed in a “gunfight” with the police who intended to arrest them.
Incidents like these can leave families reeling from remorse, rage, an utter sense of failure as a protector and a feeling of diminution. Family members of rape victims are the secondary victims of the inflicted assault. The ripple effects of such a violation can be tremulous for the very familial foundation. Studies have exhibited how the “non-perpetrator family members” may feel isolated and estranged from others. I use the term “non-perpetrator” because in this social narrative, the extent to which family members themselves are perpetrators is sickening.
In our local climate—in which communities are an integral part, especially in rural settings—when a member gets raped, the family is relegated to a lower position in the social ladder. In this particular case, the family is having to deal with being threatened as well. The brother of one of the rapists has cautioned them against his vengeful intentions.
As much as we can pray that it was an empty threat, we have lost even that hope in another shocking incident that occurred while writing this article—another young girl was assaulted by three men after they failed to coerce her family into withdrawing a rape-attempt case they had filed earlier against the offenders, despite several threats. Even with a lawsuit already lodged in court, the men broke into their house, tied up the mother, abducted the girl and left her bleeding by the bank of a river after gang raping her. The police have been able to arrest only one culprit while the others are at large. There is an abnormal unity among these sexual predators, whose intentions intersect into synchronised acts of brutality.
It is hard to grasp the degree of audacity they carry that prevents them from reconsidering their actions in the face of law, but given our prevailing culture of impunity, procedural obstacles, frightfully low conviction rates of sex offenders and the miscarriage of our morals, perhaps it is not that hard to fathom why these criminals will not shudder at the thought of the repercussions of their actions. Recent episodes of barbarity—in which the OC of Gaibandha, along with other cops, allegedly raped a woman—fortifies our worst fears. Thinking these offenders fall within a certain bracket would be looking at the situation through a distorted lens. These vile creatures that roam around under the facade of normalcy and perfectly functioning human beings do not have any revelatory characteristics. They are the doting uncle, the friendly neighbour, the righteous madrasa Imam, a harmless tea-seller or a member of the law enforcer itself. Given the spate of rape cases these days, one hardly gets to recover from one grotesque incident when another joins the news cycle. These are innocent children we are talking about here—who are falling prey to paedophiles. The usual mindless arguments that project the blame on the victim for wearing revealing clothes, or displaying indecent character traits, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time do not even apply here.
Experts have claimed that these criminals lurk within the shadows of society, moving from one victim to another until they get exposed or caught. But by the time they are captured, who knows how many innocent lives they had already violated? According to Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (BSAF), hundreds of cases go unreported which propels the state of affairs to malfunction even more. Fearing ostracization or mass humiliation in front of their community, many of the families hush up the matter. In most cases, the victims barely have access to support groups, or therapy sessions for rehabilitation and so the role played by the surrounding community becomes very pivotal here. Orthodox beliefs of victim-blaming, of how a girl’s reputation gets tarnished once assaulted have to be challenged so that we can foster a practice of standing by the victims and their families and learn to applaud the valiant resistance they show against such monstrosity. Also let us not forget that male children are also vulnerable to paedophiles.
The indifference of the legal system and law enforcement agencies towards child sexual abuse is a reflection of the society’s denial of the pervasiveness of these crimes and general trivialisation of sexual violence. The wheels of justice are coming to a staggering stop due to our nonchalance and negligence and only a reform in our collective attitude can get them turning again. It is indeed repulsive that the honour of a girl is placed in her genitals by the society and once violated, she along with her family, get diminished to something disgraceful. The shame, after all, is for the culprits to carry, not the victims.
Iqra L Qamari is a student of economics at North South University and an intern at The Daily Star.