by Tabibul Islam
(IPS) -- Rozina, the 16-year-old daughter of a farmer in this district of Bangladesh, is married to the man who raped her. Trapped by the dictates of village elders, threatened by the rapist's family, and finding themselves powerless to resist, Rozina's parents crumbled under the pressure.
On May 27, barely a fortnight after her abduction and rape, her marriage was solemnized in the village of Shibrampur, about 145 kilometers south-west of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.
At first desperate for justice, Rozina's parents had filed a complaint with the police. But the powerful village leaders -- in Bangladesh these are almost always landowners -- forced them to drop the case and settle the matter by marrying their daughter off to the man who raped her.
What sort of life might she lead? "If a rape victim is forced to marry her tormentor she will suffer from a sense of helplessness and frustration throughout her life silently," said Ayesha Khanam, secretary of the Bangladesh Women's Council.
"In such circumstances, she will consider every act of sex with her rapist husband an act of rape," commented Khanam.
Village elders cite community honor and image as reasons for their decisions. But over the last six months, an equal number of young women have committed suicide, protesting the arbitration of village leaders to marry them off to their rapists.
In truth, "the law does not permit forced marriage between a rape victim and the rapist," said advocate Abdullah Abu of the Dhaka Bar. "The arbitration by the village leaders to compel a rape victim to marry her rapist is totally illegal."
Yet Rozina's is not an isolated aberration. According to media reports, over two dozen such marriages have taken place in the country in the last two years. The practice is also not a recent one -- there are accounts of such cases from several generations ago.
Several cases apparently stem from the refusal by the parents of a young girl to a marriage proposal from a man of higher social standing based on his wealth and influence. This is a pattern which was seen in a recent case in a village in Bangladesh's Patuakhali district.
Harun (not his real name), the son of a rich farming family, made a proposal to the parents of a girl from the same village. The parents refused, which infuriated Harun, and a few days later he sexually assaulted the girl.
Ordinarily, Harun should have been tried and sentenced -- under Bangladesh law, rape carries a maximum punishment of rigorous imprisonment for life. But as happened in Shibrampur, Harun's victim was forced with impunity into becoming his wife, in defiance of the law.
Non-governmental organizations and civil rights groups in Bangladesh cannot pre-empt thee 'marriages' in remote villages, but they have been able to bring this issue and several related ones to the forefront.
Groups like the Bangladesh Women's Council, headquartered in Dhaka, works toward having the rights of distressed women recognized, and for their education, empowerment and rehabilitation.
Indeed, a community-based approach is advocated by both Afroza Parveen of Nari Unnyanan Shakti (Power of Women's Development), and Farida Yasmin, a women's rights activist.
Rape victims, said Parveen, must be treated with love and kindness by the community they inhabit. "Every one of us should always remember that such an incident could befall any one at any time."
Yasmin's view is that enabling the rape victim to become economically independent is a key step toward her rehabilitation. She sees the government and the community as ideally sharing the task. "A prospective suitor will tend to ignore the unpleasant past if a woman she is self-reliant economically," she said.
Yet the reality is usually very different. The conservative Muslim society of Bangladesh often tends to blame the victim's parents, close relatives and neighbors for the incident. Where the victims live with their families they are stigmatized, and are shunned as being 'unmarriageable'.
This is why Prof. Hasna Banu, a teacher at the Qamrunnesa Girls' College in the old Dhaka city, underlined the need for counselling rape victims often to impress upon them that they are not in any way responsible for what happened to them. "These girls should be brought around to understand that the incidence of rape was simply an accident of life," she said.
"An important attitudinal change in men is required," added Prof. Sitara Begum, who teaches in a Dhaka college. "Men should not look upon women as sex objects, but as individuals who can achieve whatever men can."
NGOs are offering legal help and financial assistance to the needy poor who are forced to fight for their rights in court.
They need all the help they can get. A survey conducted by the Institute of Mental Health showed that close to 90 percent of rapists were acquitted by courts for lack of evidence and due to the use of legal loopholes. Carried out four years ago by Dr Nazmul Ahsan, associate professor of Dhaka Medical College, the conclusions remain valid.
Such a state of affairs may help explain why the number of rape incidents shot up to 3,189 in 2001 from about 300 in 1985. NGOs and civil rights workers say the erosion of social and moral values, judicial delays, the financial clout of criminals and the influence they wield all contribute to the rising rate of rape.
A case in point is the sentencing to death of three policemen by a lower court for raping and then killing a village girl in northern Dinajpur district in 1995. The case is now pending with the Dhaka High Court following an appeal.
There are 30,000 more cases concerning women and child repression that are estimated to be pending with the lower courts in Bangladesh.
February 2, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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