Protests rocked Bangladesh on Saturday as hundreds of people took to the streets to demand justice after a series of rapes and sexual assaults that have spurred the government to seek capital punishment for offenders.
Such incidents have surged in Bangladesh in recent years, with gang rapes accounting for more than a fifth of the nearly 1,000 attacks reported between January and September, says human rights group Ain-o-Salish Kendra.
“Hang the rapists,” shouted protesters gathered in the capital Dhaka and elsewhere, hundreds of students among them. Many carried placards bearing messages such as “No mercy to rapists” and “Please tell me, am I next?”
This week’s protests have prompted the government to consider introducing the death penalty for offenders, with the cabinet set to receive a proposal for urgent amendments on Monday.
“We are making the proposal on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s orders,” Law Minister Anisul Huq told us. “We want to make sure those who are guilty get the highest punishment.”
Saturday’s demonstrations were sparked by a video of a group of men stripping and attacking a woman for almost half an hour in the southeastern district of Noakhali.
An investigation by an autonomous state body, the National Human Rights Commission, found the woman in the video had been raped repeatedly and terrorised with weapons by one of the group over the last year.
Also fuelling outcry was the gang rape of a woman in a hostel in the northern district of Sylhet that led to the arrests of several members of the student wing of the ruling party.
On Saturday, Huq, the law minister, vowed legal action against the criminals regardless of their political ties, saying he aimed for their punishment without “unnecessary” delays.
Many more rapes go unreported because women fear being stigmatised. Rights activists blame the increasing rapes on a lack of awareness, a culture of impunity and protection of suspects by influential individuals for political reasons.
Even when survivors file a complaint, prosecution is very rare and takes years to complete.
The United Nations and rights groups have called for urgent reform of the criminal justice system to ensure perpetrators are held responsible.