Rights Advocacy 16 Days of Activism Campaign
Revisiting the laws curbing Sexual Harassment in Bangladesh
Sexual harassment against women and girls continues to be an endemic issue in our society. A 2016 data published by Ain O Shalish Kendra (ASK), a legal aid and human rights organization, revealed 244 reported incidents of sexual harassment experienced by women and girls. Out of this total number, 178 women sustained injuries from being attacked by their stalkers, 7 women were murdered when they protested against the harassment, 6 women committed suicide due to being sexually harassed and 5 girls stopped going to school to avoid their harasser.
There is no law that adequately addresses all aspects of sexual harassment. Punitive laws such as the Penal Code 1860 (Section 509) and the Nari-o-Shishu Nirjaton Domon Ain 2000 (Section 10) only addresses sexual harassment insofar as to indecent behaviours which only includes obscene gestures and words towards any woman.
With regard to sexual harassment in workplaces and educational institutions, the High Court delivered a landmark judgment on the 14th of May, 2009. In its judgment, the Court observed the inadequacy of safeguards against sexual abuse and harassment of women at work places and educational institutions and issued directives in the form of guidelines. Moreover, the High Court directed the government to make a law on the basis of the guidelines and ruled that the guidelines will be treated as a law until the law is made. The Court also directed concerned authorities to form a five-member harassment complaint committee headed by a woman at every workplace and institution to investigate allegations of harassment of women.
According to the 2009 High Court judgment, the definition of sexual harassment was spelled out to include the following: (a) Unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) as physical contact and advances; (b) Attempts or efforts to establish physical relation having sexual implication by abuse of administrative, authoritative or professional powers; (c) Sexually coloured verbal representation; (d) Demand or request for sexual favours;(e) Showing pornography; (f) Sexually coloured remark or gesture; (g) Indecent gesture, teasing through abusive language, stalking, joking having sexual implication; (h) Insult through letters, telephone calls, cell phone calls, SMS, pottering, notice, cartoon, writing on bench, chair, table, notice boards, walls of office, factory, classroom, washroom having sexual implication. (i) Taking still or video photographs for the purpose of blackmailing and character assassination; (j) Preventing participation in sports, cultural, organizational and academic activities on the ground of sex and/or for the purpose of sexual harassment; (k) Making love proposal and exerting pressure or posing threats in case of refusal to love proposal; (l) Attempt to establish sexual relation by intimidation, deception or false assurance.
The Constitution of Bangladesh clearly sets out the rights of every citizen of Bangladesh. As part of your constitutional right, you are entitled to equal protection of the law and to be free from all forms of discrimination. You have the right to participate in all parts private and public life and have an equal standing with men in that regard. One of the most crucial rights that you have under our Constitution is the right to personal life and liberty. Any discrimination against you or any interference with your life and liberty is, therefore, a gross violation of your constitutional rights.
Bangladesh is also a State party to a number of core international human rights treaties including the Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW). Under its international obligations, it has a duty to respect, protect and promote human rights of its citizens. As part of this duty, Bangladesh is obliged to take all measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women and ensure that they are treated equally before the law and have unrestricted access to legal protection, rights and remedies.
What can we do?
l Read and understand sexual harassment in workplaces and educational institutions using the following link: http://www.supremecourt.gov.bd/resources/documents/276907_Writ_Petition_5916_08.pdf.
l Spread the word about the guideline on sexual harassment.
l Inquire about whether there is a Sexual Harassment Complaint Committee in your workplace or educational institution and understand the complaint process that ought to be followed to make such a complaint. The High Court guideline recommends such complaints be made within 30 working days from the day of occurrence.
l Remember that there is a National Helpline where you can report any violence against women and children by dialling 109 (a 24-hour toll-free number).
Nawmi Naz Chowdhury is a Barrister. She is currently working at Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust.