And the pain lingers on…

December 20, 2007

 Violence against women cuts across social and economic situations and is deeply embedded in cultures around the world – so much so that millions of women consider it a way of life.   — Cate Johnson

   As darkness descends and silence surfaces, she shuts every window of her room. She bolts the door from insider and switches on the light – it won’t be switched off until morning. Then she goes to the bathroom, sits on the floor and turns on the shower. As cold water pours over her body, she scrubs every part of body. ‘The smell refuses to go away,’ she mutters, as tears roll down her cheeks and mixed indiscernibly with the bathwater.

   This has been the routine for Tania (not her real name) for the past two years.

   The family was ecstatic. Her uncle had come to visit them after a long break.

   ‘He went to Sweden when I was about nine,’ recalls Tania. ‘I had vague but unpleasant memories about him. He would make me sit on his lap and kiss me whenever he got a chance. There was something about the way he would touch me that made me disgusted and frightened. Once I talked to ma [mother] about this. She slapped me and said such a though should never cross my mind. After all, he was like a father to me.’

   Seven years later when he came back, Tania had grown into a beautiful young woman. ‘The moment he hugged me tight, the memories flashed back. I knew what he was after.’

   However, she could not talk to anyone about her fears. Her father had left them years ago and her uncle’s visit to their house meant they might get some financial support from her paternal family. ‘Moreover, my mother had started to like him,’ Tania says.

   She tried hard to avoid him but he would always find ways to hold her from behind, bump into her, caress her and sometimes force her to sit on her lap. One night, as she went to the kitchen to get some water, her uncle grabbed her from behind. ‘I just ran out of the kitchen and went straight to ma. I knew there was no point in telling her but still I hoped she would believe me this time around. She didn’t. Instead, she said I must have done something; after all, he did not touch my sister. I went back to my room thinking something might be wrong with me.’

   Her fears were not unreal.

   That very night, Tania woke up with a start. There was someone beside her. ‘I tried to scream but he held my mouth,’ she shudders as she recalls the dreadful night.

   She was raped again and again, for hours, by her own uncle.

   ‘It’s not a big deal, ma says. She says every girl is subjected to one form of abuse or the other,’ Tania says disdainfully.

   ‘It haunts me every moment, every day. Those images keep coming back and his smell would just not go away. Sometimes I blame myself and sometimes I blame everyone for letting it happen.’

   Tania is not an exception. Studies show that around the world, at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some other way — most often by someone she knows, including her husband or another male member of the family or a man she has been close to.

   The World Health Organisation has recently surveyed 24,000 women in 10 countries, including Japan and Brazil, and Ethiopia and Bangladesh. The survey report, titled ‘Multi country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women’, said one in every six women surveyed were abused and domestic violence was more prevalent in poorer countries like Bangladesh.

   The percentage of women who had been physically or sexually attacked by their partners in the preceding year was 4 in Japan and Serbia, compared with between 30 and 54 in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Peru and Tanzania.

   While the survey report indicates a significant incidence of sexual abuse – within the family or outside – there are very few cases that are reported. Moreover, little has been done to prevent such incidents or support the women who have undergone such physical and mental trauma.

   Experts blame such inactions on patriarchy.

   ‘We live in a patriarchal society,’ says Farida Akhtar, executive director of UBINIG. ‘The sources of power and authority within the family, society and the state remain in the hands of men. It’s more like the power relation that we see between a rich and a poor country. The power relation exists between men and women. Men in this case hold the power.’

   It is due to the traditional setting of society that such incidents continue to occur, agrees Sultana Kamal, executive director, Ain O Salish Kendra and a former advisor to the caretaker government. ‘In a patriarchal society, rules, laws and norms are all set by the dominant group, i.e. men. Over the years, society has come to a unique understanding – that is to be in denial over such issues, shirk from such responsibilities and blame women.’

   There are countless incidents that show women have been blamed and further humiliated after being sexually assaulted. ‘Badhon’s case is an example of how the state and society chose to shirk from its responsibility and impose further humiliation on women,’ says Sultana Kamal.

   In 2000, Badhan, a young woman, joined others in New Year’s celebrations on the Dhaka University campus, perhaps believing she would be safe. As she reached the venue, she was greeted with obscene remarks. At one point, she was almost stripped naked and molested by a gang of men, while the police and a host of others looked on.

   When the case went to the court of law, the state and society revealed their ignorance about the basic rights of women. According to a BBC report, Joynal Hazari, then a lawmaker from Feni, said the woman assaulted on New Year’s eve was herself to blame for the attack. Moreover, Badhon was blamed to have worn ‘inappropriate clothes’ and ‘being out so late at night.’

   ‘When you see countless incidents such as these, you better remain silent. After all, it’s the woman who has to lose everything she has,’ says Razia Sultana, a 45-year-old housewife.

   ‘Our society has been shaped with certain beliefs and norms from which it refuses to shift,’ says Ferdousi Hannan, who teaches sociology at Dhaka University. ‘Issues and reactions such as this stem from the culture of silence on part of women. In many ways, we can say, when a victim is being blamed like this, it is society’s attempt to deny such crude facts.’

   ‘Since childhood, we have been told that women have to go through one form of abuse or the other,’ says Munia, a 20-year-old garment worker. ‘It is never even considered that the abuser may be at fault. I guess it is a part of life that we have to live with.’

   ‘Society’s attitude towards women who have been abused is appalling,’ says Farida Akhtar. ‘Most of the time, if not always, the woman is looked down upon, as though she has called such incidents upon herself. Not only does she endure the mental trauma but she also takes on the humiliation. So, it’s not the abuser who is answerable or under question.’

   Justification for violence stems from gender norms — distorted views about the roles and responsibilities of men and women in relationships, adds Farida.

   It is due to this long-standing humiliation that women take the blame upon themselves and often come to justify it in their own terms, say experts.

   ‘In most cases, a woman who has been abused seems to believe that it is her fault and that she has brought it upon herself,’ says Dr Omar Rahman, pro-vice chancellor of the Independent University of Bangladesh and research fellow for psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

   According to him, about 95 per cent of the times, cases show that the sexual assault was done by someone in the family or someone close. ‘That is exactly the reason for the silence. Because, according to the traditional norms of society, the respect for family comes first. Hence, even if a family member abuses or rapes a woman, the woman remains silent.’

   Although more recent and known cases such as those of Tania, Sheema, Swapna, etc are related to poor families, experts say there are, in fact, an alarmingly high number of cases among middle-class and affluent families and in almost all the cases, the victims chose to remain silent.

   ‘There is a preconceived notion that such sexual assaults only happen to the poor. It is through cases and patients who come to us that we see a significant percentage of the victims are from affluent families,’ says Dr Omar. ‘The prevalence of incest is also significantly high. Often, girls are abused by their family members when they are as young as six or so.’

   ‘Ironically, women living in the remote villages are more vocal about such issues,’ UM Habibun Nessa, member of Nari Pokkho and also a lawyer of the Supreme Court. ‘Women in villages and poorer families have begun to speak about it and share it with others. But this is not true in case of middle-class or affluent families. They tend to remain silent so as not to embarrass the family.’

   ‘The middle-class women, even if they are abused and tortured by their husbands or someone close, often chose to remain silent,’ agrees Farida Akhtar. ‘This is because she feels a greater sense of insecurity than a poor woman does. She thinks she has more to lose than a poor woman.’

   Many rapes go unreported because of the stigma and trauma associated with them and the lack of sympathetic treatment from the legal system, say experts.

   ‘In fact, we do not even see statistics or research on issues because women often refuse to speak up,’ says Ferdousi Hannan. ‘Women who have experienced violence in their life end up having all kinds of problems, physical and psychological. They generally have miscarriages and abortions. Also, many of them display suicidal tendencies.’

   ‘In order to prevent such incidents, we need to ensure that every educational institute and workplace, be it in rural or urban areas, has a comfort zone for women, where they may speak up and not keep it bottled up. That way, not only will the families be aware of the truth but society will also know such cases are coming to light and being accepted, instead of being rejected outright,’ says Habibun Nessa.

   Many agree that there has been a significant improvement over the past one decade. ‘People do see it as a crime and they are more sensitive to such issues,’ says Habibun Nessa.

   ‘Women have certainly become more vocal about such issues,’ says Sultana Kamal. ‘In the past ten years, there has been a great degree of women’s movement. However, on an individual level, at the core of the social system, we have in many ways failed to bring a change. It is the state, the laws, the norms that are made from a male perspective that need to be changed. The root cause and power play of dominance need to be changed in order to break this vicious cycle.’

   ‘Sexual abuse is always a harsh truth to deal with. Even those hear who comes to know about one such case or the other prefer not to delve into it because of the horror associated with it. For those who go through such experiences, they are scarred for life. Most of the time, women are unable to deal with it. Very few women actually come out of it, although that incident remains with them for the rest of their lives,’ Dr Omar says.


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