Sexual harassment is a paradigmatic act of violence that constitutes unwelcomed and unwarranted physical advances and sexual overtones. It ranges from verbal transgressions to physical abuse. It can happen anywhere starting from workplaces to educational institutions, public places, etc. Sexual harassment is not unique to Bangladesh; it is present in all nations of the world during this time of gender-based violence. The perpetrators and victims of sexual harassment can be both male and female.
SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN BANGLADESH
The severity of sexual harassment is often diluted in Bangladesh as well as in other South Asian countries by referring to it as ‘eve-teasing’. Using a euphemism for something grossly inappropriate reduces the realization of the extent of such action. By categorizing sexual harassment as “eve-teasing,” we are arguing that women are both teased and deserve to be teased in the same situation.
According to research conducted in Ain O Shalish Kendra, 46 women were reportedly harassed and 5 committed suicide in the time frame of January to March in 2020. A statistics from “Odhikar” show that 2830 girls were victims of stalking, 155 among them were attacked by their perpetrators from 2011-2019. 84% of Bangladeshi women and girls from seven cities are subjected to ‘derogatory comments and abusive language’ according to a study conducted by Action Aid in 2015.
Another study of Action Aid conducted in 2017 stated that a total of 54.7% of women living in urban areas face violence, including physical, psychological, financial, social violence as well as unwanted physical contact by strangers. Women face harassment while traveling to their workplace, by their co-workers in other places, and so on. In 1979, Professor Katharine Mackinnon wrote that “Economic power is to sexual harassment as physical force is to rape.”
In a study conducted by Action Aid, it was found that almost 80% of garment workers directly experienced or have witnessed sexual violence or harassment at work in Bangladesh. Around 83 percent of women who regularly avail of public transports in the country were sexually harassed by transport workers on the road. There was a survey that found 94% of women in the region reported being harassed in some way, resulting in uncomfortable situations, so they avoided public transportation by 20.5%. In 2019, there were 1,383 reports of sexual abuse, a dreadful 72.32% rise in comparison with last year. Sexual harassment in Bangladesh thrives on patriarchy, social stigma, lack of adequate laws, lack of implementation of laws, lack of awareness, gender inequality, and many other issues.
LEGAL FRAMEWORK OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN BANGLADESH
Section 354 of the Penal Code criminalizes assault or criminal force to a woman with intent to outrage her modesty with imprisonment of two years, or with a fine, or with both. Moreover, Section 509 permits prison sentences of up to a year for words, gestures, or acts intended to offend a woman’s modesty, as well as fines. Our neighboring country India carried out new amendments in the Indian Penal Code in 2013 concerning sexual harassment against women. According to section 354A, the subsequent activities by a man shall be treated as sexual harassment against women.
The Women and Children Repression Prevention Act 2000 introduced the term “Jounonipiron,” a legal term that criminalizes the act of anyone touching a woman or child or violating a woman’s modesty to illicitly fulfill their sexual desires. The punishment for aforesaid acts is from three to ten years in Section 10. The legislators of our country tend to implement legal reforms that increase the penalty for violence against women, without changing any of the archaic content and definitions of the offense. According to the Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ordinance 1976, teasing women is punishable by imprisonment for one year and a fine of up to 2,000 Taka or both. As stated in the Bangladesh Labor Act 2006, a worker can be dismissed for misconduct that constitutes sexual harassment.
Furthermore, after the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA) filed a writ petition under Article 102 of the Constitution, the High Court Division of Bangladesh’s Supreme Court issued 11-point directives aimed at preventing and redressing sexual harassment in the workplace and educational institutions. The leading Indian case Vishakha vs. the State of Rajasthan was discussed by the Supreme Court and also made it mandatory for educational institutions, and workplaces to constitute a five-member committee to prevent, and investigate allegations of sexual harassment. A study conducted by the Action Aid found that almost 87% of university students are not aware of the directions, and 64.5% of professionals are not aware of them as well.
According to Article 19(1), (2), and (3) of the constitution, there shall be opportunity equality, and governments will take measures to eliminate inequality and ensure women’s involvement in all aspects of national life. Additionally, Article 27 stipulates that all citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to the same level of legal protection.
As stated in Article 28(1), (2), and (3), the state shall not discriminate based on gender, and women shall have the same rights as men in all areas of public life, including employment. Additionally, Article 28(4) provides that the State may adopt laws in favor of women. There is mention of equal opportunity in public employment in Article 29 (1), (2), and (3). Article 32 provides that no one shall be deprived of life or personal liberty or security by law. Violations of the fundamental rights outlined in articles 27, 28, 29, and 32 can be compensated for in court.
A law incriminating sexual harassment, having a concrete definition of it, and penalties should be enacted. To fill lacuna in existing legislation, reference to international legal documents, including those of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), to which Bangladesh is a signatory, can be made.
Not having an unambiguous definition of sexual harassment in-laws often refrain the victims to understand when someone passes a sexual innuendo aiming at them. CEDAW tried to define sexual harassment in a general recommendation adopted by the committee. Sections 354 and 509 of the Penal Code, as well as Section 10 of the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act 2000, should be amended to eliminate archaic gender-biased terminology such as “woman’s modesty”.
The scenario of sexual harassment in Bangladesh has perpetually worsened from British American Tobacco Company Ltd vs. Begum Shamsun Nahar to the Nusrat Jahan Rafi murder case. Sexual harassment curbs a woman’s right to equality and employment. Laws against sexual harassment may not be a permanent cure but they are crucially important as a first step. However, a cluster of laws without proper implementation would not serve the purpose. Consequently, the Bangladeshi government must enact laws with effective penalties as soon as possible to protect women against sexual harassment, both in public and at work. It should be ensured that no perpetrator will enjoy impunity after committing such a heinous offense. It can aspire that sexual harassment would not impede a woman’s path to equality, education, and employment.
Author’s Name: Md. Shawkat Alam Faisal (University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh)
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 The Penal Code 1860, s 354.
 Ibid, s 509.
 The Indian Penal Code 1860 (Amended in 2013), s 354A.
 Women and Children Repression Prevention Act 2000, s 10.
 Huda, Taqbir, ‘Sexual Harassment and the Law: Where’s the Problem’; available at: https://www.thedailystar.net/opinion/human-rights/news/sexual-harassment-and-the-law-wheres-the-problem-1762759, last accessed 17 April, 2020.
 The Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ordinance, 1976.
 The Bangladesh Labor Act, 2006.
 The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, art 102.
 Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association vs. Government of Bangladesh and Ors, (29 BLD HCD 415).
 Vishakha vs. State of Rajasthan, AIR 1997 SC 3011.
 Sexual Harassment at Educational Institution and workplaces: Implementation Status of the 2009 Supreme Court Guideline.
 The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, art 19.
 Ibid, art 27.
 Ibid, art 28.
 Ibid, art 29.
 Ibid, art 32.
 Ibid, art 44.
 General Recommendations Adopted by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, General Recommendation No. 19: Violence Against Women, 1992, Article 11.
 British American Tobacco Company Ltd vs. Begum Shamsun Nahar, 66 DLR (AD) 80.
 Sabbir, Mir, “Burned to death for reporting sexual harassment“, BBC News, accessed on 19 April, 2021.