Delusion Vs Reality

Delusion Vs Reality

April 17, 2019

Sabrina Zarin

Sabrina Zarin is a partner at FM Associates, Barrister at The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn, Advocate at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and is Admitted to Practice at the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. FM Associates is among the very few leading Law Firm in Dhaka and Chittagong, Bangladesh who has the best and specialised lawyers in Bangladesh and also meets the standard of the International Legal Community in many different horizons. Its biggest achievement lies in the satisfaction of its clients in every possible manner.

WIL: Reports of violence and harassment are on the rise. What else is needed along with women empowerment for a harassment free society?

SZ: We have seen that women are exploring different spheres of life, women are leading in places too. So, it is seen that sexual harassment is on the rise. In our country there isn’t any sexual harrasment law, unlike in America or other countries, to be specific.

In Bangladesh we have penal codes, laws regarding repression of violence against women and children, pornography act, telecommunication act, and in 2018 we got digital security act which covers a lot of things. However, sexual harassment is neither defined nor is there a law for it. In absence of that, where there isn’t any law for it, how can we expect for law enforcement to be implemented there.

In 2009, there had been a writ petition which included guidelines about what sexual harassment is, what actions should be taken in case of being sexually harassed, how can it be prevented, how awareness can be created, the complaint procedure, how actions will be taken and also if it happens in future what sort of actions can be taken. So, it covers all the aspects. But, even after these directions were given, till today we still haven’t gotten the law.

However, as a starting point, since there hasn’t been a law yet, all the private, public and non-government organizations, and educational institutions, if there are individual sexual harassment guidelines at these places then that will be a good start. For example, there are various HR policies, a simple policy regarding this will be sufficient. For instance, our law firm prepares such manuals if people ask us.

It is very simple, firstly, there has to be mention of what is sexual harassment just like the previous guidelines we talked about. Then comes, the procedures, how to complain, how actions are going to be taken, who will be in the committee, what will be the structure of the committee, that’s very important.

The first thing would be to format the law, and in that aspect every institution should develop their own guidelines. Along with this, whenever we get into a workplace there should be orientation. We actually had conducted a survey, 64.5% of urban population who don’t know what sexual harassment is or that they have a right. People aren’t even aware.

So, that’s one way how I think we can empower women if we work on that. That’s all about the law, now coming to the practical applicability, our constitution tells us a lot of things about our rights. For instance, right for freedom of choosing a profession, right to protection of law, right to not to be discriminated in terms of colour or sex and so on. People don’t even know what is written in the constitution. But there are a lot of things in our constitution and we need to know it. The articles are all available as they are all public documents; they are available online.

There isn’t any awareness about it. It started very recently, let’s see what happens in future. That is probably the first thing that we can deal with.

WIL: Do the mass have clear legal notion of women’s rights? Or, is it less reached to people who need it most?

SZ: As I said earlier, people are not even aware of their rights. Forgetting the fact that there isn’t any law about it, people don’t even know that they have rights. What we need in this case is counselling, seminars, workshops, build awareness etc.

It has been started already at many places, but we cannot stop here, we have to continue. People are getting socially aware, and it’s not about reaching out to people. There are social media, news media and so many other sources these days, it has now become easier to pass on a message. The world has gotten really fast. There is internet even in the rural areas.

Another way to create social awareness would be to introduce this in the syllabus of schools, colleges and universities. Also, various teams can visit these places to educate the students about sexual harassment. One way can be creating feature documentaries and then screen it from place to place.

But even before that, the first thing to be done is for the parents to be knowledgeable about these things. If the parents know about it then so will the children. These ideas have to reach everywhere. Now, everybody is ready to listen, the change is ongoing, and we have to incorporate this into our system. We need to know our rights, laws and the constitution and abide by it.

WIL: In our context, why women’s rights are less realized even by women?

SZ: The first issue regarding this is social stigma. The ‘#me_too’ movement, when it started in the USA it spread all over the world within a few days. But, in Bangladesh only a few people participated. Compared to India, the participation is so meagre. This is because women think a lot about what other people will think about them.

We need to work together. I know the type of society we are living in. but, now women are realizing this and their minds are changing.

WIL: Due to social taboo, do the women hardly take the legal shelter even when they are victimized by any means? How can such crisis be resolved?

SZ: There are a lot of factors working here. If we are talking about rape cases, the victim is never prepared about the occurance of rape. Before all the social issues and physical pain it is about the emotional trauma that is unbearable. When someone overcomes all these and get the courage to make a complaint, they are the real fighters.
The way is to make a complaint right then. Many people don’t take any legal shelter due to cases where a girl has gotten raped. Also there are cases where they have gotten justice. There are examples of all of these.

That’s why many people don’t take any legal shelter, also in case of domestic violence, people are getting divorced. The rate of divorce is also getting high as a result. There are guidelines and if we can act upon it, a lot of things will be sorted.

WIL: How the rural women who have less knowledge of rights and justice can be empowered?

SZ: If we go back to the old days, when there was no family planning or procedures, we have seen that team used to visit localities whether from the government or NGOs, and explain possibilities to them. It is very important to have a door to door discussion about this issue and spreading awareness. When one person starts talking it spreads out.

WIL: Share your experience and struggle as a woman in your career.

SZ: There have been cases of harassment in the private sector and the girl reported it to the HR. then they came to us to take us as a third party and then found out the truth and solved the matter. There must be others who are also doing the similar, and, regarding that case we were happy that we have been able to get to the truth about the culprit.

WIL: What’s your suggestion for today’s youth which motivates them to form a society with equity and gender-violence-free?

SZ: As I have said before, seminars, team visits and the formation of guidelines and introducing those guidelines is the best possible way for today’s youth to form any type of equity. A mutual co-operation between both the genders is necessary for forming a society which is free from gender violence.

Barrister Rashna Imam

Barrister Rashna Imam, an Oxford scholar, is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and the Managing Partner of Akhtar Imam & Associates. She is a learned person who not only fights for justice, but also proclaims the issues and solutions that are required to be addressed in this male-dominated society.

WIL: With the rise of economic participation of women over the years, reported incidents of discrimination, violence and sexual harassment in workplaces and educational institutions have also risen. Besides empowering women, what can be done to combat this situation?
RI: The Honorable High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh has issued legally binding Guidelines for prevention of sexual harassment in educational institutions and workplaces in both public and private sectors in 2009. These Guidelines provide a well and broad minded definition of sexual harassment and the various ways it manifests itself in, legal obligations on authorities, effective mechanisms to address such issues such as a complaint committee and obligatory investigation and reporting to the authorities. Having said that, educational institutions and their student bodies are now taking initiatives to raise awareness and put systems in place. I was recently asked to speak on this issue to the student body of North South University (NSU). The level of interest not only from the students but also from the faculty members and the administration of NSU was commendable and gave me hope.

WIL: Women are the primary recipient of offensive and often aggressive sexual advances and defamatory messages in cyberspace from anonymous and fake sources. What legal remedies are available to them?

RI: Cyber stalking, revenge porn, cyber-bullying, trolling, false and altered unclothed pictures of women along with spam, sex-act videos, rape threats, and indecent proposals have become the new norm of social media. Whilst there are healthy sexual outlets for people, such as, there are plenty of places online where a woman may not feel safe interacting thanks to this harassment. A number of legal remedies are available to them in the form of criminal prosecution which covers the Penal Code, Pornography Control Act, Suppression of Violence against Women Act and the Children Act all of whom carry hefty penalties for any act carried out against women deemed harmful. In addition to prosecution, the victim may seek help of the law enforcement agencies to block the objectionable content online or may file a civil case seeking injunction and damages.

WIL: In our context, why are women reluctant to claim and fight for their own rights? What are the possible solutions?

RI: Multiple factors are responsible. Fear of social stigma, lack of awareness of the law, their legal rights and available legal remedies, limited financial resources, complicated and long drawn out legal procedures play a role. Simply put, the solutions include economic empowerment and education, both formal and informal. Speaking of education care must be taken to ensure that gender discriminatory content is not introduced into the textbooks in schools across the country. For example, the content of textbooks for Home Science, which is only taught to women in our schools under the national curriculum is in dire need of revision if we are to bring about a change in mindset. A chapter on self defence should not be focused on appropriate clothing as that shifts the blame of a sexual offence onto the victim.

WIL: Please share your own experiences and struggles as a woman in the legal profession.

RI: It’s been over fifteen years since I stepped into the legal profession in Bangladesh. Yet, each day comes with a new set of challenges. The legal profession here is completely male dominated with little to no representation of women in the top tiers of the bar. Litigation, as opposed to corporate or chamber practice is even more challenging for a woman as clients typically believe that a woman is not aggressive enough to survive in the courts of Bangladesh. Thus, I had to work twice as much to prove myself again and again.

WIL: Why do you think the legal profession is male dominated?

RI: Multiple factors play a role here such as, long working hours and absence of a supportive family environment. When the choice is between looking after the children and family elders and practicing, the choice almost always is the former. I have personally lost a number of bright young female juniors to this problem. As for the judiciary, we now have a number of outstanding female judges in the Supreme Court, which is a welcome and much needed change, but the numbers still leave a lot to be desired.

WIL: What suggestions do you have for today’s youth, both male and female, for working towards building an equitable society free from gender-based violence and discrimination?

RI: Men and women have to work together to build a more just and equitable society. Gender equality is a constitutional obligation, an international obligation (Bangladesh being a party to core international human rights treaties, some of which recognize the rights of women and girls to safety and security like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, etc) and a moral obligation. While these three reasons may not resonate with the male of the human species, the next one is bound to. A recent report of Mckenzie Global Institute predicted that if women participate in the global economy identically to men, by 2025, this would add $28 trillion to the annual global GDP. This impact is roughly equivalent to the size of the combined US and Chinese economies today. Thus the necessity of equality is further established since building a safe place for women in educational and workplaces is not only the right thing to do, but it is a smart thing to do as well.

Israr Hasan
Studying at BRAC University

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