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Protesting against intimidation in Bangladesh

In the capital Dhaka, a rally has been held by groups of school and college students protesting against the sexual harassment of women in Bangladesh. This is the latest in a series of protests after a number of people have died following sexual bullying. Already this year there have been 24 tragic deaths, including a teacher who was murdered after taking a stand against such bullying and a mother who was run over for protesting when her daughter was targeted. Activists are now demanding the government does more to protect women.

Sexual harassment, also known as ‘Eve teasing’, is widespread in Bangladesh. Young women regularly face verbal abuse and taunts from men in the street, who will even resort to stalking them. But it is rare for men to be arrested or punished for sexual harassment. Because of the stigma felt by the families of girls who become victims, most prefer not to pursue any court cases. Some Islamic parties are calling for girls to wear veils in order to escape such abuse. But women’s rights groups insist that tougher legislation is needed to stop the practice.

One such organisation, Ain-O-Shalish Kendra (ASK), believes that victims are unwilling to report abuse, because they do not believe the police can help them. ASK is particularly concerned about the number of young girls taking their own lives, feeling that suicide is their only avenue to escape harassment. One such girl was 13-year old Nashfia Akhand, a ninth-grade student who was stalked for several months by a male neighbour as she made her way to and from school. Nashfia’s uncle said she suffered “serious mental torment” after a stream of assaults and indecent verbal abuse from the man which lead to her hanging herself with a scarf. In her suicide note, Nashfia described how onlookers had “laughed” when she was assaulted in front of her house.

Officials in the district of Tangail have offered girls karate training, so they feel better able to protect themselves. But for the women taking part in the protests, only tougher new laws will suffice. The government is certainly sympathetic to the protestor’s concerns. Earlier this year, the Bangladeshi Education Minister admitted it was no exaggeration to say that streets and school areas are unsafe for young girls because of Eve-teasing stalkers. The Minister expressed concerns about the drop-out rates of female students from many schools and also the increasing tendency of parents to push their daughters into early marriage to save them from sexual abuse. Following the recent spate of deaths, the Bangladeshi High Court has added its voice to the issue, asking the government to introduce new measures against the stalking of girls.

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