- An 18-year-old woman in Bangladesh was burned to death in April after coming forward with allegations that the headmaster of her Islamic school touched her inappropriately on multiple occasions.
- Nusrat Jahan Rafi’s death has sparked a global outcry and raised questions over gender inequality and coming forward about sexual assault in Bangladesh.
- In 2018, there were more than 730 rape cases reported in Bangladesh, according to a Bangladeshi human rights organisation, with Human Rights Watch arguing that the actual rape numbers are likely higher but never reported due to stigma around reporting sexual assault.
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Protests have erupted in Bangladesh’s capital of Dhaka after an 18-year-old woman was burned to death for coming forward with allegations that the headmaster of her madrasa, or Islamic school, touched her inappropriately on multiple ocassions.
Nusrat Jahan Rafi shocked her hometown of Feni – a small, conservative village around 100 miles outside of Dhaka – in late March when she filed a police report against the headmaster, Maulana Siraj Ud Doula, alleging sexual assault. The family received threats from the community after the complaint went public, Nusrat’s brother told the Daily Star, and they were warned not to move forward with the case.
Earlier this month, Nusrat was lured to the roof of her school by another classmate who told her a friend was being beaten up. But, her friend wasn’t there; rather, she was greeted by four to five people clad in burqas, according to BBC News, who demanded that she retract her case against the headmaster, who had been arrested over the allegations.
When the teen refused, she was tied down, doused in kerosene, and set on fire. Her killers wanted the incident to look like a suicide, Police Bureau of Investigation chief Banaj Kumar Majumder told BBC News, but their plan was thwarted when Nusrat was rescued and taken to a hospital, eventually transferring to a medical facility in Dhaka to treat the burns. In the ambulance, knowing her chances of survival were slim, she recorded her testimony of the incident to her brother’s phone.
Four days after the attack, and with burns covering 80 per cent of her body, Nusrat died. One of 18 people arrested in connection with her death said that Ud Doula, the headmaster, had ordered the killing, according to AFP.
A global outcry
Nusrat’s vicious murder has sparked outcry across the world and raised questions over gender inequality and coming forward about sexual assault in Bangladesh.
During a Saturday protest in Dhaka, people took to the streets to chant slogans and demand the death sentence for Nusrat’s killers, the AFP reported. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has promised to prosecute those involved, telling BDNews24.com “they won’t be spared… I think they must face exemplary punishment so that such incidents do not happen again.”
Nusrat wasn’t the only woman to be preyed on by the headmaster. An inquiry by Bangladesh’s National Human Rights Commission found that others had accused Ud Doula of sexual misconduct, and blamed the police for shoddy handling of Nusrat’s complaint.
“We questioned [the madrasa committee] how [the headmaster] was appointed as principal despite having this kind of past,” the commission’s chairman, Kazi Reazul Haque said at a press conference, according to The Guardian. “[The committee] could not give us an answer.”
Mia Seppo, UN resident coordinator in Bangladesh, described Nusrat’s death as “the system’s failure” to protect Bangladeshi girls from gender-based violence, and rights groups have said that the uptick in rape and sexual assault cases is due to an overwhelming failure by authorities to prosecute attackers.
A Human Rights Watch report cited long court cases, humiliation and blaming at police stations and hospitals, pressure from the public officials and the accused to drop cases, and harassment during defence questioning in court as reasons why victims are discouraged from coming forward or seeking a legal remedy in response to their assaults.
“The horrifying murder of a brave woman who sought justice shows how badly the Bangladesh government has failed victims of sexual assault,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement, adding that Nusrat’s death highlights “the need for the Bangladesh government to take survivors of sexual assault seriously.”
In 2018, there were more than 730 rape cases reported in Bangladesh, according to a Bangladeshi human rights organisation, with Human Rights Watch arguing that the actual rape numbers are likely higher but never reported due to stigma around reporting sexual assault. A women’s rights group in the country found that between January 2011 and June 2018, out of 4,372 rape cases in six Bangladeshi districts, only five resulted in convictions.
Just a week after Nusrat’s slaying, on April 15, a woman in the city of Chattogram was stabbed and killed while trying to resist rape, according to the Daily Star. Her husband told the publication that the two suspects had entered their bedroom while his wife was sleeping and that she died immediately of her stab wounds.
“What was her fault?” Nusrat’s mother asked reporters in the wake of her daughter’s murder. “She just wanted justice and filed the case so that the principal cannot commit such a crime again.”
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