Despite a sharp rise in incidents of violence against women and children in recent years, we're alarmed by the consistent failure to comply with a High Court directive to form a cell to monitor progress in rape prosecutions and establish the accountability of court officials including judges, public prosecutors and investigation officers. Over three years ago, the HC had directed the registrar general of the Supreme Court to form this cell. If implemented, this would have played a vital role in ensuring that trials of cases under the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act, 2000 (WCRPA) are completed within 180 days. It would have also enabled the authorities to check possible negligence by court officials to finish trials on time and take appropriate action. Such flagrant disregard for an HC directive, by the Supreme Court administration no less, despite repeated appeals by anti-rape activists and civil society members, only validates the claim by the latter of deep-seated institutional apathy to prosecuting rape cases with the urgency that they deserve.
Part of the reason for the current culture of impunity emboldening rapists is the extremely low rape conviction rate in Bangladesh. According to section 20 of the WCRPA, the Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunals (there are 95 across the country) must finish the trials of cases filed under this law within 180 days of charge framing. Rape is one of the several offences that these tribunals try. Forming a monitoring cell will address only part of the problem, however, as victims often have to endure some combination of disrespect, negligence and prohibitive barriers throughout the justice-seeking process—starting from the initial reporting of a crime through to investigation and trial. This points to a larger socio-institutional problem for which wider reforms are needed. Experts have, therefore, called for a number of legal and institutional measures to empower victims to seek and get justice, including changing the definition of rape to include all victims, regardless of their gender identity or marital status, prohibiting the use of character evidence in rape trials, enacting a Victim and Witness Protection Act, and importantly, training police and court officials on dealing with sexual and gender-based violence, among other initiatives.
Having a monitoring cell to regularly check the progress of trials and ensure the accountability of relevant court officials can be a vital instrument, if not the only one, in ensuring justice for the victims. We urge the Supreme Court administration to step up to the plate and set an example for all justice sector actors so that they play the role necessary to uproot the culture of rape from our society. There can be no excuse for any delay in this regard, given how widespread and dangerous the culture of rape and other forms of violence against women has become.