A photo taken at the recent protests against rape has been making the rounds on social media. In the image, a tea-seller named Abdul Jalil Shwapan—or “Shwapan Mama” as he is fondly known to the students of the campus—holds up a placard demanding death for the rapists of both the DU student whose rape has shaken up the system, as well as that of his own child.
His daughter, aged 20, who also happens to be speech-impaired, was raped in 2018 by her 55-year-old neighbour. The rape accused was released on bail and has now lodged a burglary case against Shwapan Mama. The case rolls on while Shwapan Mama braves the winter to demand justice for his daughter, along with the other daughters of the country.
This, unfortunately, is what happens to most rape cases in the country—nothing.
You see, right now, good times prevail. One gets raped, and the rapist is caught within a record 48 hours—as happened in the case of the DU rape victim, or within 24 hours—as in the cases of the Dhamrai ceramic factory worker and the girl gang-raped in Kamrangirchar. Law enforcers are leaving no stone unturned in finding rapists as soon as the incidents are reported. It is a truly commendable attitude that is bringing much reassurance to the lives of the survivors.
But I can’t help but wonder where this pro-survivor, go-getter attitude was when Priyanka Rani Davnath was raped. She did not have a nation rallying for her, and so found herself trying to move a system that had little willingness to be moved.
Last year the Star Weekend magazine published an article about her struggle for justice titled “The Burden of Proof” to demonstrate just how difficult it is for rape survivors to navigate the system. Raped, traumatised and bleeding, Priyanka had delivered herself to Dhaka Medical College Hospital right after the incident for DNA testing. She pushed her investigating officer (IO) for months to find the rapists, even as he abused his position to flirt with her. She convinced the police station to change her IO to a female one so that she could stop being harassed by the very cop assigned to investigate her case. Seeing no progress even after three months, Priyanka organised a press conference where male journalists showed up to ask her gory details about the rape, and finally dismissed her as incoherent and not newsworthy.
There’s more. Her new IO was hardly proactive. Instead, she asked her to find out where her rapist lives—even though the rapist could easily have been tracked using his phone number. Priyanka went on to the Police Bureau of Investigation (PBI) to request them to take over her case. To their credit, they did, but they also told Priyanka to create a fake online personality, befriend her rapist, and lure him to a location to be arrested. And so, she did, reliving the trauma of communicating for several months with the man who had violated her. She cornered the man in a previously agreed-upon location, where the police were hiding, and he was finally caught.
I will not forget the way she burst into loud tears of relief in the middle of a busy Dhaka street as she watched her rapist being shoved into a police van. At least a part of the exhausting marathon for justice had just come to an end for her—now onto the next of fighting the court battle.
And let’s not even get into the case of Sohagi Jahan Tonu, who was gang-raped and left to die in May of 2016. Her body was exhumed and she went through two rounds of DNA testing, while masses of people took to the streets and social media with hashtags like #justicefortonu. They found three distinct DNA samples on her… and that is where the case stopped, buried deep in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), one of the elite investigation agencies in the country.
One has to wonder whether the suspects in this case are going free because they are more than just addled junkies from the street—why else have Tonu’s rapists not been arrested in four years, even when their DNA is available?
The fact that the state got a DNA match as soon as possible in the case of the DU rape survivor is also an anomaly. As Fahmida Akhter, lawyer of the One Stop Crisis Centre (OCC), says, “It takes more than a month for the medical report of most rape victims to be submitted.”
“Since the process can be quite lengthy, many victims cannot keep up and choose to settle out-of-court, leaving the rapist free from imprisonment,” Akhter says. A Prothom Alo investigation from 2018 found out that 41 percent of the legal cases at the Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunal lost steam through the judicial process. “[The survivors] receive money from the rapists or they are threatened into withdrawing the case. There are even cases of rape survivors being married off to their rapists,” explains Akhter.
It must also be said that—while being very commendable—there is a distinct difference in how the state has dealt with the DU rape survivor, and the kind of experience other rape survivors go through.
Even last Thursday, when the rapist Majnu and the DU rape survivor were being brought to court, the court took special measures to protect the girl from trauma. They hid her under a burkha and stealthily sneaked her into a magistrate’s room. Meanwhile, other rape survivors sat around with their families and IOs in the ground floor parking lot of the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Court, or hung out in the balconies outside the courtrooms waiting for their turn at justice.
While the state’s efforts to be sensitive to the DU rape survivor is definitely to be lauded, we must ask why the same is not being accorded to the other cases where there isn’t public scrutiny. The state itself is setting the standard, showing what they are capable of doing when they have the political will to do so. Then why does it not?
We understand that the perpetrator is a serial rapist. So, we entreat the law enforcers to take his DNA sample and match it with the DNA records of past OCC victims to see if there are any matches. Interrogate him and make him identify the women he has preyed upon. Go to his victims—the beggars and the mentally-disabled who do not have the whole nation protesting for them or who do not report their rape to the OCC—and tell them their rapist has been caught. Tell them that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Prove to the women of this country that the law enforcers are not solving this case as a PR stunt, or to stop the public from protesting, but because they actually care about bringing an end to rape.
Do this, why don’t you?
Zyma Islam is a journalist at The Daily Star.