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Bangladesh: Protect Women Against ‘Fatwa’ Violence | HRW

Bangladesh: Protect Women Against ‘Fatwa’ Violence | Human Rights Watch Aruna Kashyap, Asia women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

(Dhaka) - The Bangladesh government should take urgent measures to make sure that religious fatwas and traditional dispute resolution methods do not result in extrajudicial punishments, Human Rights Watch said today. The government is yet to act on repeated orders of the High Court Division of the Supreme Court, beginning in July 2010, to stop illegal punishments such as whipping, lashing, or public humiliations, said the petitioners who challenged the practice.

In 2009 Ain-o-Salish Kendra (ASK), Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), BRAC, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad (BMP), and Nijera Kori, brought a public interest case. They challenged the authorities' failure to address extrajudicial punishments imposed by shalishes - traditional dispute resolution methods - in the name of fatwas, opinions that are supposed to be issued by Islamic scholars. These punishments include whipping, lashing, publicly humiliating women and girls by forcibly cutting their hair or blackening their faces, ostracizing women, girls, and families, and imposing fines. While many of these incidents go unreported, ASK has assembled news reports of at least 330 such incidents in the last 10 years.

"These private punishments significantly harm women's and girls' lives and health," said Aruna Kashyap, Asia women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Instead of intervening and taking active measures to prevent these abuses, the Bangladesh authorities have been mute bystanders."

The issue became especially urgent when a shalish in Shariatpur district in the Dhaka division ordered 100 lashes in January 2011 for Hena Akhter, an adolescent girl, for an alleged affair, though by most accounts she had reported being sexually abused instead. She collapsed during the lashing and ultimately died. Since Akhter's death, the local media has reported at least three suicides of girls following similar punishments.

In November 2010, Bangladesh was elected to the board of the international agency UN Women, assuming a new role in the international arena on women's rights. With this new role, Bangladesh should ramp up its efforts to protect women's rights in-country, Human Rights Watch said.

To end this kind of violence against women and girls, Human Rights Watch and Bangladesh human rights organizations ASK, BLAST, BMP, BRAC-HRLS, and Nijera Kori, said the Bangladesh government should immediately carry out the court orders and take the following measures:

* Initiate a massive awareness campaign against extrajudicial punishments in the name of fatwas. Among other measures the government should educate everyone in schools, colleges, and madrasas about the fact that punishments under the garb of fatwas are illegal and regularly publicize these messages through print and electronic media.
* Set up around-the-clock toll-free helplines that are easily accessible to poor rural women so they can report violence and seek emergency assistance.
* Improve access to women's shelters and safe homes in every district to ensure emergency protection for women if they face such dangers in their communities.
* Provide psycho-social support and legal assistance to those who have been punished by traditional shalishes, encouraging them to take action to hold those responsible to account.
* Monitor investigations and prosecutions into punishments imposed in the name of carrying out fatwas to ensure that the accused are punished under the law, and that effective reparations are available to victims and survivors.

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