Human Rights Defenders - A dangerous occupation

01-04-2015

International Women’s Day is a reminiscence of the past – a world in which men and women did not enjoy equal opportunities and the rights of women were inferior to those of men. Each year, on 8th of March, millions of people celebrate the achievements of women worldwide and join hands to ensure a bright future full of possibilities for girls. Is this far too rosy a picture?

Despite global initiatives, women rights are far from observed in numerous countries. Realisation of women's rights and gender equality is also an ongoing struggle in Bangladesh. According to Hana Shams Ahmed, the Coordinator of the International Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission (CHTC) ‘’there are many laws that are still discriminatory towards women and even those laws that do protect women are not enforced properly’’. CHTC monitors the human rights situation of the indigenous population in this highly militarized area in Bangladesh. In early 2009, two women were appointed Ministers (home and foreign), which could have been an ultimate opportunity to change the discriminatory laws and improve the situation of women in general.

Change of tides?

Unfortunately none of this came to pass. The change of tides that Hana Shams Ahmed hoped for did not materialize. On the contrary, the coordinator herself was attacked while visiting the Bandarban district in August 2014. Up to ten people, who are allegedly associated with the Bengali ultra nationalist group Bangalee Somo Odhikar Andolon, pulled her and her friend out of the car and, while on the floor, hit  both of them several times on their heads and backs . The two appointed police men that were ordered to protect her were no longer present during the attack.

The assault was condemned as "another attempt to intimidate human rights defenders in Bangladesh, particularly those working with the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission"[1]. Another abominable incident is the enforced disappearance of Kalpana Chakma, the secretary of the Hill Women’s Federation which campaigned for the rights of indigenous people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The police failed to investigate her case despite the identification of the security officers that abducted Kalpana. She has not been seen since her abduction in 1996. And Bichitra Tirki, a prominent member of the Jatiya Adivasi Parishad (National Indigenous Peoples Council), was physically assaulted and raped by an alleged group of land grabbers in Rajshahi Division in August 2014.[2] These attacks on women human rights defenders appear to be part of a wider trend of violence against women human rights defenders, instead of a standalone occurrence. The defenders fall victim to harassment, intimidation, violence, rape and enforced disappearances while the Bangladeshi authorities seem to be incompetent in addressing these issues.[3]

Women human rights defenders defying traditional norms

Why are women human rights defenders more at risk than their male counterparts? By investigating and uncovering abuses of women’s rights, exposing them to public scrutiny and demanding accountability for these violations, these women are often viewed as a threat to social stability by a part of the Bangladeshi community.The former UN Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders Hina Jilani stated that these women may arouse more hostility than their male colleagues because they are defying cultural, religious or social norms on femininity and the role of women in society.[4] Precisely because they challenge certain perceptions and prejudices about the role of women, which are ingrained in patriarchal social traditions and cultural beliefs, the women’s rights defenders are considered a bad example.[5]

A project by Odhikar – a civil and political human rights organization in Bangladesh - entitled ‘Empowerment of Women Human Rights Defenders’ concluded that both the local community as well as the police are obstructing their work. The latter are non-cooperative in terms of providing information on human rights abuses and taking appropriate actions against perpetrators. Additionally, the police force is in need of sensitisation as they view these women as having questionable morals instead of victims suffering from unjust violence[6].

Future guarantee of defenders rights

GHRD is gravely concerned about the harassment, intimidation and attacks women human rights defenders face. Neither do Bangladeshi authorities provide adequate protection to the defenders, nor do they take effective legal actions against the perpetrators. Despite a range of legislation laid down to protect women from violence and constitutional safeguard, women face pervasive human rights violations [7].  Efficient protection can only be ensured when laws are properly implemented and victims' right to access to justice and redress is guaranteed. Only then will our rosy picture become the reality we all want it to be.

Photo Credit: Guardian

 For more information please contact: Naz Tuncay, Human Rights Officer, ntuncay@ghrd.org


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