Protests Erupt In Bangladesh After Young Woman Burned Alive For Reporting Sexual Harassment From Her Principal
The horrific death of Nusrat Jahan Rafi has sparked calls for change in Bangladesh.
Nusrat Jahan Rafi's last words to her brother were an act of defiance.
"The teacher touched me. I will fight this crime till my last breath," she said to her brother as they rode in an ambulance to a local hospital in Feni, Bangladesh on April 6. She died four days later in a hospital in the country's capital, Dhaka, with 80% of her body covered in third-degree burns.
The 18-year-old was lured onto the roof of her school that day, thinking a friend was in trouble. Shortly after being lured up there, she quickly realized it was something else. Four people in burkas demanded that she retract her sexual harassment claims against the school's principal, Siraj-Ud-Daula, who had been arrested on March 27. When Rafi refused, they held her down, doused her in kerosene and lit her on fire in an attempt to make the attack look like a suicide.
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Nusrat Jahan Rafi was burned alive for disclosing sexual abuse by the head of her school.— ICMEC (@ICMEC_official) April 18, 2019
Today we say her name and honor her bravery.
No child should be afraid to go to school or punished for reporting abuse. #BelieveSurvivors 💛https://t.co/hYd5Nh5NLR
Rafi's horrific death has sparked widespread protests across the South Asian nation that have forced the Bangladesh Prime Minister to address the situation.
“Nusrat Jahan Rafi’s cruel death is a sobering reminder of the pervasive risk of sexual violence that is faced by Bangladeshi women and girls,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should ensure justice for her family, urgently put legal protections in place to prevent sexual assault, and provide effective protections to survivors.”
Thousands of people attended Rafi's funeral and social media in the country has been flooded with messages about her situation. Many highlighted the country's strict laws and social stigmas that make it hard for women to address issues like rape and sexual harassment.
Nusrat Jahan Rafi who died after being set on fire was laid to eternal rest at her village home in Feni district of #Bangladesh . She was buried at their family graveyard following a namaz-e-janaza at Mohammad Saber Pilot High School ground around 5:50pm. #justicefornusrat pic.twitter.com/Ce123WRutC— Ali Ahmad Mabrur (@Mabrur00) April 11, 2019
“Nusrat’s killers won’t be spared.— S.i. Raju 🇧🇩 (@D12Raju) April 12, 2019
I personally believe they would have to face exemplary punishment so that none can dare to commit such heinous crimes in future,”
--- #SheikhHasina #SheikhHasinaQuotes#Bangladesh#JusticeForNusrat pic.twitter.com/nOa3fSVkeh
When Rafi went to the local police station in Feni, she told the police chief that the school principal had called her into his office and touched her inappropriately.Through tears, she said it was not the first time he had done it. The police officer recorded a video of the conversation and ridiculed her for crying as she spoke of what happened. He said it was "not a big deal" and not worth filing a police complaint. He then shared the video on Facebook and with local reporters.
Despite the officer's flippant response, he arrested Siraj-Ud-Daula that day. But the arrest sparked protests led by school officials and local politicians. Rafi's family began receiving death threats and people ridiculed the video of her explaining the situation.
Rafi decided to ignore her fears and take her final exams on April 6. Her brother went with her to the school that day and tried to go in with her but was stopped at the door.
“The horrifying murder of a brave woman who sought justice shows how badly the Bangladesh government has failed victims of sexual assault,” Ganguly said.
“Nusrat Jahan Rafi’s death highlights the need for the Bangladesh government to take survivors of sexual assault seriously and ensure that they can safely seek a legal remedy and be protected from retaliation.”
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Rafi's brother was with her in the ambulance before she lost consciousness, and she told him exactly what happened to her when she went to the roof that day. He was inconsolable at her funeral and said her family had supported her efforts to find justice.
Now that outrage over her murder has reached international news, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been forced to take action. Police have arrested 8 of the 13 people involved, and say two of the four people on the roof had met with the principal in prison a few days before. Two men have confessed to setting Rafi on fire and said the principal ordered them to do it.
Bangladeshi human rights organization, Ain O Salish Kendra, said rape and sexual assault are far too common in the country and are not reported most times because of the strict legal code. There were over 700 rapes in Bangladesh last year, they said, and there is a law -- the Evidence Act 1872 -- that says rape is allowed if "the prosecution was of generally immoral character.” This leads to many cases where lawyers attempt to denigrate victims and shame them into retracting claims.
According to Bangladesh women’s rights organization, Naripokkho, convictions in rape cases have fallen. Just 0.5% of rape cases ended in convictions in 2016 and that figure fell to 0.3 percent in 2018.
"When a woman tries to get justice for sexual harassment, she has to face a lot of harassment again. The case lingers for years, there is shaming in society, a lack of willingness from police to properly investigate the allegations," Salma Ali, a human rights lawyer and former director of the Women Lawyers' Association, told the BBC on Thursday.
"It leads the victim to give up on seeking justice. Ultimately the criminals don't get punished and they do the same crime again. Others don't fear to do the same because of such examples."
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