Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the Bangladeshi government to “ensure justice” after a teenage student who had accused a head teacher of attempted rape was burned to death.

Nusrat Jahan Rafi, who HRW says is 18, was tricked into going to a rooftop of a cyclone shelter and doused with kerosene on April 6, according to local media.

Her family says the attack came after she refused to back down from a complaint – reportedly described as “no big deal” by police – against her own principal.

She died four days later with burns covering 80% of her body, which led to nationwide protests demanding the government reforms its laws around sexual assault.

Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW’s South Asia director, said: “The horrifying murder of a brave woman who sought justice shows how badly the Bangladesh government has failed victims of sexual assault.

“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.”

Why are Human Rights Watch involved?

After Rafi’s horrific murder, HRW has drawn attention to Bangladesh’s “poor record” for dealing with and preventing cases of sexual assault and rape.

According to Ain o Salish Kendra, a Bangladeshi human rights organisation, 732 women were raped in 2018, including 203 gang rapes.

In 63 of those cases, the victim died.

Most of these rapes were of girls aged between 13 and 18, like Rafi, with 116 incidents reported and the next highest were of girls between seven and 12, with 104 reports made.

HRW fears the actual figure could be much higher, given the “enormous stigma” around reporting sexual assaults.

The organisation says victims are often discouraged from going to court because of:

  • long cases

  • humiliation and victim blaming at police stations and hospitals

  • pressure from public officials and the accused to drop cases

  • harassment during defence questioning in court.

Although Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina vowed to bring those responsible for the killing to justice, HRW says the government’s record on prosecuting sexual violence cases is “extremely poor”.

Rafi’s murder happened almost exactly four years after a case of mass sexual harassment of at least 20 women during Bengali New Year celebrations at Dhaka University.

Since then, HRW says there has been little progress in the court case.

In a travel advisory published this month, the United States warned its citizens that “violent crime, such as armed robbery, assault, and rape, is widespread” in Bangladesh.

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.

Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW’s South Asia director

Local press reports a woman was stabbed and killed just last week as she resisted a rape attempt in Chattogram district.

The Dhaka Tribune reported at least eight rapes across Bangladesh over April 14 and April 15.

Even when reports are made by victims, HRW claims convictions are rare.

The organisation refers to a recent study by Naripokkho, a Bangladeshi women’s rights organisation, which suggests conviction is very unlikely.

In fact, its report states conviction rates in rape cases have dropped from 0.5% in 2016 to 0.3% in 2018.

What does HRW want the government to change?

HRW highlights one area of the law in particular it believes blocks justice for rape victims.

Section 155(4) of the Evidence Act 1872 states “when a man is prosecuted for rape or an attempt to ravish, it may be shown that the prosecutrix [female prosecutor] was of generally immoral character”.

“This provision encourages defence lawyers to denigrate the reputation of women if they pursue criminal charges, a clear disincentive to victims stepping forward,” the organisation warns.

The country has no witness protection law, meaning victims taking their case to court and those willing to testify on their behalf risk serious threats, harassment, and even death.

A Witness Protection Act was drafted by the Bangladesh Law Commission in 2006, but, 13 years later, this has still not been passed into law.

In 2018, the Bangladesh High Court ruled that police had delayed recording the complaint of a woman who was gang-raped on a microbus in Dhaka in 2015.

Guidelines for handling rape cases were issued, which included taking the victim’s statement in the presence of a social worker and designating female officers at police stations to receive complaints.

These recommendations should be carried out and legally enforced, HRW said.

“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,” Mr Ganguly said.

“The government should ensure justice for her family, urgently put legal protections in place to prevent sexual assault and provide effective protections to survivors.”