By Cat Barton
Aleya, 18, sustained burns to 70 percent of her body and died after six days in intensive care, becoming one of dozens of teenage girls to be killed or have committed suicide in Bangladesh in 2010 because of sexual harassment.
“A huge fire ball engulfed her and she was screaming, running around and trying to put out the fire, but she couldn’t — everything except her face was burned,” said Aleya’s aunt Rajia Begum, 40, who witnessed the attack.
“The man started asking her to marry him in April 2010; she was dead by May 26.
She was scared of him — we all were. We didn’t go to the police at first as he warned us not to,” she added.
“When she told him she wouldn’t marry him, he said ‘I’ll make sure you don’t marry anyone else’”.
A string of teenage suicides — at least 22 in 2010 — and dozens of high-profile attacks on teenage girls have highlighted Bangladesh’s sexual bullying problem.
Eve-teasing — the south Asian term for sexual harassment — is an everyday reality in Bangladesh, but it also causes public outrage in a country that regards itself as more progressive than other Muslim nations such as Pakistan.
“We recently have seen a lot of eve-teasing and teenagers committing suicide and the government is aware of this,” Bangladesh’s Women and Children Affairs Minister Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury said.
Plain-clothed policemen have been on patrol outside top girls’ schools in Dhaka, and female police officers have gone undercover inside school grounds across the country — arresting more than 500 bullies so far.
But experts say Bangladeshi teenage girls still have no real protection from bullies or stalkers, and that deep-rooted traditional attitudes mean violent crimes against women are easy to carry out and often go unpunished.
The family and society together blame girls if they’re being harassed. The family would tell the girl, ‘you laugh too much’. They would tell her to lower her head when she’s walking to school. Some girls even chose suicide as they feel so unsafe. The parents don’t listen to their daughters. Instead they accuse her of being responsible for the harassment.
Even if parents do listen, they may not be able to help, with men who try to intervene and prevent bullying often being attacked themselves.
The father of one bullying victim committed suicide and another recently had a stroke — allegedly because he was terrified his daughter’s suicide would be reported in newspapers.
Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority nation of 146 million, remains a deeply patriarchal society, and Women’s Minister Chaudhury said the balance of responsibility between the genders had to change. “I think there is a gradual change in this, and girls are now coming out —they’re raising their voices against it and this is a good thing,” she said. For Chaudhury, 2010’s spike in reported instances of female sexual harassment or bullying is, to some extent, a sign of how successful Bangladesh has been at getting girls into schools and women into the workforce.
“Our females are in school and they are employed, so when they are facing this problem they are coming out with it. Eve-teasing has always happened, but it was not reported as much before,” she said.
But a fundamental transformation in how men treat women looks a distant dream.
At the moment, “perpetrators are being released too easily. If a perpetrator is arrested and the next day he gets bail, the girl is again unsafe and the family is also in danger.
Aleya’s family have decided to press charges and, despite attempts at intimidation by her attacker’s family, say they will not give up until they get justice.
“When we were in the hospital, she kept saying — I want the people who did this to me to hang,” said her aunt. “Her attacker had money and good connections to the police. We are poor and scared. After we filed a complaint, we started getting anonymous phone calls telling us to drop it, but we never will,” she said.
Aleya’s alleged attacker and one of his accomplices are currently in prison, and police say the case against them is progressing. Another accomplice was never caught, the family said.
Bangladeshi girls get little respect in many families, and often boys grow up believing girls are not human beings but sexual objects.
Traditional attitudes and new technology like mobile phones have combined to change how young people interact and leaving victims, parents and the authorities struggling to respond.