A survey jointly conducted by the National Girlchild Advocacy Forum, Plan Bangladesh and Girls Advocacy Alliance from March 8, 2020 to June 30, 2020 declared that altogether 22.96% women had faced sexual harassment once, 41.48% had been twice or thrice harassed, 25.93% mentioned four to five times, and 8.89% said they had faced sexual harassment six to 10 times during the period of the survey.
These statistics made us wonder how Sexual Harassment at Workplace is being addressed by Bangladesh.
There is no legislation specifically incriminating “sexual harassment” in Bangladesh. In 2009, in the case of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association (BNWLA) vs Government of Bangladesh and Others, the Apex court identified the issue of sexual harassment at workplace and educational institutions. While addressing the need to address sexual harassment in these spheres, the Court relied on the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). It stated that as a party to CEDAW, Bangladesh is obligated to formulate laws specifically tackling sexual harassment at workplaces and educational institutions.
In contrast, India enacted the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, in the year 2013 to curb such instances in workplaces. In the progressive judgment passed by the Bangladesh court (mentioned above), the Court also issued detailed guidelines on combatting sexual harassment, in language aligned with that used by the Vishaka judgment of the Indian Supreme Court.
Laws related to Sexual Harassment in Bangladesh
A. Penal Code, 1860
Section 354 – Assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outage her modesty Whoever assaults or uses criminal force to any woman, intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage her modesty, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.
Section 509 – Word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman
Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen, by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.
In BNWLA v Government of Bangladesh (2011), the Supreme Court of Bangladesh determined that sexual harassment outside workplaces and educational institutions must also be addressed. Therefore, in full agreement with the 2009 judgment, the Court issued a supplementary set of guidelines. The Court opined that the euphemistic term ‘eve-teasing’ should not be used instead of sexual harassment. It also defined stalking which includes following a woman, making unwanted contact through cyberspace and other media as well as other acts which may reasonably be expected to cause a female to fear or apprehend for her safety.
India as well, for the longest time has similar provisions under the Indian Penal Code (Sec 354 and Sec 509). However, post the infamous Nirbhaya incident, the criminal law was amended in 2013. Currently, the IPC provides for separate provisions and punishments to deal with sexual harassment, stalking, voyeurism etc.
Section 354A of Indian Penal Code, 1860 defines sexual harassment as:
A man committing any of the following acts—
- physical contact and advances involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures; or
- a demand or request for sexual favours; or
- showing pornography against the will of a woman; or
- making sexually coloured remarks, shall be guilty of the offence of sexual harassment1.
Any man who commits the offence specified in clause (i) or clause (ii) or clause (iii) of sub section (1) shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.
Any man who commits the offence specified in clause (iv) of sub-section (1) shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.
Further Section 354D defines stalking as:
A. Any man who –
(i) follows a woman and contacts, or attempts to contact such woman to foster personal interaction repeatedly despite a clear indication of disinterest by such woman; or
(ii) monitors the use by a woman of the internet, email or any other form of electronic communication, commits the offence of stalking.
B. The Prevention of Oppression Against Women and Children Act 2000 (Nari-O-Shishu Nirjatan Daman Ain, 2000)
The act introduced an offence termed jounopiron (commonly translated as “sexual oppression”) to criminalise the act of someone who touches a woman or child (with any part of their body or with an object) or “violates a woman’s modesty” (narirshilotahanikoren) to “illegally satisfy their sexual desires.”
Section 10 of this law provides for the Punishment for sexual oppression:
i. Whoever, to satisfy his sexual urge illegally, touches the sexual organ or other organ of a woman or a child with any organ of his body or with any substance, his act shall be said to be sexual oppression and he shall be punished with imprisonment for either description which may extend to ten years but not less than two years of rigorous imprisonment and with fine.
ii. Whoever, to satisfy his sexual urge illegally, assaults a woman sexually or makes any indecent gesture, his act shall be deemed to be sexual oppression and he shall be punished with imprisonment for either description which may extend to seven years but not less than two years of rigorous imprisonment and also with fine.
C. Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006
Section 332 of the Labour act states that “Where any female worker is employed in any work of the establishment, irrespective of her rank or status, no one of that establishment shall be have with the female worker which may seem to be indecent or repugnant to the modesty or honour of the female worker.”
However, this does not appear to cover education sector. In Advocate Md. Salahuddin Dolon v Government of Bangladesh and Others (2010), a writ petition was filed in public interest to take action against an Upazila Education Officer for using derogatory and sexually coloured remarks against a headmistress regarding her clothing and for directing all female teachers to wear a headscarf. The Court opined that ‘attempts to coerce or impose a dress code on women’ and using derogatory remarks ‘clearly amounts to a form of sexual harassment.’ It also held that dress code specifically targeting women, not required of any male teacher is a form of gender-discrimination.
In contrast, in India UGC has separate regulations regulations (UGC (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of sexual harassment of women employees and student in high educational institutions), Regulations, 2015) to deal with sexual harassment and so does AICTE.
It took India, 16 years after the passing of Vishaka guidelines, to enact Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.
Though Sexual Harassment guidelines by the High Court of Bangladesh were passed in 2009; no law has been enacted regarding the same. In 2018, BNWLA along with eight other organisations jointly submitted a draft law titled Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act 2018 to the law ministry, which formalises the 2009 guidelines and imposes a statutory obligation on all organisations to have Sexual Harassment Complaint Committees.
However, till date Bangladesh does not have a comprehensive law governing sexual harassment.
– Vaishali Jain, Advocate & Associate