THIRTY-five years ago Mala Begum, 57, was married to the man chosen by her family. After a few days of their marriage, Mala came to know that her husband had other women. She unsuccessfully tried to correct her husband.
Instead of correcting himself, her husband resorted to bashing her. Mala endured the harassment for fear of public disgrace.
Six years into their marriage, Mala found one day her husband in a compromising position with her younger sister. This time she could not tolerate and took a firm stand against her hubby's extramarital affair. But her protest did not work. At one stage, Mala's husband began to live with her sister.
Mala could not accept this illicit relationship and decided to live separately with her three children. Mala did not go to court, as she did not want to wash the dirty family linen in public.
Regarding application of laws to stop husbands from abusing wives, Dr Nusrat Amin of Dhaka University's Law Department, says: "Maltreatment of wife is a punishable crime. As there is no law against physical, mental and sexual abuses of wives by their husbands, cases of abuse are filed in the names of dowry, rape, acid attack etc."
She says: "There is no existence of any women forum in any of our six divisions. From September 2003 to March 2004, some 313 women were abused by their husbands in six divisions. Abused by their husbands, these women go to family courts under a different law. For the absence of a law the real issue becomes a secondary issue. At this, laws are misused. Specific laws are required in this regard. A wife has the right to live in the family with full security. No husband can maltreat his wife.
Nusrat goes on: "If women complain to lawyers, police, chairman, ward commissioner against their husbands, they regard this as a personal affair between husbands and wives. If a law is there, a husband will think twice before abusing his wife. If a wife is abused by her husband, initially the husband may be given two to three months to correct himself. If he fails to do so, he has to be arrested.
According to a 2003 survey by 'Ain o Salish Kenndra', a total of 331 women of different age groups were abused at home by their husbands and in-laws.
Of them, 155 died due to husbands' torture while torture by in-laws caused the death of 40 women. During the period, husbands and in-laws tortured 40 and 38 women respectively.
A seminar titled 'Unrecognised Crimes: Law and Abuse of Wives in Bangladesh', organised by Bangladesh Women Lawyers' Association, was recently held in the capital. In her keynote paper, Dr Nusrat Amin says that most husbands in Bangladesh abuse their wives.
A survey based on interviews with a good number of husbands shows 53.6 per cent regard this as their personal affair while 39.3 per cent admitted that abusing wives is a crime. The survey further shows that a staggering 62.5 per cent of the husbands interviewed admitted to have manhandled their wives occasionally out of anger.
According to them, disobedience, reluctance to do household work and say prayers, dowry issue and being argumentative in everything are the reasons behind the abuse of their wives. It was found in this survey that husbands abuse their wives to control them.
Dr Nusrat says 98.2 per cent of the cops interviewed in this regard agree that humiliating wives is a crime, while 66.1 per cent said they came to know through training relating to violence against women that generally they are unable to control this crime by law.
In some cases, the survey shows, husbands get arrested for humiliating their wives. According to police, sometimes men are arrested for abusing their wives verbally. A husband could be arrested if his wife is seriously harmed due to his negligence.
Husbands keep on giving excuses when they are questioned by police regarding these issues. Many decline to comment while others cite various reasons to justify their actions against their wives. But, even after detecting the specific reason, police arrest men on serious charge of dowry due to the absence of specific laws.
A survey on 'Women Oppression at Home' conducted by Bangladesh Mohila Parishad shows that from January to May 2004, some 109 women were killed, 49 tortured for dowry, 200 physically tortured and 'fatwas' (edicts) issued against 21.
At a recent seminar, organised by Bangladesh Women Lawyers' Association, advocate Salma All said: "The oppressed women hardly can seek justice for fear of reprisal as there is lack of security. And this has to be mentioned in the amendment to the law."
Bangladesh Mohila Parishad secretary Ayesha Khanarn says: "We have received many recommendations stating the necessity of a law to stop oppression of women by their husbands. Enacting law is not enough. Alongside amendment to the law, we'll have to focus on judicial, educational and social systems because women are tortured by their in-laws apart from their husbands.
Ishrat Shainim, Professor of Dhaka University's Sociology department, says: "Setting up a separate division combining laws relating to repression will be more effective than enacting separate laws on violence against women. Initially, a husband should not be fined or imprisoned for the alleged abuse because his wife will not get maintenance if he is sent to jail. Instead, if a general diary (GD) is filed police can warn the man and inform the respectable personalities of the locality."
She says that women abuses by their husbands cannot be stopped by only enacting laws because there is no police presence in every village. Women will be deprived of the advantages of the laws because it takes long time for the police to receive the allegation and come to the places of incidents. Inadequate road communications are the main reasons behind the delay.
"In this regard, people of the locality should take initiatives to stop women abuses by their husbands," says the professor, adding, "Local initiatives can play a more important role than the laws."