Activist campaigns and steps taken by the government are helping to reduce the number of tragedies each year brought on by sexual harassment.
She was a bright, vivacious young woman. Not surprisingly, those qualities made her a sought-after date.
But Farzana Afrin Rumi carefully declined all entreaties, focusing instead on her college exams. Undaunted, the failed suitors kept pestering her almost daily. One day they broke into her house in southern Khulna and assaulted her. It was too much. Rumi, unable to endure the shame, took her own life in 2003. She was only 17.
"My sister had a lot of dreams. When she was attacked nobody came to her rescue. If the neighbours did, she would not have committed suicide," Kamarul Hassan Munna, Rumi's elder brother, told Khabar South Asia.
Her death helped trigger what has become a growing campaign in Bangladesh against sexual harassment, or "eve teasing" as it's known in local slang. And the activism appears to be yielding results.
According to human rights organisations such as the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), Bangladesh Legal Aid and Service Trust (BLAST) and Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), the number of harassment-related suicides is slowly declining.
"We don't want to see a single case of suicide for eve teasing," Chiroranjan Sarkar, the Communication advocacy officer at BRAC, told Khabar. BRAC is implementing a pilot project in Dhaka to promote safety for girls and women.
Pressure too much to bear
The problem of harassment is by no means limited to Bangladesh. It continues to be a serious social blight across the region, particularly in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
In all these countries it is not uncommon to see males hanging around schools and colleges, trying to draw the attention of girls. But when some go too far, the results can be tragic. At least 70 young women have committed suicide over the past two-and-a-half years because of eve teasing, according to anti-harassment groups.
"The victims often commit suicide because they cannot endure the continuous mental pressure," said Anwara Syed Haq, a psychiatrist in Dhaka.
Experts say that the problem partly lies in unhealthy attitudes towards the opposite gender. Parents, they say, should teach their children to be respectful towards women.
"Bad company and lack of a healthy family environment are also responsible for many boys to go astray," Zafar Iqbal, a well-known educationist, told Khabar.
According to women's rights activists, meanwhile, the laws on the books need to be updated and tightened.
"We are still using a law promulgated in 1860 and it has not been amended to deal with the present day problem," said Salma Ali, executive director of the Bangladesh Women Lawyers' Association.
Welcome signs of change
While the problem remains pressing, the combination of activism by civic groups and steps taken by the government appears to be making a difference.
Last year, the education ministry decided to designate one day in a year for raising awareness about eve-teasing and its consequences. This year, the ministry organised a rally on June 13th in Dhaka, where several thousand students – mostly boys –took an oath to respect women and stand up against anyone seen to be harassing them.
According to ASK, a non-governmental organisation, the number of harassment-related suicides has dropped. In 2010, 32 suicides were reported, while 31 occurred in 2011. As of May this year, however, the number was eight.
"We expect a sharp decline of eve teasing and suicidal deaths," Mahbuba Nasrin, the communication and advocacy co-ordinator of BLAST, told Khabar.
Education Minister Nurul Islam confirmed the trend.
"The incidents of eve teasing have gone down in recent years," he told Khabar. "I'm certain it can be effectively tackled with stepped up social movement and decisive action by the law enforcement agencies."
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