No more. No more. No more. Those were the words that filled the streets of Dhaka last week. Uniting to join in the global movement, One Billion Rising, on Feb. 14, Bangladesh's capital city was occupied by thousands demanding an end to violence against women. They called for an end to the silence, an end to the shame, and freedom from fear.
While on Feb. 14, the streets in Dhaka were filled, hours away in a small village in Tangail District, there was no crowd, no chanting, and no march calling for an end to violence against women. But for the women in this village speaking out against violence brings in itself the threat of further violence. Although they couldn't join in the rising, their voices, too, deserve to be amplified.
Last month, I spoke with the women in this village. I heard from the survivors amongst them about the change they seek for Bangladesh. As the country unites around a cause sparked by One Billion Rising, it is important to center the discussion for action on the perspective from the survivors themselves. For the women from this village they had just three simple requests: Safety, Acknowledgement, and Recovery.
First, these women want to have a practical, reliable option to seek safety if they report violence. As one woman said, "When women have a serious issue, they are set to shut their mouth. Their stories are unseen. They have no options."
Disclosing an incident of violence is a brave act on its own, but in this village, seeking safety is not an easy undertaking. Women in this village face several obstructions in trying to achieve safety. To begin with, the police station in their village is staffed solely by male officers in a place where it is generally unacceptable for a woman to speak to men without another male relative present. The current accepted practice for women to report violence is when accompanied by a male relative or written on a piece of paper delivered to the police by a male relative. Having to work through a male relative (who may be the perpetrator, related to the perpetrator, or unwilling to publicly confront the perpetrator) contributes to their lack of reasonable access to safety from further harm. Without the ability to safely report violence, how can there be any protection?
Second, these women want to have the space, without the shame, to discuss the occurrence of domestic violence. One woman elaborated, "Women are bound to stay with their husband, even if we don't want to. We never talk about sexual torture in a marriage. The husband may force us to have sex. We just suffer it."
Local media projects a different message about violence against women, blaming these acts on: a lack of law or order, access to liquor and drugs, groups of marauding youth, or even the bleak economic outlook. No mention of patriarchy, women's role or value in society, and no mention of domestic violence. Yet violence at the hand of strangers was not the common experience for the women in this village, rather sexual, physical, or verbal abuse originated from husbands, partners, brothers, uncles, and in-laws. They asked for acknowledgement of this prevalence of domestic violence and a way to break out of the culture of silence that surrounds it. When this type of violence is not socially condemned and acceptable to protest, how can women stop suffering in silence?
Finally, these women want to recover from the violence they have experienced. Expressing this, one woman said, "It's everywhere, and yet no one tells. What's the point to tell? What will change?"
After an act of violence, women need access to services in order to begin the process of healing. Missing in the village are what humanitarian actors agree are the minimum services for survivors: basic emotional support, medical care, and protection from future violence. There needs to be a support system in place to aid survivors. In what way can women begin to heal after violence when there is no place for women to be received, to be heard, and generally, no path to recovery?
What they're asking for is not much.
The women I spoke with did not all pinpoint the exact same need for change. And certainly their beliefs may vary from other survivors in Bangladesh, as each of their opinions was informed by their unique experience of violence. However, in the change they sought there was a thread of commonality, and especially in the simplicity of what they were asking for: Safety, Acknowledgement, and Recovery.
Last week on the streets of Dhaka thousands demanded an end to violence. Now, in the days that have passed since the rising, there's a duty to make sure their message does not fade. After hearing the words from survivors themselves about the change they seek in Bangladesh, this should not be a movement just for Feb. 14, but a movement for all the days that follow until women are heard, until they are free from violence and free from fear.
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