Two months ago, during the peak of monsoon season, Rohima was running late. She and her husband Ali, a local fisherman, left her sister-in-law’s wedding late at night to get home to their three children.
Rohima and Ali ran a few blocks through lush tea gardens and soaked paddy fields to reach a boat to cross the river. When they arrived on the opposite bank, they decided to board an auto-rickshaw rather than walk the usual 30-minute trek to their hut. What followed would haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Six men surrounded them as the driver attempted to start the vehicle.
“They dragged me out of the car onto the road, and started kicking me and husband,” Rohima told VICE News. “They beat me and made me into a corpse. Then they took me inside a school and after that they ripped off my clothes and veil.”
She woke up alone the next morning, naked in a pool of blood.
Gang rape victim Rohima and her family.
Rohima’s horrific experience is one that many women in Bangladesh share. Cases of sexual assault have become an epidemic throughout the country. According to a report by Partners for Prevention, a UN joint program, the Asia-Pacific region has the highest number of sexual assaults in the world. Up to 60 percent of men admit to committing some form of violence against women.
Two years ago, the brutal gang rape and killing of a 23-year-old female in Delhi made international headlines. But as unsettling as incidents of rape in India have been, the UN report shows that Bangladesh has even higher recorded levels of gang rape.
“It felt good when I raped her,” a young rapist from Rohima’s town who refused to identify himself told VICE News. He and three friends gang raped a girl in the middle of a swamp a few months ago, but none of them have faced legal consequences for their actions.
The reasons behind the motives to rape are complicated. More than half of those interviewed for the UN study committed rape as teenager out of a feeling of sexual entitlement. Men throughout the country also widely believe that women should be following “parda” — a Bangla word meaning “curtain” — under Islamic law.
If a woman who is not covered “enough” is assaulted, many Bangladeshi men think it’s entirely her fault for having appeared in such a state in public. They hold the view that arousing men by showing hair or skin makes it understandable, or even socially acceptable, to be raped.
Police Commander Mohammed Shahjalal Munshi and his men outside their police station in Sylhet District.
Bangladesh has a troubling history of rape. More than 200,000 Bengali women were raped during the country’s liberation war in 1971. To this day, many of the victims are afraid to tell their stories because of the social stigma they faced after the war.
An activist named Imtiaz Pavel has taken steps to work with young boys and initiate change. He founded a non-profit called the MIRROR Institute: Men for Peace Equality and Justice, an organization committed to working with male perpetrators — including ones that haven’t been caught by the police authorities — by using creative media like theatre, art, and film.
“I have found most of the men have directly or indirectly either done violence, supported violence, or at least remained silent at violence,” Pavel told VICE News. His aim is to change the way society views women, and help men acknowledge that women are equally valuable.
“They could at least say they are trying to come out and say they will never rape a girl again,” he went on. “There are efforts in terms of understanding this manhood stuff. What we are trying to do is see if men can change men.”
Rape is illegal according to Bangladeshi law, and punishable by life imprisonment or death. But there is little enforcement of the law by local authorities, especially in rural areas. In most cases, police officers who have been paid “baksish” bribes by perpetrators deny that rapes have occurred. Mohammad Shahjalal Munsi, the police commander in charge of Rohima’s case, insists that rape is not a problem in his district.
“There were no gang rapes,” he told VICE News. “They are rare. There are two or three per year.”
Two men who admit to gang rape.
Of the six men that attacked Rohima, only one has been sentenced to jail by Munsi’s team. The rest of her rapists roam free.
“I had to suffer and I asked for justice, but I didn’t get any,” Rohima said. Some members of her family continue to blame her for what happened, and regret that she reached out to the police.
Shipra Goswami, one of the few lawyers for women in the region, told VICE News that although gang rapes happen practically every day, they often go unreported.
“Women and young girls are frequent victims in their villages,” she said. “But when it happens, we don’t know anything about it. The victims are shunned and are told, ‘No, don’t speak out.’ If the victim reveals that she has been raped, the parents fear they won’t be able to marry the girl off in the future. They fear the girl’s future will be ruined.”
Community members sometimes intervene to stop cases from being properly filed. Local male authorities and leaders have been known hold “shalish” village courts where they decide the fate of the victim among the rapists and the victim’s relatives. The woman is punished in almost every single case, or married off to one of the rapists.
Though Rohima takes refuge in her home, she sometimes can’t sleep at night because of pains in her abdomen.
“I went through a lot of sadness,” she said. “Sometimes the pain reminds me of everything.”
All photos by Phil Caller/VICE News