Rise in Bangladesh female canings alarms rights groups

29th June 2009, Comments 0 comments

Human rights groups say canings of women are becoming increasingly common in Bangladesh, with hardline clerics taking the law into their own hands and handing down harsh punishments found guilty by village courts.

Dhaka -- The cuts on Rahima Begum's legs are healing but the unmarried mother of one will carry the psychological scars from a public whipping for revealing the father of her child for a long time to come.

In conservative Muslim Bangladesh, having a child out of wedlock is taboo, and the elders in Rahima's eastern village decided she should be taught a lesson after pointing the finger at a neighbour, who denied he was the father.

"They called me before a makeshift court and ruled that I was a liar," the 22-year-old told AFP from her hospital bed.

Rahima's punishment was to be caned 39 times in front of elders and Islamic clerics.

The case shocked many in Bangladesh, with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ordering Rahima to be moved from a small village hospital in Comilla to one of the best in the capital Dhaka.

There, she is receiving treatment, including counselling, a month after the beating.

"Every time I close my eyes, I play the scene over and over in my head," she said.

Human rights groups say Rahima's plight is becoming increasingly common in Bangladesh, with hardline clerics taking the law into their own hands and handing down harsh punishments, mostly to women, found guilty by village courts.

The so-called crimes heard by the courts -- most common in rural areas, and not recognised as legitimate -- range from adultery to being raped, and in one case a Muslim woman was whipped for talking to a Hindu man.

Women's groups and human rights activists have protested the unexplained rise in caning cases in the past two months, and note that many such incidents of violence probably go unreported.

"We've recorded 15 such incidents in May and June. We've never seen such a sharp rise in cases. It's very worrying," said Ayesha Khanam, president of the women's group Bangladesh Mahila Parishad.

"There are undoubtedly many more than have gone unreported."

In Rahima's case, police arrested the men who whipped her, but campaigners say most get away with the beatings because the kangaroo courts have until recently largely been ignored by authorities.

Salma Ali, head of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association, said that while urban parts of the country were becoming more progressive in dealing with women's rights, some rural areas were going the other way.

"Conservative Muslim clerics are losing power in a country where women are increasingly holding more prominent positions," she said.

"But some parts of the country are becoming more conservative.

"Perhaps they are inspired by the kinds of courts used by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Rahima said the physical and mental suffering of being publicly whipped mean that her hospital bed in Dhaka, 80 kilometres (55 miles) away from her village home, is the safest place for her right now.

"My legs are almost healed but I'm not ready to go back to the village. I don't know whether I can ever go back," she said.


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