Written by: Nadera Naeema Ohi
The issue of consent is often a murky one in Bangladesh. From its precise definition, to general awareness on the subject, to more effective law-making; improved and clarified policies on consent are crucial for improving the sexual and reproductive rights of women and minorities.
Bangladeshi law does not have a clear definition of consent, although the concept is mentioned in the Penal Code of 1860, Section 375, which qualifies the circumstances of rape. This article endeavours to discuss consent and its necessity in fostering healthy relationships – therefore, we must first gain a basic understanding of these two topics before we can comment on more complex issues, such as the law.
We may look to America for the task: Planned Parenthood defines consent, in the context of sexual rights, as an agreement to sexual contact, without which the act constitutes rape or sexual assault. It is foundational to any sexual interaction; whether between a married couple, adolescents, gender minorities such as hijra people, and others. This usually takes the form of verbal confirmation between individuals, wherein both parties express willingness to participate in sexual intercourse.
Educating individuals on consent through comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) remains imperative in Bangladesh. However, such endeavours to bring CSE to urban adolescents remain impeded by prevailing cultural taboos which preclude open discussions on topics of reproductive health and rights. This is compounded by a general lack of governmental support for the matter at schools. Thus, the scarcity of CSE remains especially harmful as it perpetuates the inability of young people to understand what healthy relationships look like, for their future safety, particularly in relation to intimacy. According to the American National Domestic Violence Hotline, healthy relationships require communication – yet clear communication is impossible if either party is unaware of the role of consent.
This gap in social awareness manifests in devastating practical effects: from spousal violence and marital rape in urban, educated households, to a continued crisis of the same against women in rural areas with little or no retribution. The only way to begin curbing such abuse would be through action by the government, in addition to non-governmental organisations, to promote outreach and education on reproductive rights, and update existing legislation so that rape is clearly defined, incriminated and punished.
Imagine a teenage girl who is forced to go through a relationship that is harmful to her physically or emotionally because she knows no better; imagine a spouse who has no concept of a comfortable relationship and thus endures constant abuse; these are just some of the stories that constantly play out around us, with little awareness or help for those who need it.
Updates to existing law are essential because the current law is greatly insufficient in its purview: the age of consent is marked down as 14. However, in a country where child marriage is still practiced, colonial law stipulates that sex with a wife of merely 13 years of age does not qualify as rape. That is not to mention the culture of victim-blaming rampant in both national media and courts, where attention is sickeningly shifted to the victim and not the perpetrator. Courts insidiously engage in purity politics instead of carrying out justice. One more problem amongst many is that the law does not protect male victims or minority genders in rape cases.
To return to our foundational discussion from these complex issues: meaningful change can be initiated by educating the young and the vulnerable about consent in all its forms, while emphasizing the necessity of consent in building healthy relationships. Policy changes may then have a chance of developing, however slowly, hand in hand with grassroots objectives.
- Siddiqui, M. S. (2021) “The need for a comprehensive definition of rape”, The Daily Star, https://www.thedailystar.net/law-our-rights/news/the-need-comprehensive-definition-rape-2030345
- “Sexual Consent”, Planned Parenthood, https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/relationships/sexual-consent
- Ainul, S. et. al (2017) “Adolescents in Bangladesh: A situation analysis of programmatic approaches to sexual and reproductive health education and services”, Population Council, https://doi.org/10.31899/rh7.1004
- “Healthy Relationships”, National Domestic Violence Hotline, https://www.thehotline.org/resources/healthy-relationships/
- Fahmida, R. and Doneys, P. (2013) “Sexual coercion within marriage in Bangladesh”, Women’s Studies International Forum, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wsif.2013.03.002
- Naved, R. T. (2012) “Sexual Violence Towards Married Women in Bangladesh”, Archives of Sexual Behaviour, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-012-0045-1