Bangladesh courts will be able to use the death penalty for convicted rapists, following days of protests about the extraordinary levels of sexual violence against women in the country.
As parliament is on recess, the Cabinet, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, met online and approved a change to the law, although activists maintain that the death penalty was already available legally.
This follows the widespread outrage which swept the country last week after the gang rape of a 37-year-old woman in Noakhali, southeast of the capital, Dhaka, went viral on social media.
Bangladesh’s National Human Rights Commission investigated and found that the woman was raped repeatedly and terrorised. The UN has now spoken up, saying the Noakhali gang rape underlined the “state of social, behavioural and structural misogyny” in Bangladesh, says the BBC.
Over 1,000 rapes have been reported in Bangladesh this year alone, activists say, but most cases go unreported because women fear they will be stigmatised in their community, and they fear being harassed by offenders and their families.
Bangladesh courts are infamous for ludicrously lengthy proceedings in sexual violence cases which only end in low conviction rates.
Shahdeen Malik, a lawyer at Bangladesh’s Supreme Court, told CBS News that the conviction rate for rape cases in Bangladesh is less than 3%, partly due to the police being unable or unwilling to properly gather evidence.
“Our police is a male dominated force which doesn’t even consider rape a serious crime,” he said.
Many say bringing in the death penalty is just a way for the government to avoid the real issues.
Meera Sushmita, a student who participated in the weekend protests, told CBS News, “The problem is not that we don’t have strong laws, the problem is that rape has become a culture in our country.”
At the weekend, actor Ananta Jali posted a video in which he said women who wore revealing dresses were inviting rape. After criticism, he issued a “clarification” which actually reinforced his initial remarks.
Many say it will take more than the death penalty to fundamentally shift attitudes towards sexual violence in Bangladesh.