The law minister's statement that the government is going to introduce legislation removing two questionable sections of the colonial-era Evidence Act lifts our spirits, coming as it does after tireless advocacy for such legal reforms over the years. Speaking to this daily, the minister said they had already finished the work to amend sections 155(4) and 146(3) of the act, which will be placed before the next cabinet meeting, and a bill will hopefully be passed in the next parliamentary session. This, he expects, will help block all avenues of questioning the character of rape survivors while in trial.
Although we have heard similar statements from him before—in mid-2021, to be specific—we would like to believe that greater efforts are being put in to make it a reality this time. According to Section 155(4), "When a man is prosecuted for rape or an attempt to ravish, it may be shown that the prosecution was of generally immoral character." Meanwhile, Section 146(3) allows the imposition of questions that may injure the character of a witness, thereby acting as a backdoor through which to impeach the credibility of the survivor. The seemingly impossible threshold of "morality" that these two tenuous and legally unsolid provisions set on rape trials has long allowed defence lawyers to discredit a rape complainant or witness, who are often the same person. Prohibition of character evidence in trials will, thus, be the first step towards tackling the courtroom culture of victim-blaming.
The word "first" is significant here. Rape cases get tossed out for all sorts of reasons—often even before reaching a court. Therefore, we should be reasonable about how much we can expect from a single reform in terms of ending the impunity for rape crimes, when a number of other vital reforms long sought by experts—both legal and institutional—remain unheeded. Among these reforms are: broadening the legal definition of rape to cover all forms of non-consensual penetration, irrespective of the gender of victims and irrespective of the type of penetration; enacting a Victim and Witness Protection Act; respecting proportionality of punishment through the introduction of sentencing guidelines (and repealing the ill-advised death sentence provision); establishing a state compensation fund for rape survivors; conducting gender-sensitization training for all justice-sector actors; introducing consent classes in schools, etc.
These demands are all grounded in reality, and go beyond legal or institutional reforms to include a whole-of-society approach to combating the devastating effects of patriarchy. Recent figures show that incidents of rape and violence against women and girls increased in 2021 across Bangladesh. Clearly, wider reforms are urgently needed. We sincerely hope that the authorities will take legislating the planned amendments to the Evidence Act—and reforming all other similarly questionable provisions—as a first step to ending the rape culture and ensuring fair and equal judgment in trials.