Nusrat Jahan Rafi’s murder must change how we view sexual assault
Nusrat Jahan Rafi was just 19 years old when she was lured to the roof of her school, days after reporting her headteacher for sexual harassment. There, classmates and teachers poured kerosene on the teenager from Feni, south of Dhaka in Bangladesh, and set her on fire. She died of her injuries a few days later.
While those responsible for her murder have just been convicted, at every stage, the treatment of Rafi has been found wanting – by the police officers who interviewed her, then released the footage online, her classmates and the teachers who treated her in this vile manner.
As part of a plan orchestrated by the headmaster while under arrest, her classmates tried to make it look like suicide. But Rafi escaped the rooftop and in an ambulance on the way to the hospital, her brother recorded her statement in a video in which she named her attackers and said she would fight the crime until her “last breath”.
The incident sparked outrage in Bangladesh but this incident is not an isolated one. Sexual harassment is rife in Bangladesh and across south Asia. According to Action Aid, 84 per cent of women in Bangladesh have experienced derogatory comments or sexual advances in public. At least three women are raped on average per day, yet only 2 per cent of women who face violence seek justice. This makes it even more remarkable that Rafi challenged her attacker.
According to UN Women, 35 per cent of women globally have experienced physical or sexual violence. Rafi’s case joins a long list of crimes against women across the world that have ignited a much-needed global grassroots movement.
In December 2012, the world was horrified by the gang rape and subsequent death of Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old student, on a bus in Delhi. The same year, a high school girl in Steubenville, Ohio, was sexually assaulted while unconscious by football players on the school team, who documented the crime on social media. Some in the community blamed the girl and accused her for casting a negative light on the town and the football team. One CNN commentator even sympathised with the students who raped the girl and mourned the loss of their “promising futures”. And in August this year, college student Uyinene Mrwetyana, 19, was allegedly raped and bludgeoned to death by a postal worker when she went to collect a package from a post office in Cape Town.
These are just a few cases that have led to an ever-louder clamour of voices in the fight against sexual violence. In too many of these cases, the social structures that perpetrators hide behind and the prevailing social attitudes that protect them have much in common.
Men who target women are unconcerned with the consequences. For some like Rafi, they are fatal. For so many other victims, the psychological scars of assault are lifelong and damaging and affect women across classes, geographies and cultures.
When sexual violence is allowed to proliferate, whole societies suffer – not just the victims. Time and again we see that the price victims pay for speaking up is too high but the chance of being served justice remain low.
Whether or not you agree with the stringent sentence issued to Rafi’s killers, one can only hope it will instigate change. The danger is that as long as those in authority prioritise perpetrators over victims, justice will not be done. To tackle this, we need a global response.
Nusrat Jahan Rafi had courage. We must not forget her legacy. In seeking justice, she spoke for victims everywhere.
Bangladesh is not the only country where women pay too high a price if they seek justice for being harassed