Gender-based violence: taking stock of Bangladesh’s shadow pandemic

April 10, 2022

By The UNDP Bangladesh, Research Facility together with PTIB drew data insights from the Bangladesh Peace Observatory (BPO) database (an initiative of PTIB).

What can we say about patterns of gender-based violence (or GBV) in Bangladesh over time? In which areas has the violence concentrated? What is the nature of such violence?

Bangladesh increasingly needs the answers as it tackles GBV, a longstanding challenge that aggravated following stringent measures to contain the COVID-19 crisis since early 2020. BRAC legal aid services received more than 25,000 complaints within the first ten months. 40 million students were affected from pre-primary to higher education levels increasing risks for violence and child marriage. 1627 women were raped in 2020, according to Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK).

The statistics are useful but with limitations. GBV is already a complex and sensitive topic that is vastly underreported.  Available statistics are often fragmented, typically provide snapshots of the situation or can be inaccessible, making it difficult to gauge meaningful trends over time. The last nationwide government survey took place in 2015.

Here, insights from data by the Bangladesh Peace Observatory (BPO)—an initiative of UNDP’s ‘Partnerships for a Tolerant and Inclusive Bangladesh’ (PTIB) project—helped answer some of our questions. The online database contains verified open-source data on violence since 2014, based on selected Bangla and English print and online media reports. We extracted and analyzed GBV data from May 2018 to April 2021 to understand trends prior to and covering the pandemic. The total GBV count in each of the divisions was adjusted for population size in each of the analyzed years.

Figure 1: Monthly trends in total GBV count prior to and following COVID-19 onset

We’ve witnessed an increasing trend in reported GBV incidents since May 2018, as seen in Figure 1. It tends to peak around September or October annually. This may be tied to the annual lean season in rural Bangladesh that can induce stress linked to poverty and with it, violence. Overall, the violence further spiked with the onset of the COVID pandemic in March 2020—as documented by many studies.

Sexual assault is the most reported source of violence over time, accounting for at least 3 in 5 reported incidents. Domestic violence trails second: it had dipped before COVID’s onset but seems to have risen with the crisis. Similarly, reported dowry-related incidents also showed a downward trend in recent years before picking up with the pandemic.

Figure 2: Annual trends in types of GBV reported before and following COVID-19 onset (in %)

Figures 3 and 4: Perpetrators (right) and target groups (left) of GBV (in %)

Women and girls are the biggest victims of GBV. Girls, including children, faced 60% of sexual assaults in 2020-21 alone. When we aggregate women, girls, and children, they account for 88.2% of GBV cases. Men make up most of the perpetrators.

The where and why behind the violence

Figure 5:  Prevalence of reported GBV incidents across divisions

Figure 6: Top five districts with highest prevalence of reported GBV incidents

Regions differ in terms of frequency of GBV. Taken together, Figure 5 and Figure 6 show that GBV is dynamic, and we found that its prevalence changes over time and in both directions (increasing and decreasing).

Rajshahi consistently placed among the top three divisions over the years. In Barishal’s case, the situation seems to have spiked right before COVID-19 hit and continued well into the crisis. In contrast, the extent of GBV in the districts changed over time. Narayanganj (Dhaka division), Bogura, Pabna and Natore (Rajshahi division) and Panchagarh (Rangpur division) reported the highest counts in 2018-19. But by 2020-21, Barishal, Barguna, Pirojpur (all in  Barishal division) and Bandarban and Cox’s Bazaar (Chattogram division) replaced these following COVID-19’s onset. Sexual assault accounted for at least 50% of reported incidents in these districts in line with the national trend. Domestic violence and dowry-related violence also prevailed in the areas.

It’s not enough to identify hotspots without understanding why these areas are reporting more violence. For instance, links among climate change, poverty and gender may help explain the violence. Bangladesh is already considered ground zero for climate change and we know that women and girls are disproportionately affected by its impacts. Our identified areas are also highly vulnerable where, for example, families are forced to marry off their young daughters as a coping strategy when faced with food insecurity. A 2020 study by UNICEF on ending child marriage found, 56% and 67% of women in Barishal and Rajshahi divisions were married off as child brides.

Other factors may also weigh in. Literature also points to GBV as a learned behaviour. For example, a recent study found that young men with more childhood exposure to GBV and who were living amid stronger norms of male dominance were more likely to justify violence, control family decisions and perpetrate physical violence. Following the pandemic, youth gangs spiked in areas like Barishal, Chattogram and Dhaka and these areas witnessed increased cases of sexual violence against women.

The situations in Bandarban and Cox’s Bazaar—two of Bangladesh’s poorest districts—also warrant attention. In addition to being a climate hotspot, Cox’s Bazaar became the world’s largest refugee camp following the Rohingya refugee crisis in August 2017. The environmental fallouts of the surge together with threatened livelihoods of host communities increased socio-economic tensions, likely resulting in rising GBV trends in the area. Studies also note a worrying situation for GBV within the camps.

What can we conclude from our analysis using the BPO database? First, it helps us comprehend that GBV trends have been rising since 2018 and worsened with the pandemic. Second, it offers insights into the nature of violence as well as changes to areas of concentration over time, many of which are vulnerable to climate change. On the flip side, however, it is difficult to gauge GBV’s true extent especially in hard-to-reach areas using only the BPO database. Finally, the “whys” behind the violence need further research—we offer insights into what might be happening based on secondary analysis.

Nonetheless, GBV in the identified hotspots needs to be urgently addressed by the Bangladesh government and different development partners, including UNDP. This includes raising greater awareness on GBV. Women are often unaware of government-operated national hotline numbers or do not have the means to report incidents. Social stigma also prevents women from seeking support. According to the 2015 government survey, more than 70% of women never told anyone despite experiencing violence, and fewer than 3% took legal action. Many cited fear, shame and embarrassment. This reiterates the need to extend forms of assistance available to women and help them to access those services.