Bangladesh’s constitution provides for a parliamentary form of government in which most power resides in the Office of the Prime Minister. In a December 2018 parliamentary election, Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party won a third consecutive five-year term that kept her in office as prime minister. This election was not considered free and fair by observers and was marred by reported irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of opposition polling agents and voters.
The security forces encompassing the national police, border guards, and counterterrorism units such as the Rapid Action Battalion maintain internal and border security. The military, primarily the army, is responsible for national defense but also has some domestic security responsibilities. The security forces report to the Ministry of Home Affairs and the military reports to the Ministry of Defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents; forced disappearance by the government or its agents; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government or its agents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary or unlawful detentions; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; violence, threats of violence and arbitrary arrests of journalists and human rights activists, censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive nongovernmental organization laws and restrictions on the activities of such organizations; restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation; corruption; criminal violence against women and girls and lack of investigation and accountability; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting indigenous people; crimes involving violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct; significant restrictions on independent trade unions and workers’ rights; and the worst forms of child labor.
There were reports of widespread impunity for security force abuses. The government took few measures to investigate and prosecute cases of abuse and killing by security forces.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.
Corruption: Corruption remained a serious problem. In April the media reported numerous accounts of local authorities embezzling government food assistance during the pandemic and the related government-imposed lockdown. In one instance, law enforcement authorities arrested a union committee chairman after finding 299 sacks of rice in his private warehouse. In response to these reports, the prime minister announced on April 20 her plan to install 64 midlevel officials from the central government to monitor and report on relief operations.
In June, Kuwaiti authorities arrested Bangladeshi member of parliament Mohammad “Shahid” Islam, purportedly for trafficking Bangladeshi workers to Kuwait through an illicit visa trading scheme as well as money laundering. Shahid was chief executive officer of a contracting company in Kuwait with an estimated 26,000 workers of Bangladeshi, Indian, and Nepali nationalities. Media reported Shahid bribed Kuwaiti officials with cars to secure contracts for his company in Kuwait.
In September, Transparency International said only a few isolated cases of government corruption were publicly disclosed because the government placed greater effort on preventing stories of corruption from leaking than on taking action against corruption itself.
The government took steps to address widespread police corruption through continued expansion of its community-policing program and through training.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires candidates for parliament to file statements of personal wealth with the Election Commission. The law does not require income and asset disclosure by officials.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law only prohibits rape of girls and women by men and physical spousal abuse, but the law excludes marital rape if the girl or woman is older than 13. Rape can be punished by life imprisonment or the death penalty.
Credible human rights organizations found rape remained a serious issue in the country, with reported rapes throughout the year roughly keeping pace with previous years. Domestic human rights group Ain o Salish Kendra reported at least 975 women were raped during the first nine months of the year. In comparison, Odhikar reported 1,080 women and children were raped between January and December 2019; among them 330 were women, and 737 were below the age of 18.
There were reports of sexual violence committed with impunity. In October a video of several men gang-raping a woman was released on social media. The video showed the men using sticks to torture the women and helping each other rape the woman. In the video the woman can be heard pleading, “I am calling you my father, my brother, please let me go! For the sake of Allah let me go!” Social outrage after the video was released online led to protests throughout the country. In response the government released an ordinance introducing the death penalty as the maximum punishment for rape, and on October 15 a court sentenced five men to death for the 2012 gang rape of a 15-year-old girl. Activists doubted the death penalty would deter future sexual assaults. Local lawyers cite the conviction rate for rape as less than 3 percent.
In September a newlywed couple visited a Sylhet college campus where they were accosted by a group of six men, all members of the ruling party’s student wing. The men forced both of them into a hostel on campus, tied up the husband, and gang-raped the wife. The husband immediately filed a complaint with the police. The incident triggered protests at the college with demonstrators alleging the accused “moved with impunity.” Demonstrators said college authorities kept the hostel–a dormitory controlled by the student political leaders–open during the pandemic, when other educational institutions had closed, “fully aware of various criminal activities” in the dormitories. Police later arrested all named suspects.
According to guidelines for handling rape cases, the officer in charge of a police station must record any information relating to rape or sexual assault irrespective of the place of occurrence. Chemical and DNA tests must be conducted within 48 hours from when the incident was reported. Guidelines also stipulate every police station must have a female police officer available to victims of rape or sexual assault during the recording of the case by the duty officer. The statements of the victim must be recorded in the presence of a lawyer, social worker, protection officer, or any other individual the victim deems appropriate. Victims with disabilities should be provided with government-supported interpretation services, if necessary, and the investigating officer along with a female police officer should escort the victim to a timely medical examination.
A collection of political, sociocultural, and human rights groups said incidents of rape continued to occur due to a culture of impunity. According to human rights monitors, many victims did not report rapes due to lack of access to legal services, social stigma, fear of further harassment, and the legal requirement to produce witnesses. The burden is on the rape victim to prove a rape occurred, using medical evidence.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Some media and NGOs reported violence against women related to disputes over dowries, despite recent legal changes prohibiting dowry demands. Under law an individual demanding or giving a dowry can be imprisoned for up to five years, fined, or both. ASK found 66 incidents of wives killed over dowry disputes during the first nine months of the year.
In June, Fatema Jinnan Jotsnya, age 25, was admitted to the hospital after her husband hit her on the head with an iron rod. She later died of her injuries. According to the police statement, Jotsnya’s husband beat her every Saturday over unfulfilled dowry expectations. Following Jotsnya’s death, her brother filed a case against the husband, his mother, and three other accused. Police arrested the husband, who confessed to his involvement in Jotsnya’s death.
A Supreme Court Appellate Division ruling allows the use of fatwas (religious edicts) only to settle religious matters; fatwas may not be invoked to justify punishment, nor may they supersede secular law. Islamic tradition dictates only those religious scholars with expertise in Islamic law may declare a fatwa. Despite these restrictions, village religious leaders sometimes made such declarations. The declarations resulted in extrajudicial punishments, often against women, for perceived moral transgressions.
Incidents of vigilantism against women occurred, sometimes led by religious leaders enforcing fatwas. The incidents included whipping, beating, and other forms of physical violence.
Assailants threw acid in the faces of victims, usually women, leaving them disfigured and often blind. Acid attacks were frequently related to a woman’s refusal to accept a marriage proposal or were related to land or other money disputes. In November 2019 the Acid Survivor Foundation said acid attacks dropped from 494 incidents in 2002 to eight during the first six months of 2019.
Sexual Harassment: Although sexual harassment is prohibited by a 2009 High Court guideline, harassment, also known as “Eve teasing,” was common according to multiple NGOs. During the pandemic, Manusher Jonno foundation, a local human rights group, found multiple instances of women reporting sexual harassment while receiving food assistance.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. LGBTI groups reported lesbian and bisexual women lacked access to basic sexual and reproductive health care.
Civil society organizations reported that survivors of child marriage had less negotiating power to make family planning choices. According to the 2017-18 Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey (BDHS), three out of five girls marry by age 18, with an adolescent birth rate of 28 percent. UNICEF also found nearly five in 10 child brides gave birth before age 18 and eight in 10 child brides gave birth before age 20.
A full range of contraceptive methods, including long-acting reversible contraception and permanent methods, were available through government, NGO, and for-profit clinics and hospitals. Low-income families were more likely to rely on public family planning services offered free of cost. Religious beliefs and traditional family roles served as barriers to access. Government district hospitals had crisis management centers providing contraceptive care to survivors of sexual assault.
According to the World Bank’s most recent estimates, maternal mortality ratio declined from 2000 to 2017. During that timeframe, the ratio dropped from 434 to 173 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. According to the 2017 BDHS, 12 percent of married women of reproductive age had unmet family planning needs. Weaknesses in the public health system, such as lack of trained providers and equipment in rural areas, resulted in inequitable access to information and services around the country.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: The constitution declares all citizens equal before the law with entitlement to equal protection under the law. It also explicitly recognizes the equal rights of women to those of men “in all spheres of the state and of public life.” According to human rights NGOs, the government did not always enforce the constitution or the laws pertaining to gender equality effectively. Women do not enjoy the same legal status and rights as men in family, property, and inheritance law. Under traditional Islamic inheritance law, daughters inherit only half of what sons do. Under Hindu inheritance law, a widow’s rights to her deceased husband’s property are limited to her lifetime and revert to the male heirs upon her death. In September the High Court issued a ruling stating Hindu widows in the country were entitled to all properties of their deceased husbands–including agricultural property. Previously Hindu women were entitled only to their husband’s homestead properties.
Birth Registration: Individuals are born citizens if their parents were Bangladeshi citizens, if the nationality of the parents is unknown and the child is born in Bangladeshi territory, or if their fathers or grandfathers were born in the territories now part of the country. The government currently does not register births for Rohingya refugees born in Cox’s Bazar. If a person qualifies for citizenship through ancestry, the father or grandfather must have been a permanent resident of these territories in or after 1971. Birth registration is required to obtain a national identity card or passport.
Education: Education is free and compulsory through eighth grade by law, and the government offered subsidies to parents to keep girls in class through 10th grade. Teacher fees, books, and uniforms remained prohibitively costly for many families, despite free classes, and the government distributed hundreds of millions of free textbooks to increase access to education. Enrollments in primary schools showed gender parity, but completion rates fell in secondary school, with more boys than girls completing that level. Early and forced marriage was a factor in girls’ attrition from secondary school. Educational institutions closed in mid-March due to the pandemic and the government extended these closures until October, moving to a fully online curriculum. Numerous civil society organizations said many families of school-aged children struggled to find access to the internet in order to benefit from online schooling.
Child Abuse: Many forms of child abuse, including sexual abuse, physical and humiliating punishment, child abandonment, kidnapping, and trafficking, continued to be serious and widespread. Children were vulnerable to abuse in all settings: home, community, school, residential institutions, and the workplace. The law prohibits child abuse and neglect with a penalty of up to five years, a fine, or both. According to Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum (BSAF), the law was not fully implemented, and juvenile cases–like many other criminal cases–often lagged in the judicial system. The Department of Social Services, under the Ministry of Social Welfare, operated “Child Helpline–1098,” a free telephone service designed to help children facing violence, abuse, and exploitation. The hotline received approximately 80,000 calls a year on average and was accessible from anywhere in the country. The hotline center provided services such as rescue, referral, and counseling.
In 2019 the BSAF published a report on child rape, stating children as young as two were among the rape victims and cited a failure of the law and order situation in the country as reason for the increase in child rape. In September the domestic organization Human Rights Support Society found that in the first six months of the year, more than half the number of reported rapes were of children under the age of 16.
During the year former students detailed multiple allegations of sex abuse at the hands of teachers and older pupils in Islamic madrassahs. In September a father of a nine-year-old girl in Cox’s Bazar accused his daughter’s teacher of raping her inside a local madrassa. Many smaller schools had few teachers and no oversight from governing bodies.
Despite advances, including establishing a monitoring agency in the Ministry of Home Affairs, trafficking of children and inadequate care and protection for survivors of trafficking continued to be problems. Child labor and abuse at the workplace remained problems in certain industries, mostly in the informal sector, and child domestic workers were vulnerable to all forms of abuse at their informal workplaces.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal age of marriage is 18 for women and 21 for men. The law includes a provision for marriages of women and men at any age in “special circumstances.” The government did not implement the recommendations raised by child rights organizations, human rights organizations, and development partners concerning this provision.
In October, UNICEF reported 51 percent of women married before reaching 18, a decrease from its 2018 report where the organization estimated the figure at 59 percent.
In an effort to reduce early and forced marriages, the government offered stipends for girls’ school expenses beyond the compulsory fifth-grade level. The government and NGOs conducted workshops and public events to teach parents the importance of their daughters waiting until age 18 before marrying. Numerous civil society organizations drew correlations between the extended school closures due to the pandemic and an increased risk of school drop-outs and child marriage.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The penalty for sexual exploitation of children is 10 years’ to life imprisonment. Child pornography and selling or distributing such material is prohibited. In 2019 the NGO Terre des Hommes-Netherlands released a report stating street children were the most vulnerable to sexual exploitation but had little legal redress due to a lack of social and financial support and a lengthy criminal justice system. The report said although the government took “necessary legal and institutional measures to combat commercial sexual exploitation, children face multiple challenges in accessing justice.” The report found 75 percent of female children living on Dhaka streets were at risk of sexual exploitation. Underage girls working in brothels were able to produce notarized certificates stating they were older than age 18, and some NGOs claimed corrupt government and law enforcement officials condoned or facilitated these practices. Traffickers lured girls from all over the country into commercial sexual exploitation in legal and illegal brothels and private hotels.
Displaced Children: See section 2.d.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
There was no Jewish community in the country. Politicians and imams reportedly used anti-Semitic statements to gain support from their constituencies.
See the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law provides for equal treatment and freedom from discrimination for persons with disabilities, and the government took measures to enforce these provisions more effectively. NGOs reported the government took cases of violence based on discrimination against disabled persons seriously, and official action was taken to investigate and punish those responsible for violence and abuses against those with disabilities. Nonetheless, a May academic study found 2.2 million criminal cases against persons with disabilities pending. The study determined that persons with disabilities were “the most vulnerable among the vulnerable.”
Although the law requires physical structures be made accessible to those with disabilities, the government did not implement the law effectively. For example, government buildings had no accommodations for disabled individuals. The law calls for the establishment of local committees to expedite implementation of the law, but most committees had not been activated. In many cases local authorities were not aware of their responsibilities under this law.
The law requires persons with disabilities to register for identity cards to track their enrollment in educational institutions and access to jobs. This registration allows them to be included in voter lists, to cast votes, and to participate in elections. It states no person, organization, authority, or corporation shall discriminate against persons with disabilities and allows for fines or three years’ imprisonment for giving unequal treatment for school, work, or inheritance based on disability, although implementation of the law was uneven. A 27-member National Coordination Committee is charged with coordinating relevant activities among all government organizations and private bodies to fulfill the objectives of the law. Implementation of the law was slow, delaying the formation and functioning of Disability Rights and Protection Committees required by the legislation.
According to the NGO Action against Disability, some children with disabilities did not attend public school due to lack of special accommodation, but data was not readily available. The government trained teachers on inclusive education and recruited disability specialists at the district level. The government also allocated stipends for students with disabilities. A peer-reviewed study released in July found many families with children with disabilities lacked knowledge and access to government programs and benefits. Many organizations reported visually disabled persons experienced difficulties accessing technology, depriving them of equal access to education, information, health, and other basic human rights.
The law affords persons with disabilities the same access to information rights as nondisabled persons, but family and community dynamics often influenced whether these rights were exercised.
The law identifies persons with disabilities as a priority group for government-sponsored legal services. The Ministry of Social Welfare, Department of Social Services, and National Foundation for the Development of the Disabled are the government agencies responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities.
The government took official action to investigate those responsible for violence and abuses against persons with disabilities.
Government facilities for treating persons with mental disabilities were inadequate. The Ministry of Health established child development centers in all public medical colleges to assess neurological disabilities. Several private initiatives existed for medical and vocational rehabilitation as well as for employment of persons with disabilities. National and international NGOs provided services and advocated for persons with disabilities. The government operates 103 disability information and service centers in all 64 districts, where local authorities provided free rehabilitation services and assistive devices. The government also promoted autism research and awareness. The government inaugurated an electronic system to disburse social welfare payments, including disability allowances.
Government inaction limited the rights of persons with disabilities to participate in civic life, including accessibility during elections.
There were no major attacks on religious minorities motivated by transnational violent extremism. There were, however, reports of attacks on Hindu and Buddhist property and temples for economic and political reasons, and some of these faith groups said attacks on religious structures increased during the pandemic.
NGOs reported national origin, racial, and ethnic minorities faced discrimination. For example, some Dalits (lowest-caste Hindus) suffered from restricted access to land, adequate housing, education, and employment.
The estimated 300,000 Urdu-speaking population (known as Biharis, originally Urdu-speaking Muslims who migrated to then-East Pakistan before the Bangladesh Liberation War) were formerly stateless, but members from this community said their requests to obtain passports were rejected by immigration officers due to their address. The overwhelming majority of this population still resided in refugee-like camps established by the International Community of the Red Cross in the 1970s, when many believed they would return to Pakistan following the 1971 war.
The CHT indigenous community experienced widespread discrimination and abuse despite nationwide government quotas for participation of indigenous CHT residents in the civil service and higher education. These conditions also persisted despite provisions for local governance in the 1997 CHT Peace Accord, which has not been fully implemented–specifically the portions of the accord empowering a CHT-specific special administrative system composed of the three Hill District Councils and the Regional Council. Indigenous persons from the CHT were unable to participate effectively in decisions affecting their lands due to disagreements regarding land dispute resolution procedures under the Land Commission Act.
In April during the early onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple NGOs reported severe food insecurity owing to the abrupt job loss by indigenous persons outside CHT. Since many indigenous persons most in need of assistance lived in remote areas difficult to access by vehicles, many indigenous communities reported receiving no government assistance. In October a group of indigenous tribal leaders presented a memorandum to the government stating a significant portion of the food security needs of marginalized communities in CHT remained unmet.
In addition to food insecurity, an August study found land confiscations, livelihood risks, and violence against indigenous women increased during the coronavirus pandemic. While the country had a 20 percent poverty rate, poverty in the plains where some indigenous persons lived was over 80 percent and over 65 percent in CHT. The study also found a lack of health care for indigenous persons. Other organizations corroborated health care available to indigenous persons was well below the standard available to nonindigenous persons in the country.
Indigenous communities in areas other than the CHT reported the loss of land to Bengali Muslims, and indigenous peoples’ advocacy groups reported deforestation to support Rohingya refugee camps and other commercial pursuits caused severe environmental degradation in their land, adversely affecting their livelihoods. The government continued construction projects on land traditionally owned by indigenous communities in the Moulvibazar and Modhupur forest areas. In September an indigenous persons organization reported Bengali settlers destroying indigenous land in Bandarban district in order to construct brick kilns. According to the organization, the environmental degradation put the locals’ health at risk.
The central government retained authority over land use. The land commission, designed to investigate and return all illegally acquired land, did not resolve any disputes during the year. According to one organization, Naika Mardi, an indigenous person and Liberation War fighter, was unable to register 0.04 acres of land to his name, even after trying for 10 years. Madi had been living on this land since before independence in 1971.
The Chakma and Marma indigenous communities, organized under different political groups, engaged in intraindigenous community violence. The factional clashes between and within the United Peoples’ Democratic Forum (UPDF) and the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti resulted mostly from the desire to establish supremacy in particular geographic areas. Media reported many leaders of these factions were engaged in extortion and smuggling of money, drugs, and arms. Meanwhile, the deaths and violence remained unresolved. During the year NGOs and indigenous persons themselves warned intraparty violence in CHT had sharply risen.
In 2019 UPDF leader and indigenous rights activist Michael Chakma disappeared after he left his house for an organizational event. Human rights groups and activists pressed the government to investigate his disappearance and claimed Chakma’s criticisms of government activities played a direct factor in his disappearance. Despite a May 2019 High Court order to the Ministry of Home Affairs Secretary for a report on Chakma’s disappearance, no investigation had begun at year’s end. Police said only that they could not find anyone named “Michael Chakma” in the country. Many observers compared this case with the 1996 disappearance of Kalpana Chakma, another indigenous rights activist and dissident. Despite 39 officers investigating the 1996 case, police in 2018 said they found only “initial proof” of her abduction, while admitting an overall failure to identify the culprit, and concluded the chances of recovering Kalpana Chakma remained unlikely.
Reports of sexual assaults on indigenous women and children by Bengali neighbors or security personnel remain unresolved. In September an organization reported two military personnel raped a ninth-grade indigenous girl from the Kulaura Cameli Duncan Foundation School.
Members of LGBTI communities received threatening messages via telephone, text, and social media, and some were harassed by police.
The law does not prohibit discrimination against LGBTI persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services such as health care. LGBTI groups reported official discrimination in employment and occupation, housing, and access to government services.
Organizations specifically assisting lesbians continued to be rare. Strong social stigma based on sexual orientation was common and prevented open discussion of the subject.
The government took positive steps to increase LGBTI inclusion. On September 16, the Director General of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics announced the 2021 national census would include hijra as a “third gender” category.
Social stigma against HIV and AIDS and against higher-risk populations could be a barrier for accessing health services, especially for the transgender community and men who have sex with men.
Vigilante killings occurred, but fell from the high totals in 2019 when human rights groups reported 54 individuals lynched, 44 in July 2019 alone. In September police charged 15 suspects with the killing of housewife Taslima Begum, who was publicly lynched in July 2019 after a mob wrongly suspected her of child abduction. Begum and her four-year-old daughter were en route to a government primary school to inquire regarding admitting her girl to school when she was killed. The issuance of illegal fatwas and village arbitration, which a prominent local NGO defined as rulings given by community leaders rather than religious scholars, also occurred.