‘You just need to bear it,’ Salma’s parents told her when she sought to escape from physical abuse in her marital home. The social pressure Salma faced to not report the abuse she endured is alarmingly common in Bangladesh. In fact, almost three in four Bangladeshi women have experienced different forms of violence at the hands of their husbands. Less than 3% of women have taken legal action.

Such underreporting of violence against women (VAW) occurs because domestic violence is often treated as a private family matter in Bangladesh. Legal action is deemed inappropriate as it will tarnish the family name. In many cases, survivors are accused of disobedience or incompetence in fulfilling their spousal role. They thus almost never go to the police—until the violence threatens their life.

Even if an abused woman is willing to file a report, there is often only a slim chance of legal remedy. A report in 2020 by international advocacy organisation Human Rights Watch states that, out of the 42,843 women who sought help from the Bangladeshi government’s One-Stop Crisis Centre, only 160 legal cases led to the imposition of a penalty. What makes this scenario even more alarming is the rising trend in reported rape incidence since 2018. At the same time, reported incidence of crimes that were high up until the 1990s—such as dowry-related violence and acid attacks—has lowered consistently.

Wake-up call

Bangladesh’s long-term national development roadmap, Vision 2041—a continuation of the previous Digital Bangladesh Vision 2021—aspires to eliminate poverty and to enable the country to enter high-income developed status by 2041. However, women in Bangladesh—making up half of its population—face increasing violence, which prevents them from thriving and making a significant contribution to the country’s rapidly expanding economy.

A mother warming up her child on a chilly winter morning, Kushtia, Bangladesh, February 2009. | Photo by Emdadul Islam Bitu.

Abused women often suffer poor physical and mental health. Absenteeism from work and school is, tragically, widespread among those facing abuse. This results in employment instability and lower labour force participation in the long run. Consequently, Bangladesh is losing potential revenue through reduced workforce productivity and lower economic output by women.

For Bangladesh, the social loss that VAW causes may be as detrimental as the economic loss. If mothers experience domestic violence, their children under five years of age have a higher mortality risk. School-age children confront adverse psychological impacts, affecting their cognitive development in the long term. This will also compromise their future academic and economic contribution. Moreover, children who witness marital violence are at risk of continuing the intergenerational cycle of violence as adults. As such, VAW in Bangladesh is arguably an endemic that inflicts long-lasting socioeconomic harm. Responding to this requires prompt action from Bangladesh’s government and civil society alike.

Why link VAW with water and sanitation?

The relationship between VAW and water and sanitation appears tenuous at first glance. However, in recent years, researchers have become aware that insecure access to water, sanitation and hygiene (commonly known as WASH) increases women’s risk of experiencing violence.

Consider this scenario. Women who have no sanitation facility at home will need to use public toilets or, worse, practise open defaecation. Toilets without privacy expose women to the threat of harassment or rape, and force them to endure psychological stress while using the facilities.

As reported in 2015 by women living in a flooded area of rural southwest Bangladesh, the temporary latrine provided was not secure, as men would cut holes in the polythene walls and spy on them. A mother reported that 12 men had gangraped her daughter when she went to the toilet at night. Therefore, safe sanitation facilities at home are fundamental in lowering the risk of VAW.

Meanwhile, given that in low- and middle-income countries it is predominantly women who are responsible for household water supply, they are vulnerable to domestic violence if they are unable to fulfil this role. They are also subjected to violence when accessing public water sources as they need to compete for water with other women. Moreover, travelling long distances to collect water from public sources can expose women to potential rape, harassment and sexual assault.

…travelling long distances to collect water from public sources can expose women to potential rape, harassment and sexual assault.

In East Africa, men often occupy the scarce water resources and demand exorbitant prices—including coercing women in dire poverty into sex for water access. Some men attack women if they appear vulnerable when fetching water.

This underscores the significance of safe access to sanitation and water in protecting women from abuse during routine sanitation practice and water collection. The age-old adage remains true: an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. Safe WASH is, therefore, not only a basic human right but also a preventive measure for VAW. It may thus be worth looking into Bangladesh’s current WASH situation to understand better how to prevent VAW.

Bangladesh’s WASH progress

According to a 2021 joint report by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund, Bangladesh is one of the few countries having made record progress in improving basic sanitation and hygiene since 2015. This progress is a result of relentless stakeholder efforts over the past four decades. From installing latrines in the 1980s to promoting latrine usage through education in the following decades, today’s Bangladesh has become an open defaecation-free country. However, access to safe sanitation—a private toilet facility where human waste is safely disposed of—languishes, at 39%. This means that most Bangladeshi women are still using shared public toilets that may expose them to the risk of sexual violence.

A woman using a toilet block in a village in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India, November 2018 | Photo by Anindito Mukherje.

Meanwhile, usage of safely managed drinking water has grown relatively more slowly in Bangladesh. Safe drinking water is contamination-free. It does not require collection time as it is available at home. From 2015 to 2020, access to safe drinking water improved by only 3 percentage points, with 59% of the population having access in 2020. Women who do not have drinkable water at home need to travel for water from public sources, increasing their vulnerability to violence.

However, there is no conclusive evidence that WASH insecurity has contributed to VAW in Bangladesh. The causal effect of WASH insecurity on VAW in Bangladesh remains unexplored, and empirical evidence is scant. There has been extensive scrutiny of the topic in Bangladesh’s neighbour, India. Access to private household sanitation in India has been proven to lessen women’s vulnerability to violence.

India as a case study

Like Bangladesh, India is among the best performers in terms of improving basic sanitation and hygiene since 2015. It also has slightly better access to safely managed sanitation than Bangladesh—at 46% of its population. This uptick is unsurprising, as India launched the Swachh Bharat Mission (also known as the Clean India Campaign) in 2014 as an initiative to drastically improve the sanitation sector. The campaign’s aim is to reach universal sanitation coverage. Since it began, over 100 million household toilets have been built—especially in open defaecation-prone rural India. By October 2019, India had declared itself open defaecation-free.

Another unfortunate similarity between Bangladesh and India is the high prevalence of VAW. According to the Indian government’s latest Family Health Survey, from 2015–2016, 1.4 million Indian women aged 15–49 have experienced sexual violence by someone outside their marriage. Data from the survey suggests that rural women with no access to private household sanitation are at higher risk of non-marital sexual violence.

A research organisation assessed the contribution of the Clean India Campaign in combating VAW. It first identified Indian districts with the highest rates of crime against women. It then gathered VAW reports from local newspapers from 2010 to 2018. Researchers noticed that reported cases during 2010–2015 remained relatively constant. After two years of the Clean India Campaign’s implementation, during 2016, a drastic decline in sexual assault cases was seen. By 2018, cases had reduced by more than 90% compared with the figure for 2010. The study concluded that household sanitation provided through the campaign had lessened the practice of open defaecation and consequently reduced sexual violence.

Where is VAW to be found?

The success story from India shows that Bangladesh would do well to study the link between WASH and VAW. This may open up wide potential for crime prevention through safe WASH access. Data from Bangladesh suggests an apparent connection between VAW and lack of access to sanitation facilities.

The success story from India shows that Bangladesh would do well to study the link between WASH and VAW.

The western half of Bangladesh, comprising the divisions/regions of Rangpur, Khulna and Rajshahi—with the highest incidence of VAW—has above-average usage of shared toilets and open defaecation. Moreover, these are climate-stressed areas, in which residents may move in and out of temporary shelters during natural disasters. Disaster-affected victims often share toilets, meaning the women are more prone to violence.

Exceptions do exist. The above-average usage of public toilets in the central regions of Dhaka and Mymensingh is not associated with higher VAW. Fetching water from public sources also appears to have a tenuous connection with VAW incidence. These observations can be taken with a grain of salt, however, since they are ‘anecdotal’ views from the survey. A critical analysis of the VAW–WASH relationship requires use of a rigorous research method and control for other factors causing VAW.

Concluding comments

The authors have shared here some preliminary observations from their ongoing research on violence against women (VAW) and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). The findings indicate that improving WASH to reduce VAW across Bangladesh would be worthwhile. For Bangladesh, it is worth exploring for any link between the two issues.

Bangladesh is a rapidly developing society, and it is of paramount importance to eradicate VAW to ensure women’s active participation in the economy. When women feel safe, sound and valued by society, they will be more enthusiastic about their careers, starting a business and voicing their opinions.

Participation of women in the economy is crucial for Bangladesh to achieve ‘developed economy’ status as envisaged as part of its long-term plan Vision 2041. In this way, the country can move a step closer towards realising its founding dream of a prosperous ‘Golden Bengal.’

Cover ©️ M. Yousuf Tushar.

Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu

Lua Yun Xin
Lua Yun Xin is the chief operating officer of Enactus UNM. She is an economist. Her areas of interest are public policy, social entrepreneurship and development. She is pursuing her undergraduate studies at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia.
Muhammad Shafiullah
Muhammad Shafiullah is an associate professor at BRAC University. He is an economist. He is an editor at Cogent Economics & Finance. He was an associate professor of economics at the University of Nottingham Malaysia and a senior economist at the Policy Research Institute, Bangladesh. He specialises in the economics of finance, energy and the environment. He pursued his doctoral studies in economics at Griffith University, Australia.