By Guest Writer Arifur Rahman*
The conception that a man needs to be virile, powerful, tough and impenetrable is dominant in a country like Bangladesh. Being a male rape victim, therefore, is considered a flagrant violation of the code of heterosexuality– such an individual no longer belongs to the sphere of masculinity. In effect, most male rape cases in Bangladesh remain under-reported. However, in recent years, the country has witnessed a notable spike in male rape cases. Data from a leading human rights organization reveal that, in the year 2021, a number of 31 male rape cases were reported. Recently, a madrasah teacher was arrested for the alleged rape of his 12 year old male student. Despite the presence of male rape in Bangladesh, the legal redress for male rape victims stands somewhat as a legal quandary and reflects the societal expectation of ideal masculinity.
The Penal Code 1860, for instance, blatantly affirms hegemonic masculinity. The 100-year-old legal instrument bears a colonial legacy, fails to define male rape, and moreover, is destitute of the sense that a man could get raped. Section 375 of the Code defines the crime of rape, limited to penile-vaginal penetration without the consent or against the will of a woman by a man. Section 377 is indifferent to the gender of the transgressor, and includes penetration against men by going beyond the male on female paradigm. Unlike section 375, the provision does not include consent requirements, and rather equates voluntary penetration other than the heterosexual one with homosexuality and provides punishment for such ‘unnatural’ acts. The obvious contrasts between sections 375 and 377 arguably fit into the notion that the latter provision was not intended to provide shelter to male rape victims, but instead to criminalize homosexuality.
The failure to recognize male rape has gained attention with the enactment of the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act of 2000. The law proscribes male child rape, but not the rape of male adults. However, cases concerning male child rape continue to be filed under section 377 of the Penal Code as ‘unnatural offences’ but not rape. It is possibly because the Act still upholds the same conventional definition of rape: that is, an act comprising of penile-vaginal intercourse. The gender-exclusive nature of the definition portraying men as the ultimate sexual aggressors and women as survivors is understandable due to the fact that sexual violence is most pervasive towards women. However, the definition overlooks the experience of male rape victims who challenge the heteronormative underpinnings of rape.
Here, the objection, however, remains in the gender-neutral definition of rape, most often grounded on theoretical assumptions. One such objection is that the gender-neutral rape definition attempts to diminish the impact of rape upon women by disregarding the gendered nature of rape as a violence specific to women. Accordingly, it might lead to a grim possibility to consider, as Novotny identifies, that rape is not ‘a tool of patriarchy’ anymore. These concerns are salient, but do not fully capture the complex dynamics of gendered harm. What remains at the heart of patriarchy is power and dominance– rape is a device activated by the perpetrator to regulate power relations. Rape, even within the gender-neutral platform, remains a patriarchal tool by including male victims to evince its powerful-on-powerless paradigm and accordingly demonstrates that an act of rape can go beyond the male-on-female stereotype. Moreover, the gender inclusive definition does not undermine what women rape victims experience as women; rather it creates a space to make sense of the experience of those whose bodies are equally considered to be sexually violable. Such experiences might not be identical or equivalent to that of women, but certainly still violent. Thus, legal redress is required.
The law upholds masculinity and heterosexual norms, and the absence of the recognition of male rape, in turn, has detrimental impacts on the human rights of male rape victims. Bangladesh is a signatory to numerous international human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 2 of the Covenant lays out the requirement of an effective remedy including judicial, legislative or administrative to be ensured by the states to the victims of violation of any human rights enshrined in the Covenant. Rape is undoubtedly a serious form of violation of human rights including but not limited to the violation of both physical and mental integrity of an individual. The absence of male rape within the legal definition of rape is a serious impediment to the male rape victims in their access to get an effective remedy or their right to access justice in Bangladesh. Such challenges have been recognized by the Human Rights Committee. In one of its concluding observations under ICCPR, the committee calls to enact laws that would criminalize male rape. In another observation, the committee recommends to broaden the definition rape to include rape of men so as to consider the seriousness of the offence.
Therefore, a definition of rape including male rape victims would not only ensure the protection of male rape victims but also demonstrate the commitment of Bangladesh towards its human rights obligations.
*Arifur Rahman is currently an LLM candidate at University of Dhaka, Bangladesh.