Bangladesh ratified the United Nations’ 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1990 and committed to ensuring the protection of children and their best interests in all spheres of life. It has since introduced the Children Act (2013) as a part of its international commitment to UNCRC. As Bangladesh has ratified the UNCRC, it is obliged to ensure separate treatment of children under the justice system and use detention as a last rather than a first resort. In Bangladesh the involvement of girls in the juvenile justice system is low compared to their male counterparts. However, this rate is increasing, which is of concern. In particular, the treatment of girls by the juvenile justice system in Bangladesh raises human rights issues around when they are detained for committing non-criminal offenses and subjected to gender discrimination.
Globally most cases of girls coming before the justice system are for status offenses (e.g. running away from home, underage drinking or marriage) and non-violent offenses (e.g. theft or shoplifting), which pose a limited risk to society. Many girls also commit such offences as a means of escaping abuse. Within Bangladesh, there exist three Child Development Centres (CDCs) – two for boys and one for girls – administered by the Department of Social Services (DSS) under the Ministry of Social Welfare (MoSW). These ostensibly provide accommodation, correction and development services for juveniles who come under the justice system by court order. Evidence shows that Bangladeshi children receive similar treatment to adult offenders, and particularly girls who are detained for behaviour that would not constitute an offense if committed by an adult, such as underage drinking, underage marriage or running away from home. While there is no comprehensive yearly statistical evidence concerning the percentage of girls within the justice system and the legal reasons they are detained, data from the DSS in January 2020 reported that there were 103 girls in the CDC. Of these, 19 had allegedly committed offenses including theft, drug-related, sex offenses, or murder, while the remaining 84 were described as ‘safe custody’ cases, detained for underage marriage, being a victim of rape or human trafficking, being separated from family as a ‘missing case’, or a victim of commercial sexual exploitation. It is critical to explore the experiences of these girls detained within the CDC and consider the extent to which they are subject to gender discrimination, and how this is related to the patriarchy of the justice system.
In Bangladesh girls are predominantly detained under the juvenile justice system for committing no offenses (e.g. being a victim) and non-criminal offenses (e.g. underage marriage) which pose minimal risk to society. Importantly, many of them are subject to gender-based abuse and maltreatment at the hands of their parents, family members or employers prior to their involvement with the justice system. Some of them have been forced into prostitution and sexually exploited prior to escaping. Many girls who are victims of offenses are detained alongside those who allegedly committed offenses, as well as those who committed minor offenses as a means of coping with abuse and are criminalised by the patriarchal constructs of a highly gendered justice system. It is also evident that many of these girls are subject to additional abuse at the hands of law enforcement agencies (across both police and court institutions).
Girls who are victims of offences such as rape, human trafficking, or sexual exploitation require care, not criminalisation. Likewise, girls who have committed minor offences should be treated proportionately, with probationary judgments and court warnings rather than immediate detention. Instead, the current approach attaches long-term stigma to juveniles who have been subject to the justice system, as well as risking the re-traumatisation of abuse survivors. Bangladesh is contravening the UNCRC’s guarantees of freedom, as well as its minimum standard of care for children detained within facilities such as CDCs. To protect the best interests of girls under the juvenile justice system, it is critical that the Bangladeshi government urgently apply a critical lens to institutional practices which affirm gender inequality and gender discrimination under the juvenile justice system.
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