Earlier this year Nusrat Jahan Rafi was set on fire for refusing to withdraw a sexual assault claim against her principal at the Islamic seminary where she studied, in a town near the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka.
Five days later, on April 10, the 19-year old died from her horrific injuries, suffering burns to 80 percent of her body.
Before her death, however, she was able to give one final statement to police describing the attack.
It is alleged that the principal, who was arrested by police after Rafi accused him of harassment, planned her murder from jail, which was carried out by men – some thought to be fellow students – disguised in burkas.
They ‘lured’ Rafi to a rooftop at the school, where she arrived to sit her final exams, asking her to withdraw the complaint. When she refused, they bound and gagged her, poured kerosene all over her body and set her on fire.
Now 16 men, including the principal and two local politicians, have been charged with her murder – and the Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, says the men will be ‘brought to justice’.
Twelve of the 16 accused have so far confessed their involvement.
But it’s what happened before Rafi’s tragic, senseless death that sums up the banality with which sexual assault is all too-often treated.
In March, when Rafi initially recorded a complaint with police about the principal’s inappropriate conduct, the local police station chief is captured in leaked footage saying the incident was ‘not a big deal’.
While the principal was subsequently arrested, the police officers’ handling of the complaint suggests the arrest may have just been a formality. The principal’s ability to orchestrate Rafi’s murder while in prison also suggests he was not closely monitored, despite clearly posing a threat to her safety.
Data from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in 2016 indicates that sexual and gender-based violence was on the rise in the Dhaka region where Rafi was attacked. MSF operate the only clinics where women and girls can access ‘free and confidential’ medical care for sexual and gender-based violence.
A 2013 report by the UN also found a very high incidence of sexual and gender-based violence throughout Bangladesh.
The patriarchal social structure and subsequent lower status of women – plus an ingrained precedent of subjecting women to violence for failing to meet conservative social standards – means many women are victims of violence. The most common forms are dowry and/or marital violence, rape, sexual harassment and even acid attacks, which typically involves acid thrown either at a woman’s face or genitals to ‘damage the victim’s appearance in order to destroy her marriage prospects’.
In interviews with several news organisations, Maleka Banu, head of the Mahila Parishad women’s rights group in Bangladesh, agrees that sexual violence is more widespread than statistics suggest.
Many victims are coerced into not reporting incidents due to ‘pressure from perpetrators, political interference and a lack of will by the police to investigate’.
“Only three per cent of rape cases end in convictions,” she says.
While the injustice and horrors experienced by women in Bangladesh may seem far removed from our experiences here, there are also alarming rates of sexual and family violence impacting women in Australia.
Destroy the Joint, an organisation tallying the number of women murdered in Australia each year, points out that while not all women’s deaths are a result of family violence, the murder of a woman constitutes an act of ‘societal misogyny’.
Last week, the group posted on their Facebook page that the number of dead women in 2019 stands at 21 – an average of one woman per week so far.
At the end of 2018, this number stood at 69. In 2017, it was 54, and 74 in 2016.
In an interview on The Project, a friend of Herron’s, Jessica Bateman, says she was failed by the system. Addicted to drugs and experiencing homelessness, Herron had limited options and was reportedly denied access to public housing.
“She was trying to get into public housing, she was trying to get onto methadone or something that would stop the withdrawal symptoms that she was going to face — and the fear of withdrawal is what really kept her using,” Bateman said.
In the month prior to her death, Herron’s mother had filed a missing person’s report. She was picked up by police on May 14 but was released without seeing her mother.
“They should have detained her, kept her, so her mother could come pick her up. But because she’s 25, she’s an adult,” Bateman said of her release.
Nusrat Jahani Rafi suffered an excruciating, cruel death at the hands of men. One man in particular, her alleged sexual assaulter, had a direct duty of care towards Rafi – one that he callously swept aside in order to harass and assault her. His decision to condemn Rafi to death for his crime – that she so bravely reported to police – was the penultimate act of misogyny.