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Institutional Legacies of Wartime Rape

Beyond the public discussion of the erstwhile unspeakable crime of rape, itself a profound change in a closed and private society, the violence of the war left two institutional and programmatic legacies. The first was that many hundreds of thousands, and very likely millions, of women and children were left without male protection or support. We know this because of the million or more who died or were disabled in the conflict, a high proportion would have been adult men (see Curlin, Chen, and Hussain 1976). Many of the thousands of women who 'came out' to work on public works schemes after the famine were probably widowed or became household heads as a result of the war. Afsan Chowdhury's film documents the tough lives led by women in this situation, recording their assessment that little was done to help them and their sense that someone, preferably the state they sacrificed to bring about, should have acted to support them. The war left a discernible population of women without reliable male support—a group for whom the old patriarchal bargain had, visibly, nothing to offer. These women had expectations of the new state for which they had sacrificed so much, and were disappointed by what the new state had to offer.[1]

Despite women's disappointment with their state, the war rapes saw the start of public services that intervened specifically on the ground of the old patriarchal bargain. In the immediate aftermath of the war these were a limited range of emergency services related chiefly to the rapes. They included schemes under the National Board of Bangladesh Women's Rehabilitation Programme to get women re-integrated into society through marriage or by equipping them with skills to earn a living. Unsurprisingly, given the social stigma of rape, few women came forward to claim the privileges accorded those with official birangona status (compared to the thousands who claimed to have been muktijoddha or freedom fighters). But this was a sign that the 'newly formed state became responsible for making these women available to the nation, "returning" them and "protecting" them from the assumed prevalence of "Muslim" traditions and taboos' (Mookherjee 2007, 342). There was a temporary suspension of the law against abortion to permit a programme of abortion on an almost industrial scale, in part about 'protecting' women 'from the emotions of motherhood so that they could return to society' (Mookherjee 2007, 339). A temporary law (the Bangladesh Abandoned Children (Special Provision) Order of 1972) permitted international adoptions of the babies from pregnancies too advanced for abortion, or for other reasons brought to term but not kept by the mother (Mookherjee 2007). This last was also about protection, this time of children who were otherwise vulnerable to abandonment or trafficking (Chowdhury 2015), but it was also about ridding the country of the offspring of Pakistani rapists.

Each of these actions reversed the old logics of the patriarchal bargain. The first authorized women's independence from (family) men; the second prevented women from mothering; the third removed children from their society. The laws on abortion and adoption were temporary—as Mookherjee observes, a classic example of Agamben's 'state of exception', operating as 'the legal form of what cannot have legal form' (Agamben 2005,1). No written law permitting abortion was possible as the constitution was not ratified till October 1972, and the lack of written law and the destruction of documentary records reflect the fact that later-term abortion is again illegal in Bangladesh.[2] But while these events took place within the state of exception, their effects have been enduring in their implications for society. These are most direct for the individual members directly affected, but also evident in how they shaped institutions and inclinations of the state to intervene in 'family' matters, and therefore in the relationship between women citizens and state.

The effects of the overall effort to reintegrate the survivors of rape were mixed. The interventions are often seen as having been disempowering, intended to force women back into some kind of socially acceptable settlement by 'taking away women's agency, transgressing their humanity and transforming them into bodies that were manipulated so that men would not have to deal with the unhappy reminders of the past' (Saikia 2011, 168). The ambivalence with which the efforts were made reflects the fact that this was more than merely a matter of rescuing citizens from harm: in symbolic terms, the foundational institutions of family, private property, and inheritance ultimately rested on women's sexual purity. Practically and conceptually, the social order depended on the restoration of sexual order (see Ortner 1978). But Bangladeshi society could never return to its pre-war condition, and the rape rehabilitation interventions required something new of the beleaguered state. It responded as well as might have been expected under the conditions. To the extent that these interventions marked a transfer of the responsibility to protect from society to state, and certainly within a liberal political framework, they can be regarded as progressive. Efforts to valorize and rehabilitate women were intended to signal modernity and progressive thinking (Mookherjee 2008); and in some respects these efforts were pioneering. D'Costa and Hossain argue that the 'interventions were ahead of their time, providing women with much needed support and solidarity and critical material assistance which helped them rebuild their lives' (2010, 342). In a continuing theme of the export of ideas and technologies of government, the legal provisions for dealing with the aftermath of the rapes have been seen as precursors to international legislation on forced pregnancy after wartime rapes in contexts like 1990s Bosnia (Mookherjee 2007, 342). Naila Kabeer (1988) argues that although in practice in the early years after independence, policy on women was mainly limited to conventional instrumental treatment of women's bodies as sites for fertility control, the commitment to secularism created more ideological space for a struggle for women's rights than had been possible before.

It could even be said that Bangladesh's role as the world's aid lab started in the effort to handle the wartime rapes. Several international NGOs and agencies got their start working on the sensitive matter of reproduction in Bangladesh at this time. 'Travelling' methods of abortion like menstrual regulation were developed under these sad 'laboratory' conditions, and later used elsewhere.[3] Without the desperate need to rehabilitate women after the war, the poverty and social protection programmes and fertility control and reproductive health schemes for which the Bangladesh government and NGOs are now seen as pioneers may not have had such a receptive environment.

  • [1] Shehabuddin makes a similar point when she notes the state is an important actor in thestudy of women's lives in Bangladesh more 'by virtue of its limitations and absence' than because itis felt to have done much for women (2008, 16). I disagree that the state has been absent fromwomen's lives, but that there remains vast room for supporting and enabling Bangladeshi womenthrough more and better state action is without doubt true. That women have expectations of theirstate is itself, I would argue, a sign of their growing sense of citizenship.
  • [2] Although 'menstrual regulation', a 'procedure that uses manual vacuum aspiration (MVA) tosafely establish nonpregnancy after a missed period', is legal (Guttmacher Institute 2012). USAID'spopulation programmes in Bangladesh experimented with the production of cheap devicesthrough which untrained users could facilitate early stage abortions, sometimes through themedium of feminist NGOs and marketing technologies. Some of the organizations at theforefront of this technology were involved in the large-scale abortion programmes in the postwar period (see Murphy 2012).
  • [3] Murphy (2012) documents how the experience of wartime rapes came to be institutionalizedin fertility control programmes after the war, including through 'USAID's approach to fertilitycontrol, which knitted together reproduction, economy, and experts in a way that harbingeredlater neoliberal forms of development' (Murphy 2012, 168). In another connection between thewar rapes and the experimental fertility programmes through which the aided state sought to makeBangladeshis, Mookherjee notes that 'a large number of women raped during the war receivedprofessional training... and worked as these lady village workers' distributing family planningadvice and devices (2007, 346).
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