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Young Girl Set on Fire in Bangladesh Over Sexual Assault Claims

A young Bangladeshi woman was publically burned to death after reporting her sexual assault. Nusrat Jahan Rafi was a 19-year-old studying at an Islamic school. In late March of this year, Rafi claimed that she was called into her headmaster’s office where she was touched inappropriately.

She fled the room and, later that same day, filed a report at the local police station with the help of her family. This was a somewhat revolutionary act, as other Bangladeshi women who have been sexually assaulted often keep their experiences to themselves for fear of being publicly shamed or attacked by the public or their families.

A local officer also violated Rafi’s privacy that day as he recorded her statement, telling her it was “no big deal” as she was visibly distressed and attempting to cover her face with her hands. This video was later leaked to local media. The headmaster was then arrested.

Besides scrutiny from community members in her conservative, religious town, Rafi also faced judgment online, protests against her accusations, and even violent attacks.Two male students and local politicians organized a protest against the headmaster’s imprisonment and took to the streets, blaming Rafi for the incident.

Her family started to worry for her safety. When she  attempted to go to school eleven days later to finish her final exams, her brother tried to come with her but was stopped at the door. He said, “I tried to take my sister to school and tried to enter the premises, but I was stopped and wasn’t allowed to enter. If I hadn’t been stopped, something like this wouldn’t have happened to my sister.”

What happened next must have been horrifying for Rafi. A female student took her to the roof of the school, claiming her friend was being beaten up. When Rafi got to the top, four or five people wearing burqas surrounded her, trying to convince her to drop her case against the headmaster. When she refused, they lit her on fire. One of the attackers held her head down with his hands as they poured kerosene all over her body. Because of the placement of his hands, no kerosene reached her face.

The Police Bureau of Investigation’s chief, Banaj Kumar Majumder, said the killers wanted “to make it look like a suicide.” Rafi was rescued at the scene, ruining their plan. Doctors at the local hospital found burns on 80 percent of her body. They were unable to treat her burns and sent her to Dhaka Medical College Hospital. Rafi feared she wouldn’t live and recorded a statement on her brother’s cell phone in the ambulance.

In that video she said, “The teacher touched me, I will fight this crime till my last breath.” She also identifies some of her attackers as fellow students at her school.

Soon after her transfer to another hospital, Rafi passed away. Thousands of people showed up to her funeral. Police have arrested 15 people, seven of them allegedly involved in Rafi’s murder. The headmaster still remains in custody.

Rafi’s death has sparked protests around the world, with thousands taking to social media to express their anger over her death and the way sexual assault allegations are treated in Bangladesh. We can only hope that her death was not in vain and that it will continue to spur change for other Bangladeshi women.

Featured Image by Magalie L’Abbé on Flickr.

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