Bangladesh rights activists blame the increasing number of sexual assaults on a culture of impunity and poor prosecutorial outcomes, saying tougher penalties are not enough.
Bangladesh’s cabinet has approved the death penalty for rapists amid nationwide protests in the wake of a series of gang rapes and sexual assaults.
The cabinet, chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, approved the proposal on Monday, Law Minister Anisul Huq said.
The latest outpouring of national anger was sparked by a video of a group of men stripping and raping a woman for almost half an hour in the southeastern district of Noakhali.
Bangladesh has seen a surge of sexual crimes in recent years, with nearly 1,000 incidents reported between January and September, more than a fifth of them gang rapes, according to human rights group Ain-o-Salish Kendra.
The women’s rights group said at least 41 victims died between January and August.
Experts, however, said tougher penalties would not be enough to tackle the problem and authorities needed to immediately address systemic problems in rape trials and the extremely low conviction rates.
Rights activists blame the increasing number of assaults on a culture of impunity and protection of suspects by influential individuals for political reasons.
"The law needed to be amended quickly ... (the cabinet) has decided an ordinance will be promulgated tomorrow, with the approval of the president, as the parliament is not holding sessions currently," Huq said.
Details of the amendment were not immediately available, but Cabinet spokesman Khandaker Anwarul Islam said the cabinet agreed to a proposal that trials in rape cases be completed in a speedy manner.
Huq said the president is expected to issue the ordinance on Tuesday.
Under the current law, the maximum punishment in rape cases is life imprisonment, except for cases in which the victim dies, when capital punishment is allowed.
'I fear I am next'
An investigation by an autonomous state body, the National Human Rights Commission, found the woman in the recent video had been raped repeatedly and terrorised with weapons by one of the group over the last year.
In another case, a woman was dragged into a college dorm from a car where she was travelling with her husband and was gang raped.
"No mercy to rapists" shouted protesters gathered in the capital Dhaka and elsewhere, hundreds of women and students among them. Many carried placards bearing messages such as "Stop rape culture."
"Every day, newspapers carry fresh stories of sexual violence against women," said Sahana Islam, a university student, who joined the protests.
"I fear I am next. I want death penalty for the rapists so that the rest of the inhuman creeps can learn what will happen to them if they ever dare to do it."
Prosecution times lengthy and rare
When survivors file a complaint against sexual assault in Bangladesh, prosecution is very rare and takes years to complete, and the conviction rate in trials that do go to court is very low.
In addition, many rapes go unreported because women fear being stigmatised.
A 2013 survey conducted by the United Nations found that, among men in Bangladesh who admitted to committing rape, 88 percent of rural respondents and 95 percent of urban respondents said they faced no legal consequences.
Hasina said she would bring those responsible to justice.