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.
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 cabinet, chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, approved the proposal to make the death penalty the highest punishment for rape, Law Minister Anisul Huq told Reuters.
“The law needed to be amended quickly…(Cabinet) has decided an ordinance will be promulgated tomorrow, with the approval of the president, as the parliament is not holding sessions currently,” he said.
The latest outpouring of national anger was sparked by a video of a group of men stripping and attacking a woman for almost half an hour in the southeastern district of Noakhali.
An investigation by an autonomous state body, the National Human Rights Commission, found the woman in the video had been raped repeatedly and terrorised with weapons by one of the group over the last year.
“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.”
When survivors file a complaint for 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% of rural respondents and 95% of urban respondents said they faced no legal consequences.