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DHAKA: Two days after launching an all-female team to combat online abuse targeting women, Bangladeshi police say they have received almost 1,000 complaints of cyber harassment.

“The phones are ringing constantly. We are receiving calls from women all over the country,” Nasrin Akter, assistant superintendent of the police cyber support for women (PCSW) unit, told Arab News.

“Since launching the service, we have registered around 1,000 phone calls,” she added.

The cyber support unit was initiated by Bangladeshi police chief Benazir Ahmed following growing public concern at a rise in gender-based violence and cybercrimes against women.

“Around 68 percent of women in the cyberspace have been victims of cybercrimes. Of these, 73 percent have been subjected to cyberbullying or harassment,” Ahmed said this week.

Police hope the unit will encourage women to report digital abuse, including “revenge porn,” misuse of social media content and blackmail, since complainants will share their personal details with an all-women team instead of men.

“Although we had several specialist units to deal with cybercrimes, there was none to help women and children exclusively,” Sohel Rana, assistant inspector-general of police, told Arab News. 

According to the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, there are more than 100 million active internet users in the country. Mobile internet use is believed to be limited to 33 percent of men and 16 percent of women.

Rana said that with a steady increase in internet use, it was important to create an “exclusive” space where women could voice issues related to cybercrime.

“A lot of the complaints are about harassment. We register the complaints and provide necessary legal advice,” he said. 

The unit employs 12 police officers who provide support to victims from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week. 

“We receive complaints through the hotline and our Facebook page. In some cases, we provide instant solutions. But if the case requires further investigation, we refer them to the nearest police station to file an official complaint,” Akter said. 

In all cases, the “identity of the complainant is kept confidential.”

The launch of the women’s cyber-support unit follows legislation to introduce the death penalty for convicted rapists.  

Bangladesh was hit by nationwide protests after two gang-rapes in the country’s Noakhali and Sylhet districts.

However, activists say that neither the death penalty nor the launch of the cyber unit will “change the reality,” citing a spike in rape cases in the past month. 

According to one media outlet, 183 rape incidents were reported in the country in the four weeks to Nov. 13 — a 58 percent increase on the previous month.  

Women and gender experts welcome the police initiative, but are calling for an “integrated campaign” to limit violence against women and children. 

“Many women don’t know the proper uses of social media platforms. They don’t have any idea how to protect themselves from abuse,” Prof. Tania Haque, of Dhaka University, told Arab News.  

“We need to focus on eliminating this sort of crime through a massive awareness campaign,” she added.

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