Feature Story

30 September 2009

Working to End Acid Attacks in Bangladesh by 2015

DAKA, Bangladesh — Slim and graceful, Hasina Akter still has a winning smile, luxuriant dark hair and one large bright eye.

But she’s no longer the beauty she one was – not since Amir, an employee of her father’s, threw acid on her face, leaving her disfigured and partially blind. Her life changed dramatically since that night, but with support and courage she has gone on to live a full life and become an advocate for others who have suffered from acid attacks. “My heart is beautiful,” Hasina says. “I can feel that."

Five years ago, after the two had been at odds for some time, Hasina scolded Amir for wasting water. That night, he retaliated by throwing a jar of acid through an open window onto her face. At the time, acid was cheap in Bangladesh where it is used in the dying of textiles and crafting of jewelry. Less than a dollar was enough to ruin a life.

“When my body started burning, I went to my mother and said, ‘Give me water quickly, my skin is scorching.’” Hasina ran outside, writhing in pain as her family poured water on the burns.. Her father then called a friend who was a doctor and managed to drive her to a hospital as the acid melted her skin.

After months of surgery and skin grafts, Hasina was transferred to the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) started by Monira Rahman in 1999.

Hundreds of attacks each year

Ms. Rahman, the Executive Director of the organization, is committed not only to the survivors of acid attacks, but also to bringing an end to acid violence in Bangladesh, which she believes can be accomplished by 2015. On 8 October, she will be receiving an award for her efforts from Americans for UNFPA.

When Hasima arrived at the foundation, Ms. Rahman welcomed her, and assured her that she was not alone. In Bangladesh, an acid attack occurs every two days on average. Although men and children are sometimes attacked, about 70 per cent of acid attacks are committed against women, said Ms. Rahman. Typically they are committed as a result of land disputes, marital (and pre-marital) disagreements, domestic violence and jealousy.

The first documented attack occurred in the area in 1967, and it has become increasingly common for men in South or Southeast Asia to use acid to destroy the beauty of women who have spurned them.

“The patriarchal mindset is the reason for acid violence, especially the beauty aspect,” says Ms. Rahman. “They think, ‘If I take her beauty away, no one will marry her.’"

Showing their faces to the world

Ten years ago, the survivors often hid in shame, afraid to speak out. At the time there was no specific law on acid violence. The average time for a trial, if there was one, was likely a decade or more.

Today, the foundation runs a 20 bed hospital and treats 600-700 acid attack survivors annually. Many were attacked years ago and never received care. Through the foundation, survivors also are able to access mental health services and employment opportunities. Some survivors are sent out of the country for plastic surgery to repair the worst of the damage.

A number of them, like Hasina, refuse to let their scars hold them back. Hasina now works for the foundation and continues to speak out about the kind of discrimination against women that perpetuates acid attacks. As survivors speak out and carry on with their daily lives, their presence makes an imprint on the community, says Ms. Rahman. “It is important to see the courage of these survivors,” she says. “They’re making a big impact on society by breaking down barriers.”

When she began her work, people were reluctant to accept acid violence as a social problem, says Ms. Rahman. “Actually, domestic violence issues were neglected – they were considered as private matters,” she continued.

In recent years, however, partly as a result of her efforts, dramatic strides have been made to hold perpetrators accountable. In 2002, the Bangladesh government passed two laws, one for the speedy trial of perpetrators and one to control acid availability. Still, it was three years before Amir was apprehended and sent to jail.

Involving men

Countering gender-based violence requires the participation of men, and UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, has helped the Acid Survivors Foundation to address that aspect of the problem. In 2002, the organizations collaborated on a major public education campaign targeting men from all sectors of society. The campaign drew support from the State Minister of Home Affairs, the Attorney General, the Inspector General of Police, the President of the Press Club and celebrities. Together with hundreds of men and women, survivors and supporters, they marched in the street, calling for an end to acid violence.

“While I was in Bangladesh, a lot of people – cab drivers, waiters, etc. – told us that acid violence is a big problem in the country ,” says Deni Robey of Americans for UNFPA who visited the foundation in July. “That’s really a testament to Monira Rahman’s work.

“Monira believes so passionately that society’s view of women has to change in order to combat acid violence, and she really inspires the survivors not to be victims,” she continues. “It’s amazing to see – the survivors are so defiant; they won’t give their attackers the power.”

Ms. Rahman believes that by 2015 acid attacks in Bangladesh can be eradicated. Her efforts are being replicated in Pakistan, Uganda and Cambodia, where acid attacks are also prevalent.

- Angeline Martyn