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Hope through activism

  • Published at 04:36 pm March 24th, 2019
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Tales of women acid survivors who vowed to be the voice of other survivors

Despite being a survivor of acid attack, everything was blissful for Sabina until last year when her husband left her and their three daughters. Sabina had suffered the acid attack before she got married. 

Runa Laila, program officer at Acid survivor Foundation takes care of Sabina’s case and has been doing so since 2011 when the attack happened. “I knocked on every possible door from family, local chairman to Upazila Nirbahi Officer, so that Sabina can survive in her crisis,” said Runa Laila, an acid survivor herself.

Due to government initiatives to combat acid attacks, strong legislations came into effect. The Acid Control Act 2002 and the Acid Crime Prevention Acts 2002 have enabled different organizations such as Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), Naripokkho, Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) to work effectively toward curbing the numbers of attacks. 

Although not quite as prevalent as before, acid attacks happen quite frequently still. In January of this year alone, three cases of acid attacks on women were reported.

Fighting with your ‘own-self’

Runa was attacked in 1998 for rejecting the attacker’s marriage proposal at the age of 17. Over the last decade since the attack, she has been working for acid survivors. 

The horrifying event isolated her from her friends and halted her education. But ultimately, it led her to a path she had never imagined she would take.

The aftermath of an acid attack is difficult to quantify. But the biggest challenge is always always the process of acceptance and finally coping with the new reality. It’s a reality that is much too visible to be swept under the rug.

“It is a fight with own-self for the survivor. It was a tough time for me as well to accept the changes happened in my body within a moment’s incident,” said Runa, who is a single mother living in Dhaka with her only daughter.

As she began recovering from the attack, Runa would often find herlsef hiding in the kitchen or the toilet to avoid visitors in her home. She found it more distressing when relatives would stay over. 

What she exactly felt at those moments is something she is unable to articulate. “I would cry,” she said. It was even harder to absorb when her sister was reluctant to bring Runa along to her house thinking they will have to recount the whole story again to the neighbours.

The story of adjusting to the aftermath of an acid attack is not dissimilar for Jahanara who was attacked in 2001, right before her SSC exams. 

‘Can Jahanara laugh?… can she eat?… she probably won’t hear again’ - these were some of the queries neighbours made, perhaps not just out of curiosity, but also out of concern and genuine sympathy. 

For Jahanara, everything was unbearable - the abrasive curiosity, keen sympathy and all the rest of it, after returning to her village at the end of eight agonizing months of treatment at the Dhaka Medical College and Hospital and the Acid survivors Foundation.

Jahanara locked herself in. “I stopped talking and suffered memory loss. In order to push these out of my mind I would take sleeping pills to sleep. I kept wondering what happened to me, but later on discovered I was in clinical depression,” said Jahanara.

Survivors like Jahanara often face psychological symptoms including  depression, loss of self-esteem, insomnia, fear, headaches and even suicidal tendencies.

‘This is not me’

Amina khatun Neela didn’t have the mental stillness for the first three months after the attack to explore how she feels about herself, other than suffering from the severe physical trauma she had endured from the acid attack. Her time was spent on the hospital bed.

Once she recovered enough to forget the raw physical pain, her mind struggled to make sense of the reality. ‘This is not me,’ she thought looking at her reflection on a mirror. “I became so upset because the girls on the mirror couldn’t be me,” Neela said.

Questions flooded her mind - ‘Who is responsible for this?’, ‘What did I do wrong?’, ‘Why did this happened to me?’ But the shock of this alternative reality did not lead to answers, but to self-blame. 

Neela started accusing herself. “I would often wonder whether it was my fault. At one point I almost started accepting that maybe it was my fault, or why else this would happen to me!” she said. 

Counseling with psychotherapists at the the ASF pulled her out of the destructive self-blame and she finally started to accept that it was an unspeakable crime committed against her.

Talking to other acid survivors helped. Neela found her family’s support to be an indispensible aid to overcome the mental trauma. “I can’t put into words what my family’s support did for me. It helped me become who I am today,” she said. 

Neela is currently working as a young women leader in South Asian Young Women Leadership and Mentoring (SAYWLM) program under the ASF. 

Support and care from family play an enormous role in bringing back the survivors to normal life, as Runa also found out. After coming back to her village, visitors started to pour in at Runa’s house. She compared the situation to a ‘haat’ or a weekend market. 

“My house would look like a haat throughout the week. But my elder brother handled the situation very smartly. He appreciated the neighbours for coming to see me, but requested them to not make any comments,” Runa recalls. 

For Jahanara, it was also her elder brother who helped her recover. He tried buying her a TV so she doesn’t feel lonely. But they both knew that wasn’t the solution.

“One day, my elder brother told me, ‘No one can live the way you are living your life now in total isolation. You should go outside and face the society no matter what they think about you,’” said Jahanara.

Focusing on the strengths

Runa will never forget the contribution of Nasreen Huq, a prominent activist and campaigner for women’s rights and social justice, who taught her to survive in a new place when she came to Dhaka in 2001. With her help, Runa restarted her education and completed her undergrad and currently doing her MBA at Cultural University of Science Technology.

Jahanara came to Dhaka in 2004, believing a dignified life is ahead, if she works for it. With her brother’s support, she started working as an assistant at the canteen of ASF. She is now the canteen supervisor. 

“I believe women who experienced violence shouldn’t focus on what they lack. They should focus on their strength,” she said.

After going through three operations within five months after the attack, Neela made up her mind to sit for the SSC exams which were scheduled to begin after a few months. 

She sat for the exams and went onto complete a BBA and MBA from Sirajganj Government College with education support from ASF. 

Working for a local NGO as a volunteer for six years, Neela found it theraputic to reach out to other victims and help them. “Meeting with acid survivors, conducting awareness campaigns, visiting places to provide immediate response to acid attacks - these activities helped me a lot to get out from my inner pain.” 

Her work led her to a visit to ASF for treatment, where she met Tahmina and Runa. It reaffirmed her conviction that she wanted to work for survivors.

Is the society changing? 

“Initially, I would wear burkha to hide my face. I was also very apprehensive to attend any social gathering,” said Neela.

Jahanara and Runa share the feeling about going in public. “I used to avoid social gatherings like wedding ceremonies,” said Jahanara.

“It was so hurtful to feel that the person sitting beside me on a bus is constantly looking at me. At one point I stopped wearing burkha and hiding my scars, because hiding will only keep the society in the dark about our cause,” said Runa. 

Most of acid survivors experienced blaming of the victim. But mentality toward acid victims is changing through the works of people like Neela, who became an advocate of this cause. 

“People were unwilling at first to treat this as a crime. They believed women must bear some blame. But now they try to understand whose fault it is. They now understand that nothing justifies this criminal act,” says Runa.

It is usually difficult for the survivors to rent houses. But this is also changing,” said Runa.

While Runa’s family supported her strongly, her husband found it difficult to accept her, resulting in a conjugal life without love and respect. Her husband would say things like why it happened to her and not anyone else.

“There were around four thousand survivors. Do you think all of them are bad like me?” Runa told her husband. They finally ended the marriage.  

Neela, Runa and Jahanara all however agree that a lot of progress has been made, but survivors continue to face certain challenges where social transformation is needed. 

Greatest inspirations 

For Sabina’s case, Runa went to the chairman, who promised 20kg monthly rice allotment for Sabina from SafetyNet program of the government. Through advocacy works of ASF, she made sure the aid was delivered to the victim. 

Runa’s work involves responding to biological and psychological needs, as well as working for social acceptance of victims of acid violence. ASF applies a bio-psycho-social model to address acid violence in Bangladesh.

She works at the community and administrative levels including government and nongovernment across the country. “It is challenging, but also inspiring when I talk to a district commissioner, UNO or chairman on behalf of a survivor and represent her rights,” she said. 

Presence of a victim helps the adocacy. “After talking with us the locals say if you can work then why others couldn’t,” said Runa. She also feels that victims get the best inspiration from other survivors.

Under Neela’s SAYWLM program, there are 12 young leaders. She also works with survivors’ groups in five districts, “I share with them my work and experience, women empowerment and leadership ideology. I want to make them more active,” Neela said. 

Neela believes the acceptance she achieved through her work will increase confidence among other survivors and their acceptance in the society. When young community leaders cite her as their inspiration, it makes Neela the happiest person in the world.

Jahanara is working for 'Joyful Cafe' after receiving confectionery training with the support of ASF, as well as working as a supervisor of ASF Canteen. This training will help her to be an entrepreneur and through her own venture she aims to empower vulnerable women. 

Helping women like Jahanara to rehabilitate is part of ASF’s program for addressing acid violence in Bangladesh. In its ‘holistic multi-stakeholder approach’, the NGO works towards eradicating acid and gender-based violence through a five-prong intervention framework that includes medical, legal, prevention, social-economic rehabilitation, and advocacy and research.