The number of attacks has dropped, but punishments yet to be executed fully
Bangladesh, in the past two decades, has made significant strides in the fight against acid violence.
According to the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), the country has seen a 93% decline in acid attacks during this period.
Experts and activists, while speaking to Dhaka Tribune, pointed out that through enacting and implementing laws, media campaigns, and civil society advocacy, the country, which once was infamous for such incidents, has been able to reduce the number of acid attacks commendably.
With laws in place – Acid Control Act 2002 and Acid Crime Prevention Acts 2002 – which put restrictions on the sale of acid and has a death sentence for the attackers (the highest form of punishment for the crime) the number of acid attacks has been in decline in almost two decades.
Widespread and extensive social awareness programs against the scourge of acid attacks have also played a major role in Bangladesh’s fight against acid violence.
In 2002, ASF recorded as many as 494 acid attack cases and now in 2020, 18 years later, that number has come down to 21.
However, none of the death sentences given to a total of 14 perpetrators under the 2002 law has been executed.
And the biggest obstacle for the acid survivors’ path to reintegration is the patriarchal nature of society that tends to blame the victims for their ill fate.
Tale of the survivors
Saraswati Malo, a 23-year-old homemaker in Faridpur, used to get regularly harassed by a local of her village.
At one point, Sujan, the father of two and a known drug addict of the area, was reprimanded by the village elders for his misdeeds.
“He [Sujan] was rebuked by the arbitrators of the village and he agreed not to harass me ever again,” said Saraswati.
But this could not put a stop on Sujan, as on a fateful night of November, 2019, in a bid to take revenge, he hurled acid on Sarasawti’s face while she was preparing food for her family.
This resulted in severe tissue damage on the right side of Sarawati’s face.
Recalling the harrowing incident at the hospital bed, Saraswati told Dhaka Tribune, “I remember the feeling of my flesh melting. I could sense a rancid smell of burning flesh.”
This resulted in Saraswati being hospitalized for almost three months.
“The man who attacked me is behind bars now but the memories still linger. I always feel as if the perpetrator is near me,” said Saraswati.
Unlike many other acid violence survivors, Saraswati has a family that stood by her side during her dark times.
“It hurts when my 7-year-old child gets scared by seeing the scars on my face,” added Saraswati.
Meanwhile, Roksana Akter Lipi was only 11-years-old when her uncle hurled acid not only on her but also on her mother and brother back in 2003 in Comilla.
The perpetrator wanted to take revenge over a land dispute.
“I felt as if I was experiencing hellfire,” told Lipi to the correspondent adding that the incident had turned her life upside down and nothing remained the same since the attack.
Lipi, returning home after treatment, no longer felt the desire to play outdoors as she was ashamed of the scars. But now she has become an advocate for preventing acid violence in her village.
However, Lipi’s uncle is now married, has kids, and lives abroad.
“I still cringe whenever he comes to visit our village,” said Lipi with utmost disgust.
Experts’ take on the issue
Eminent Lawyer Dr Shahdeen Malik believes that acid violence in the country has declined due to the social revolution against such crimes over the years.
“When it comes to rape cases, a section of society tends to blame the victim. However, it was not the same for the survivors of acid violence,” he said.
He further said that the media also played a part in raising awareness against acid violence among the general population.
“The High Court is dealing with more than 1,800 death reference cases and it takes time to execute them,” he added.
Echoing the same, Amina Khatun Neela, program officer of ASF, said that it is a good sign that at least two laws have been enacted to reduce the illegal sale of acid and to ensure the highest punishment for those found responsible.
She said that the biggest problem for overcoming such issues is the patriarchal mindset that the men in our society carry. “They think that a woman’s beauty is her only asset and harming that means destroying her life and making her undesirable to other men.”
“This is why the engagement of the men is so important to combat acid violence.
“Parents should teach their sons that a woman has every right to refuse any proposal,” she added.
“Moreover, availability of acid in jewelry shops and battery workshops is still a matter of concern,” said Neela.
Contacted, Sarder Jahangir Hossain, executive director of ASF, said that he believes the collective effort of the foundation, NGOs, the government, and the media has made it possible to curb the rate of acid violence in Bangladesh.
“If all the sectors join hands and set their minds to bring an end to this social injustice and violence, they would surely succeed,” he said.
“The number of acid violence incidents has dropped over the years but the survivors need frequent medical care.
“Survivors who were attacked a couple of years ago, might need to visit hospitals and ASF for surgery and other cares,” he added.
“However, we do not have enough funds as the number of cases has dropped. But the survivors who were attacked over the years need frequent medical care and that includes expensive surgeries,” he said, adding, “Interested donors can donate money for the acid violence survivors through the ASF website.’
He said: “Mental health is an issue that is often neglected when it comes to rehabilitation of the survivors and ASF offers mental health support along with other cares.”
Morium Khanum, a psychotherapist of ASF, said that the first thing they do is provide counsel to the survivors to accept the reality.
“We tell them what has happened to them cannot be altered, but they can shape their future the way they want it to be.
“But unfortunately, our society is still not that much supportive towards acid violence survivors, especially when they are women,” added Morium.
“They need to be counseled to accept themselves first because at the end of the day it is them who have to wrestle with the society that tends to blame the victims rather than those who committed the crime,” she said.