“I spent six months in hospital. I was so depressed because I was in a closed room and my whole body was bandaged up, so I couldn’t move. It felt like I was in a cage.”
Seventeen-year-old Neela Amina Khatun is one of more than 2,700 victims of acid attacks in Bangladesh over the past decade. “My husband was angry for a long time because he claimed a dowry but my family couldn’t provide one,” she says. Forced into marriage at 12 years old, Neela’s husband attacked her when she was just 14.
“His plan was to sell me in Saudi Arabia – when I refused he threw acid on me and he fled. The moment the acid was thrown I tried to cover my face with my hands. It was very painful, I was screaming and all the neighbours could hear and they came and took me to the hospital,” she says.
“I spent six months in hospital. I was so depressed because I was in a closed room and my whole body was bandaged up, so I couldn’t move. It felt like I was in a cage.
“The first time the bandage came off I didn’t see my face. But then after a few minutes I saw, and was just screaming ‘who is this, who is this, is it me?’ My whole face and arm were severely burnt.” Despite major surgery to reconstruct her face, Neela’s left ear remains completely destroyed.
Neela’s husband is now in jail, the result of a year’s campaigning by local charities including ActionAid. “I don’t want to think of him as a husband. When I think about him I don’t think that he is a human being,” she says.
Dishonour and disputes
Bangladesh is one of the world’s major exporters of textiles, and even in remote regions the sulphuric acid used to produce colourful textile dyes is easy to get hold of. The country has become a hotspot for acid attacks – mostly on women – because of land disputes, refused marriage proposals and domestic quarrels.
A woman’s face is seen as sacred; to permanently scar it brings dishonour on her family. Her disfigurement functions as a public mark of shame, making it hard for her to get married or gain employment. She becomes a financial and social burden on her family.
“I have seen cases where the fight could have been between men. But when the attack was carried out, the wife of the man or maybe the daughter-in-law of the man is attacked,” explains Nurun Nahar, assistant officer in gender equality and women’s empowerment at ActionAid Bangladesh.
Nahar is herself an acid survivor, attacked when she was 15 because she rejected a local schoolboy’s advances. With help from ActionAid she founded the Acid Survivors’ Network (ASN) in 2007, a support group for acid victims.
Sixteen years after her own attack, Nahar’s memory of discovering the severity of her scars is still deeply painful.
Both Neela and Nahar had to endure months of painful treatment, including three rounds of major surgery in order to rebuild their faces.
“I think it is worse than if you were to kill a human being,” says Nahar. “If you are a survivor from an acid attack you will always be reminded of your condition.”
Both Nahar and Neela received treatment at Dhaka Medical College Burns Unit. Located in the capital, it is the only burns unit in the country, currently treating more than 250 patients in its 50-bed hospital.
“In acid burn victims, whatever treatment we do we cannot give them back their normal face,” says Dr Samantha Lal Sen, head of the unit. “The most affected are the eyes because people purposely aim for the face – the eyelashes are burned, the eyelids are destroyed and so the eye remains open.”
While an attack is not intended to kill – merely to disfigure – many incidents are fatal. “If you don’t treat it properly in the first 24 hours it is very difficult to save the patient,” says Dr Sen. “If something happens in the remote north or south of Bangladesh, these poor patients cannot get to Dhaka within 24 hours.”
Few who do make the journey can afford to pay for months of extended treatment – and only the ‘lucky’ ones who occupy the first 50 beds are eligible for state help. Otherwise treatment – right down to the last painkiller – needs to be paid for.
Lack of convictions
Of the 2,742 reported cases in the last 10 years, fewer than 450 have resulted in a conviction. In 2002, the Bangladeshi government passed two laws aimed at curtailing acid attacks. But eyewitnesses remain too scared to testify, and because of a lack of evidence the courts reject many cases. Trials are often lengthy and can take many years.
Laki is a 28-year-old acid attack survivor – one of many whose case has taken too long to come to trial. She was working in a garment factory when her husband accused her of cheating with her boss. After months of arguments she moved out of the marital home. But in 2009 Laki’s husband confronted her in the street and threw acid, permanently disfiguring her face and hands. Despite pressing charges, her husband served just 18 months in prison while the case was being prepared. The defence kept appealing so the hearing was constantly postponed. “The public prosecutor was playing a weak role and wanting more money,” says Laki. As a result the case was eventually dismissed. Her husband has now been free for five months.
Through ASN, ActionAid Bangladesh has been working with district acid control committees to monitor the use and sale of acid. We also offer legal support in cases where none is given, with ASN lawyers trying to find loopholes that defendants may use as a way of getting the case dismissed. “We collect all the information about what happened. If there’s any problem in filing the case we assign a lawyer,” says Nahar.
ActionAid also regularly visits patients admitted to the burns unit to offer longterm psychosocial support, and runs awareness-building exercises with video presentations and folk songs in schools and community centres.
But the fight often starts before workers even reach the front door of the victim’s house. “When we try to get into the house of a victim, the problem will start outside. We will not be welcomed by the neighbours. The community will think [the attack] was deserved, or maybe she did it to herself; these kind of ideas deter our activity,” says Nahar.
“When ASN first came to visit me, they asked me about my neighbours, if I have any problems with them,” says Neela. “They also came to visit my parents and gave them support. I didn’t receive much help from the police and prosecutor, only the NGOs.”
Neela is one of 260 members ASN has helped – and all have similar stories. Johura, 35, was burnt with acid following a domestic dispute with her husband. After she moved out of the marital home someone threw acid on her at night through an open window. Because she did not see the perpetrator, locals convinced her against pressing charges. Her seven-month-old daughter was caught in the attack, suffering severe burns on her leg.
Another victim is 24-year-old Sheuli Khatun, who had acid thrown on her after refusing a cousin’s marriage proposal, causing severe burns to her upper body. After her case was dismissed by the courts through lack of evidence, ASN spent months working with Sheuli to help her regain her confidence and rebuild her life.
A vital part of ASN’s work is helping the women earn their own living – in sometimes unexpected places. Twelve survivors are now working in beauty parlours. “Earlier, the survivors wouldn’t leave their homes. Now they are coming out. Through motivation workshops we have achieved this and they can speak for themselves,” says Nahar.
“Since being part of the network I have made friends, so I feel like I have many people beside me – this is the way I got my strength and mental peace,” says Neela. She is now at college and works part time as a district convenor for ASN.
ActionAid is committed to educating and changing the mindsets of people who see this horrific use of violence as an easy way to settle disputes, and to tightening the law to make it much harder for perpetrators to escape punishment.
“I dream a lot about the future,” says Nahar. “My mission is that across Bangladesh there will be no more acid attacks.”