Ask anyone you meet in Bangladesh today and they will tell you what to do in case of an acid attack. You immediately douse the victim with water.
They know because they have seen the TV spots in which bystanders immediately drench a screaming woman with water after a young man throws acid into her face because she rejected his advances. Many Bangladeshis also know that there is a hospital in Dhaka, the capital city, where acid survivors can receive free medical treatment and legal assistance and that a telephone hotline is available to connect them with these services. They know that there are new tougher laws against acid crimes. It's a public awareness that has been created through countless posters, brochures, radio announcements, TV spots, newspaper articles, theater performances, and public rallies -- all the work of the seven-year-old Acid Survivors Foundation and its tireless executive director, 41-year-old Monira Rahman.
Rahman has worked ceaselessly to provide free medical and legal assistance to victims and to turn the shameful secret of acid violence into an urgent social and governmental problem. And she has succeeded. On March 19, the German section of Amnesty International will present Rahman with its annual human rights award for her efforts and the work of the Acid Survivors Foundation on behalf of acid survivors. Rahman began her work after she was hired by the Canadian International Development Agency in 1998 as part of the team that set up the foundation; she became director in 2002.
Acid attacks are a big problem in Bangladesh. The statistics say there are more attacks here than anywhere else in the world, but that may only be because Bangladesh documents its cases more thoroughly than other countries. The Acid Survivors Foundation meticulously documents every case it finds. In 2005, the organization claims there were 211 recorded incidents involving 267 victims. That is significantly less than the 487 people hurt in 2002, the worst year on record, but that is cold comfort.
Last year 178 women and 89 men were attacked with acid. Fifty-three children under the age of 18 were among the injured, many because they were sleeping next to the intended victim. The most frequent motive for the attack was a dispute about land, property, or money (46 percent), followed by crimes related to rejection or refusal of love, sex or marriage (15 percent), marital disputes (12 percent), disputes within the family (10 percent), and dowry disputes (5 percent).
In the days before the Acid Survivors Foundation, most people didn't know what to do when an attack occurred. Medical facilities in the countryside, where more than 90 percent of the population lives and most of the attacks take place, are sparse and poorly equipped. Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) in the capital has the only burn unit in the country and at the time the foundation began its work, it had only eight beds. Even if an acid victim actually made it to the hospital in the hours or days after the attack, care was poor and the survivor quickly found that the necessary reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation was far beyond the means of the poor rural victims.
The acid victim, most often a woman, found herself grotesquely disfigured, perhaps blind, deaf, or disabled in other ways. She could no longer work or study, not only because of her disabilities, but because of the massive disgrace she was often perceived to have brought upon her family. It was widely believed that the woman had provoked the attack herself by her flirtatious behavior or unseemly outspokenness. A single woman would have no chance of ever finding a husband and would remain an eternal burden on her family. The life of a married woman was many times even worse. Not only would she have to continue living with the perpetrator, but in many cases, her children would refuse to have any further contact with her.
"Today, most cases are within the family," Rahman says. "It is really difficult for the victim to speak out. After all, what would happen to her children if their father, the breadwinner, went to jail? And what would happen to the children's identity? No one will marry them."
The perpetrator would rarely be punished or even charged. The legal case against the perpetrator, if it was filed at all, would be confounded by inept police investigation, high legal fees, time-consuming proceedings and corruption in the courts. A judge could easily be bought off.
Hope for the future
Much has changed since the establishment of the Acid Survivors Foundation. The organization now has a 40-bed hospital solely devoted to treating victims of acid attacks. There, it provides free comprehensive medical care, including burn treatments, nursing, plastic surgery, physical therapy and psychotherapy. The Bangladesh Ministry of Health has been working closely with the group in this effort and has expanded the DMCH burn unit to 50 beds. The foundation also provides free legal advice and assistance. Many survivors are helped to pursue vocational training or education. Taken together, these programs are helping to rehabilitate victims and to more easily reintegrate them into their families and communities. Nevertheless, the road to recovery is not easy and many acid survivors never fully recover from their physical and psychological scars.
The organization also places a major emphasis on preventing attacks. One recent campaign included massive publicity about new laws in order to make potential perpetrators aware of the penalties for acid attacks. To that end, the foundation worked closely with the government to pass new and tougher laws against sales of acid and attacks. Unfortunately, laws alone can't stop the crimes -- after all, a diluted form of sulfuric acid can be found in any car battery. The law has, however, sped up the amount of time it takes to get attackers into the dock. "Previously, it took three to four years to complete a case on trial," Rahman explains. "Now it takes around one year."
Still, the rate of conviction is no higher than it was at the inception of the Acid Survivors Foundation. Last year only 33 perpetrators were convicted. Rahman attributes that rate to the reluctance of families to report attacks and corruption within the Bangladesh legal system.
One big problem for the organization is that most of the attacks are happening in rural areas. The organization is now working to train community level organizations -- groups that understand the local situation and can react quickly. There are currently 10 local partner organizations and another 200 have applied to work with the foundation. Indeed, the Acid Survivors Foundation has set in motion a social movement.
A life of advocacy
Social movements and determined resistance to authority are nothing new to Rahman. Her father died of cholera during the 1971 war of independence after her family was forced to flee from her birthplace in Jessore because their house had been burned. "My mother didn't have much education," she says, "but she was a very strong and confident woman. She struggled a lot, but she always encouraged us to get an education and to be outspoken and involved. She taught us that life is full of struggle, but also that we had to seek meaning in it."
Rahman went on to Dhaka University to study philosophy. She became a student political leader and remained undeterred by her detractors in a highly sexist society. She later went on to face police batons and rubber bullets when she joined other student activists on the streets to oppose the authoritarian government of General Ershad in 1991.
After completing her studies, Rahman went to work for Concern Worldwide, an Irish organization working with people detained in vagrancy institutions outside of Dhaka. Then, as now, a specially appointed magistrate could arbitrarily classify anyone -- sex workers, homeless children or adults, disoriented new arrivals to Dhaka -- as a vagrant and have them imprisoned in a vagrant home. Rahman often found herself directly confronting the authorities in order to provide help to the detainees. Eventually her program attracted the attention of government policy makers. She began working with the government for wider change, she asked the human rights commission to look at the outdated law, and enlisted help from other legal aid organizations.
While working for Concern Worldwide, she met young female acid survivors for the first time. Rahman was stunned that such brutality could exist and she quickly discovered the work of Naripokkho, a womens advocacy group which was attempting to investigate and publicize the plight of these women. When CIDA recruited Rahman to lay the groundwork for the Acid Survivors Foundation, it became her life's work.