"When Women's Faces Are Destroyed"
Over the last six years, more than 2,000 young women in Bangladesh have been the victims of acid attacks. Monira Rahman, director of the Acid Survivors Foundation, is awarded the Amnesty Human Rights Award for her fight against these attacks. Ana Lehmann reports
Monira Rahman studied philosophy and was working in a project for the homeless when she first saw girls who had been disfigured by acid attacks. Meeting them changed her life.
"I was very much shocked and also frightened when I saw two very young survivors of acid violence in 1997," she says. "But I was also amazed when I talked to them. They were very, very confident, very strong girls.
They had also a wider perspective about women's issues, about the issues concerning violence against women, and about what should we do. And at that time I decided I should work with them, I should know more about them, I should do something for them."
Fighting against acid attacks
In 1999, a British man, John Morrison, founded the Acid Survivors Foundation as an organisation to help the victims of acid attacks in the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka. Monira Rahman was there from the start and took over the management of the project shortly afterwards. "At the start, scarcely anyone knew how many acid attacks there were in the country," she remembers.
Since then, the Foundation has registered more than 2,000 victims. "But the real number must be much higher," says Rahman. It's her aim to bring the suffering of the victims to the attention of the public – to make sure that stories like those of the village girl Lilima become more widely known.
This is Lilima's story as Monira Rahman tells it:
"She was only 8 years old when she was married to a man who was 45 years old. And she was not able to satisfy her husband physically, sexually. In that situation, her husband was beating her, forcing her, and the in-laws were also forcing her to do household work. And therefore when she was 10 years old, she came back to her parents' house and was seeking help from her parents. Her parents were convinced and decided not to send her back to her in-laws' family. There was a community meeting and the community also accepted that decision and told the husband, you will not take her back until she is adult. Then the husband was very angry. And then he threw acid on her to destroy the beauty of her."
Acid throwing - a vicious form of violence
It's almost only women who are the victims of acid attacks. Many of them are very young, perhaps thirteen or fourteen years old. Eighty percent of the victims live in rural areas. Most of them are attacked because they have resisted sexual advances or offers of marriage.
In addition, women whose parents cannot or will not meet a husband's demands for additional dowry payments can become victims of acid attacks. Rahman explains it like this: "If a man thinks he is losing face in the sight of his wife, then he destroys the face of his wife, in order to restore his own honour.
Nowadays, a new generation of women in Bangladesh have begun to take jobs in the textile industry or to take advantage of credit programmes to make themselves self-sufficient. For many men this is a provocation.
"Women are becoming more public and becoming more independent, in the business sector or in the formal economic sector," says Monira Rahman. "And therefore in many cases it is difficult for the male partner or male member of the family to accept their free mobility. And obviously therefore many women and girls are subject to violence in different forms."
Lilima's eyelids were destroyed by the acid, and her nose was eaten away. Her lower lip melted into her chin and her chin was stuck to her chest. For ten years, she hid behind the walls of her parents' house, until she heard that Monira Rahman and the charity had built two clinics in which pain and scars could be treated.
Specialists worked for a year on Lilima's face until it was repaired to the extent that she could eat and breathe more easily.
"The survivors give us strength!"
"But it's not enough to repair the face with cosmetic surgery," says Monira Rahman. Before the attacks many of these women were particularly self-confident, and that self-confidence has to be rebuilt. In the Foundation's rehabilitation centre, the "survivors" (as they call themselves) receive psychological and social care. Rahman says that everyone in the centre supports each other.
"We can cry together," she says. "But also we see some positive situations. For example, we thought maybe some individual survivor will not survive finally, but finally they survived. Maybe it was a very young girl; the situation is so difficult, everyday we are counting, what will happen to her, we all are very concerned about her survival situation.
And after one month, after two months we see: no, she is recovering, she is becoming a survivor. That gives us strength. Or we see that a perpetrator has been prosecuted and punished, that gives us strength. Or that a young survivor is becoming an activist. That gives us strength."
© DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE/Qantara.de 2006
Translation from German: Michael Lawton