Bangladesh: Acid attack survivors struggle for justice
Asma was 13 years old and in eighth grade. She was living with her parents and other siblings in a remote village of marsh land in Bangladesh. She had to walk a mile, cross a river and then walk another mile to attend the high school. She was only girl from her village who was attending high school. Most of the girls of her age were dropt out after completing primary education, getting married and giving birth. She had moved away from home to live with her aunt, who was located much closer to the school because she was under constant harassment on her way to school by a man of 27 years who proposed her a marry. As Asma refused his proposal and failed to push her to accept his offer than he sent his family to Asma’s family with a marriage proposal. The man was uneducated and a “bad boy.” Neither Asma nor her family approved of him. Moreover, Asma’s father told the family, “I want my daughter to continue her studies and I’m not going to marry her off now.”
At some stage it was difficult for Asma to live with her aunt anymore and she and her family thought that the man who proposed her to marry has given up- she returned to her parents.
But the perpetrator and his family continued to hassle them and began to make threats, saying, “We’ll see how you continue your studies.”
On August 18, 1999 at around four o’ clock in the morning, thirteen year-old Asma was sleeping in a room with her mother, brother, and three sisters. Asma’s father was at the mosque for the Morning Prayer when the man who had been pursuing her intruded her home, shone a flashlight over her, and threw acid onto her face. At that moment, Asma screamed, her family woke up, and the attacker attempted to exit through a side door. The door was locked and held shut with a heavy pot full of water, making his escape difficult. Asma’s brother chased him and caught him in his house while he was trying to hide himself. The attacker argued with Asma’s brother, even denying that he was behind the attack when his hand was also burnt with acid (when he threw acid on Asma it also splash on his hand and his fingers were injured with acid. Finally, the police came and took the attacker away.
Asma suffered from severe burns that destroyed the left side of her face including left eye. At that time, most people in her community did not know what to do following an acid attack or how to treat the burns. Consequently, Asma’s family did not pour water over her face, fearing that it might cause further damage when Asma was crying for water to cool her sharp burning sensation. Her uncle brought a local quack doctor to the home who, also not sure what to do, put egg whites on her face to temporarily treat the wounds. Two hours later, Asma was taken to the local hospital by boat and was given medicine for pain relief. She then transferred to another district hospital, where she stayed for two weeks. It took her four hours to get there, and even they had hardly ever handled a case of acid attack. Already, her journey toward recovery was long and arduous.
While on the phone with someone, Asma’s father heard about the burn unit at Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH). She was taken there and first time met the staff of Acid Survivors Foundation who provided all the logistics for her treatment in DMCH. She first received her skin grafting after one month of her stay in DMCH. She was released from DMCH six days after surgery. Her wounds were not fully healed, but the hospital could no longer accommodate her due to heavy patient load. It took three hours by bus, six hours by motorboat, followed by another boat ride and a long walk before she made it home with pain in her leg, worries about her eyes.
Asma returned to DMCH after one week to get her eye checked and stayed there for two months, but nothing could be done despite ASF’s try to get best eye treatment in the DMCH. Around this time, the Rehabilitation Unit at Acid Survivors Foundation was created. Asma was able to stay there while undergoing a few more surgeries at DMCH. With the support of ASF seven acid survivors including Asma were taken to Spain with hopes of treatment; still, nothing could be done for her eye.
The journey so far was indeed difficult- unpromising treatments, painstaking time spent away from home, among so many more ways of suffering after the attack. Reflecting on the time following her return from Spain, Asma expressed, “I had no interest or desire to continue my studies because my heart was totally shattered.”
Despite the heartache and struggles, Asma was able to refocus on her studies and make a living for herself. Acid Survivors Foundation, recruited her and trained her on how to make compressor garment – a medical accessories which is needed for smooth healing of the burn wound. Asma got her confidence back with the economic empowerment and showed her interest to continue her education. ASF admitted her in a school and paid off for her educational expenses including the cost for her accommodation and food. She passed her SSC examinations, got married, reenrolled in school, and successfully passed the HSC exam (equivalent to graduating high school). Presently, Asma is working as a Peer Counselor in ASF’s Psychosocial Unit and has a three-year old daughter with her husband.
Of course, the suffering caused by the acid attack is a part of Asma’s life, and the present-day battles cannot be ignored. Recalling the past and details of the incident can be painful. When asked what changed most in her life following the acid attack, tears began rolling down Asma’s face as she uttered, “there is no night when my pillow is not wet”.
Moreover, the effects of the acid attack are still apparent in her life outside of home. As is the case with many survivors of acid attack, Asma continues to seek justice through the grueling court process. Asma and her family filed a case against the perpetrator immediately after the incident. It took three years before he was sentenced to a lifetime imprisonment without bail. However, the perpetrator and his family brought the case to high court and are trying to appeal for a lesser punishment. They continue to threaten Asma and her family.
“Since my perpetrator is suffering in prison,” she said, “his whole family only has the goal of revenge…to put my father and brother in jail. And…if he’s appealing, he might come back and we don’t know what he’s going to do. He already is indirectly threatening us, saying that he will do this and that when he comes back….that he’ll kill my dad, he’ll kill my brother. Even when I say ‘I’m good, I’m fine,’ with all this in mind, my whole life has actually been messed up….the cruelty in my life started the day he threw acid on me.”
Finding peace of mind is difficult with the court system. It has been eleven years since the incident, and Asma and her family still must confront the perpetrator to keep him in jail. Asma asserted, “The justice system, what are they supposed to do? They can’t do anything before the incident happens...whatever has been done is done. People say, ‘What’s the point in giving him punishment now because what he’s done is done?’ But this is the only possible source of peace for us. He has at least been punished. This is my mental peace…that he’s not any better off than me….”
And the battles with facing society still remain. Asma admitted, “In society, when I’m outside, when people ask me different questions…that’s what hurts me the most….As much as I say that I have mental strength, when I see a new face, I have to start over. People get new ideas about me and think in different ways. At first, there’s always hesitation. This is the bigger problem in my heart….”
Some even question if Asma could have helped prevent the attack. She asserted, “Literate or illiterate societies, people mindlessly ask, ‘He asked you to marry him. Why didn’t you just marry him?’ But a person gets a lot of marriage proposals…you can’t just marry all of them. If my dad married me off to my perpetrator, somebody else could have just as well thrown acid on me. Sometimes it hurts…people should think that I also have right to say no before they ask something.”
It seems that her strength along with the support of her family and ASF are driving forces in Asma’s life. She does not have to bottle up her suffering; she said, “…I can talk about all of my pain. My husband supports me a lot.”
When talking about her daughter, her face lit up. “My daughter is very kind,” she stated. “She understands that something happened to me, but she never asks about it. She doesn’t make me feel bad. My own family of course doesn’t question me about it, even my in-laws don’t.” According to Asma, family life is “the biggest thing” now; however, Asma described, “I had to send my daughter back to my home village, which is why I’m sadder now.”
Outside of her home, Asma conveys how ASF has become a primary place for support. She explained, “If ASF wasn’t there, then girls like us would have to face a lot of struggles. I’m here and I think this is where I’m living well…I think this [ASF] is the place of peace.”
Acid attack is a social problem that needs to be confronted. It is an issue that society can tackle only after understanding the perspective of the survivor. Asma, now twenty-four years old, continues to work at Acid Survivors Foundation as a Peer Counselor. By sharing her struggles and triumphs following her acid attack with such honesty and openness, a clearer picture of a survivor of acid attack can be painted. Asma’s story can become a means of raising awareness in society and of providing strength to Asma and other survivors of acid attack. She emphasized, “The longer I’m stronger, I can talk…. I don’t keep things in myself. If I have a problem regarding anything, I can share it with anyone. I stand up for myself.”