BANGLADESH: Is Stop Violence Advocacy Working? Author Tracks Acid Crime
(WNN) Dhaka, BANGLADESH: “My nose, eyebrows, eyelids, lips all peeled off in to my hands. I held on to the skin and flesh thinking the doctors would be able to reattach it,” Bina Akhter told author and United Nations consultant Elora Halim Chowdhury, describing how a group of men attacked Akhter with acid when she was fourteen years old.
Akhter added: at least 50 neighbors watched the attackers beat her and her uncle who had tried to protect her. The crowd watched but did nothing. While they are not unique to Bangladesh, a study conducted by Bangladeshi human rights group Odhikar recorded 581 reported cases of acid attacks against women in Bangladesh between 2003-2006.
Other reports by Bangladesh legal aid organization ASK – Ain O Salish Kendra indicates that since Bangladesh began monetizing its ‘development initiatives’ to increase women’s role in the Bangladesh economy and the public sphere, the government has begun to neglect incorporating public education on human rights into their overall strategy.
Bangladesh has been seeing an escalation in all forms of violence against women.
The typical image of acid attack victims in Bangladesh is the common description of a women victim who is someone who has denied a man by rejecting his advances. But in reality acid attacks effect both genders. It also affects many children. Many victims and survivors like Akhter also have had no previous conflict with their attackers.
Akhter’s attack was intended to terrorize her family into obedience when a gang of men, with local political connections, broke into her house to abduct her cousin. “The acid was dripping into my mouth. I could taste it,” outlined Akhter about the effect the acid had once it hit her face.
Chowdhury researched and gathered interviews for over a decade before she completed her latest book, “Transnationalism Reversed: Women Organizing against Gendered Violence in Bangladesh.”
“This book allowed me to talk from different vantage points: the donors, the victims, the feminists, the state…,” said Chowdhury in a recent interview with WNN – Women News Network.
To get her story, Chowdhury talked with survivors of severe acid violence. She also interviewed United Nations officials and human rights advocates, as well as journalists and social activists, located both inside and outside of Bangladesh.
As an independent researcher and scholar, Chowdhury combined her interviews with extensive research to form a theoretical formula, both political and philosophical, that asks: Where are the failures in the mechanism of advocacy?
The goal is obviously to improve advocacy on all levels.
Despite being multilingual and connected with ‘the movement’ toward human rights, Chowdhury says the relationship between the researcher and its subject is “inevitably unequal and even exploitative.” Outlining that globalization and ‘NGO(Non-Government Organization)-ization’ of social movements has had unintended consequences for local women’s movements and the women involved.
Chowdhury speaks specifically on the evolution, successes, de-radicalization and finally, the unraveling of Naripokkho, a Dhaka-based advocacy organization which she began working with in the mid-1990s. In “Transnationalism Reversed,” she names names; something that activists have warned her against doing in Bangladesh. Through her research, she explores the unequal relationship between all organizations and the people who work within them.
“When the Acid Survivor Foundation (ASF) in Bangladesh researched the causes of acid violence, their study indicated that only 17% of the acid attacks in Bangladesh over the time period of 1999 – 2002, was caused by rejection of love, marriage or sex proposals,” emphasized Chowdhury in her recent interview. “Yet this is the common profile of acid victims that seems to make it into media and policy reports with persistent regularity,” continued Chowdhury.
“Acid violence is prevalent because of three related factors: gender inequality and discrimination, availability of
acid and impunity for perpetrators,” says the ASF.
In her book Chowdhury points to UNICEF – United Nations Children’s Fund (Bangladesh) as the manager for what she describes have been ‘costly and risky’ treatments for survivors of acid violence. These treatments were not thoughtfully researched and were unavailable to a wide swath of the Bangladeshi population, outlines Chowdhury.
In order to receive treatments for acid violence numerous women, many who at the time were teenagers, were removed from home to live in an unfamiliar city. Several treated survivors, including Bina Akhter, admitted to feeling isolated, having “reoccurring nightmares and depression” for weeks following their treatments.
“Due to the nature of the attack, its consequences and the fact that the majority of perpetrators are not brought to justice, there are huge and long term psychological impacts on the survivor and immediate family which can last their entire lives,” continued the ASF.
Today neither the Naripokkho staff nor the survivors themselves understand what all the real ‘healing effects’ for treatment are. Nor did UNICEF follow up in a way that would provide sustainability to check to see if the women’s treatments were considered complete and effective.
“While staff are able to provide a supportive environment, they do not have adequate counselling skills to support survivors,” said UNICEF in an outlined program assessment in July 2003.
At the end of the day these survivors returned with limited resources and prolonged lack of opportunities for education and employment as they attempted to return back to communities that stigmatized and objectified them. Tragically many of the attackers remain free, living near a woman, or child victim, who continues to be tormented by severe injuries.
Chowdhury’s important research shows that on all levels localized Bangladeshi institutions, including even the doctors examining acid violence victims as well as the police recording their testimony, have been biased against these women. Some agents from local Bangladeshi institutions also frequently continue to blame the women for the attacks.
“In reality, land and business disputes are the leading causes for acid violence,” outlined Chowdhury. “…and older women are frequently targeted as a means to desecrate families involved in these disputes.” she said. “Nevertheless, young or older, it is disproportionately women family members who are made to pay the price for these disputes,” she continued.
The degree of blame against women victims of acid violence in Bangladesh has happened to the point where some agents have deliberately recorded misinformation, delayed law enforcement, or at its worst never attempted to report an acid attack. Some women have also been verbally abused and deliberately humiliated after they were attacked.
As women ‘fall-through-the-cracks’ even improvements in Bangladesh’s national policy, a favored focus of the United Nations, has created insufficient solutions. Non-urban often uneducated women still need assistance. These are women with scant knowledge of their own human rights or their ability to have legal access to report violence through the legal system.
In its earlier years Naripokkho focused on creating a communal environment to empower acid attack survivors by helping them connect with each other. Naripokkho established workshops early on where survivors could tell their own stories from their own perspective using their own voice. They were also encouraged to map their own future and sharpen their vision of what local social justice should look like. Then the plan for how to acquire adequate services for victims of violence could begin to go forward.
“Together these women were starting to chart the direction of a campaign that emphasized the importance of empowering those who had endured acid attacks to be the leaders of the campaign,” said Chowdhurry in her interview with WNN.
In one Naripokkho workshop, a group composed primarily of young women realized one of their biggest common struggles – struggling through social isolation.
This was in part because of handicaps, such as blindness and disfigurement, that identifies acid survivors as victims in society. The majority of these women fear being verbally abused within the community, especially in public places.
BANGLADESH: Is stop violence advocacy working? Author tracks acid crime
Children who have been victims of acid crime play a board game together at facilities for acid victims – ASF – Acid Survivors Foundaton in Dhaka, Bangladesh A member of British Parliament, UK International Development Minister Stephen O’Brien is visiting and plays with them on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women November 2011. Image: Narayan Nath/FCO/DFID
Staying together as a group while in public has offered many of the women who have suffered acid attack more support and protection. When acid survivors from the Naripokkho workshop became fearful of ostracizing crowds during one of their trips to see a movie in public, the women held hands and began to sing to the crowds that began to surround them. Their song was that same song made legendary by American civil rights activists, “We shall overcome.”
When a group of men gathered then to begin to ‘harass’ the women who had ‘dared’ to venture out into public, one survivor pushed to the front of the crowd to sing her song. A playful exchange then ensued between the survivors and the crowd. Later interviews with the women proved that the experience of unity through the struggle was transformative for all the acid survivors who were there.
Although Naripokkho’s early efforts to assist the victims of acid violence were small-scale, the projects did make tangible progress in improving the lives of women by giving them community access to resources, such as educational training and supportive networks to help them face unjust stigmas and gain experience in social visibility. But later the model of advocacy became more donor-driven.
As acid violence victim advocacy in Bangladesh began to translate into dollars in fundraising, rivalry between NGO advocacy groups also began to rise.
One survivor admitted during an interview with Chowdhurry, that she had actually received threats from an NGO agent who told her: if she even talked to a representative from another NGO she would forfeit all access to the first NGO’s services.
“Acid violence is a gender-based violence that reflects and perpetuates the inequality of women in society and as such is prohibited by international law,” says an in-depth report by the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School, the Committee on International Human Rights of the New York City Bar Association, Cornell Law School International Human Rights Clinic and the Virtue Foundation.
“Corruption affects the poor both directly and indirectly… Indirect implications of corruption on the poor include
diverting Government resources away at the expense of social sectors,” says Dr. Iftekhar Zaman, current director of TIB, in a report draft for the United Nations Public Administration Network.
“I grew up in Bangladesh at a time when it was emerging as an independent, post-colonial nation-state and the intellectual and political promise of crafting a new society was vibrant,” outlined Chowdhury in her recent interview. “My father was an academic and a nationalist thinker who instilled in us the importance of education, knowledge production, and activism for social justice,” she shared. “I have also worked in the thriving development sector in Bangladesh where gender and human rights praxis are negotiated in the most innovative and challenging ways.”
Chowdhury’s book examines the deep problems: how middle and upper class NGO advocates, many who have received a ‘western education,’ can demean women who are trying to heal from trauma by viewing them solely as ‘victims only.’ “This led me to reflect deeply about privilege, responsibility and rights and continues to influence my work,” continued Chowdhury as she outlined her work to chronicle human rights for women under conditions of safety in Bangladesh.
Examining the widely publicized case of Bina Akhter, Chowdhury outlines in her book what she calls the “patronizing international media” attempt to tell Akhter’s story in the ABC news show “20/20,” co-hosted by news anchor celebrity Connie Chung. An International Media Spotlight Award from Amnesty International was later awarded for this coverage.
The coverage on acid violence in Bangladesh was important, but none of the news reported while Akhter received her American medical treatment for her injuries from acid attack included the real story with the experience Akhter had once she came to the United States, outlined Chowdhury.
Akhter was mistreated by her American host family. According to Akhter her host family exploited her then vulnerable position by making her do almost all the household chores while she was under treatment schedules and diets as she tried to heal from severe injuries due to her exposure to acid. The family also increasingly isolated her, limiting her communication with her family back home in Bangladesh and, according to Akhter, forcibly attempted to convert her to Christianity.
The media reports also ignored the ongoing local Bangladeshi activism against acid violence. Even after Akhter herself chronicled her story, additional news only credited western and international NGO’s with ‘rescuing’ her from her ‘hut.’
In the end, Naripokkho excommunicated Bina Akhter when she decided to stay in the United States to further her education. Staying outside of Bangladesh meant that she would have to discontinue her legal battle to incarcerate her attackers. Nairpokkho’s leaders characterized her actions during this time as “childish” and “selfish.” They even tried to disrupt her application for American asylum.
Akhter’s highly publicized case had raised Naripokkho’s visibility and prestige, but Akhter feared that incriminating influential men from her community negatively connected to her case might put her family at risk. She had learned that no amount of expensive surgery would restore sight to both her damaged eyes or protect her family. Deciding that she did not want the Bangladeshi reparation money, which had been used many times as numerical implications of donor success for Naripokkho, Akhter dropped away from advocacy programs.
After Akhter dropped away most of the involved members of Naripokkho also began to go their separate ways one by one. Naripokkho’s disgruntled leadership considered Akhter disloyal to the campaign, as well as disloyal to the role they had placed her in: a victim of violence. They did not consider Akhter’s duel loyalties, as a survivor to her own future and to that of her loved ones as a ‘necessary’ positive step.
As the opening quote from Akhter in a June 1999 Ms Magazine account, “Just ask for the burned girl” shows, as Bina said whenever anyone wanted to know how to find her home, women’s experiences of violence are incredibly complex. Even from the first moment Akhter was a victim of acid violence, she was also a survivor.
Today Bangladesh has laws to protect acid survivors, but problems of bribery, corruption and inefficiency still get in the way. In spite of this, progress has been made.
“Neither Cambodia nor India has adopted such legislation,” said Chowdhury updating the public on the legislation for acid violence crime in the region. “Since Bangladesh adopted those laws in 2002, the rate of acid violence has decreased by 15% to 20% each year, while acid attacks continue to rise in Cambodia and India.”
Perhaps the best cure for trauma is empathy. “Empathy is useless without the humility to listen,” reminds Chowdhury.
Bangladesh reached an all-time high with acid violence in 2002 with 367 attacks. In 2009 that same figure has decreased to 116 incidents of violent use of acid. “Bangladesh is [now] seen as a model by various sponsors for it is currently the only country that has specific legislation for acid violence, and the only country which has seen a decrease in acid attacks in recent years,” adds Chowdhury.