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Bangladesh combats an acid onslaught against women

November 12, 2000
Web posted at: 7:52 AM HKT (2352 GMT)

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) -- Some years back, Popy Rani Das turned down a marriage proposal, unable to meet her suitor's dowry demands. That simple no would forever take her smile away.

At about 8 p.m. on March 27, Das and her good friend, Tahmina Islam, nurses aged 22 and 23, were on their way home from work at their clinic in northern Bangladesh.

As they headed home in the back of a trishaw, a three-wheeled bicycle-cab, a dark figure approached. Das and Islam had no time to react as the man lunged at them, throwing a bucket of what they believed to be hot water.

It was acid.

"We fell on the road screaming," Das said. "But I caught a glimpse of him as he was running away. I know who it was." The spurned suitor.

Today, Das longs to bring her weeping daughter to her chest, to soothe and cradle her to sleep. But she can only lift the back of her hand to stroke 3-year-old Akhi's cheek as the two lie side by side on a shelter bed.

Akhi can't comprehend that the breasts that once nursed her are gone, that the lips that sang her lullabies now droop down below her mother's chin, swollen and purple.

Much of Das' scalp has been seared off, her left eye virtually melted away, her left ear shriveled to the size of a walnut. Her eyebrows are gone, her nose is nearly twisted upside down.

"When Akhi cries, I want to hold her," says Das, tears stinging her red, raw cheek. "But I can't, and I am filled with such sadness."

She is the victim of a form of revenge that is on the rise in this South Asia country -- nitric or sulfuric acid thrown at women, melting skin and dissolving bone. The victims are often ostracized by their families and condemned to a lifetime of trauma. The nation is outraged, the cry for justice is spreading, and the crime has been made a hanging offense.

Das' trauma began when two mothers sealed her fate. Her suitor's mother demanded a fat dowry and Das' mother decided it was too much. Das moved on, married another and had her baby.

Then, a year ago, she realized that her former suitor, whom she declines to name, was stalking her. She ignored him. A month before the attack, her clinic received an anonymous letter warning that Das would bring trouble.

"We didn't take more care, we didn't take him seriously," her friend Islam says timidly, picking at her nails and avoiding eye contact. She is less badly burned, but one eye is nearly sealed shut by scar tissue.

With the letter and Das' testimony, the police jailed her suitor. He got out on bail and although his trial is set to begin, he has disappeared.

Das' husband, an unemployed cook, has not deserted his wife, as often happens in these cases. "He stayed by my side," she says.

A 1983 domestic violence law, and the death penalty for acid attacks, don't seem to have helped. In 1996, 47 acid attacks were reported; in 1997, 130; and last year at least 210, according to the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association.

Most were against women by spurned suitors or jealous husbands, some by mothers-in-law who resent slow dowry payments.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is a woman. So is Khaleda Zia, her predecessor, now the leader of the opposition in Parliament. More women are shedding their Muslim headscarves and exposing their beauty, getting better jobs and education and gaining the courage to say no.

Hasina and Zia have toughened laws and made acid-burning a crime that now must be recorded at police headquarters in Dhaka.

Nearly 125 million people are squeezed into this small, cyclone-prone country on the Bay of Bengal. One of the poorest, most densely populated nations in the world, its people live on a dollar a day.

Guns are rare, but a glass of acid goes for only 7 taka (less than a cent) and can be bought from weavers, tanneries, auto shops or goldsmiths.

Retailers need a permit to buy acid in bulk, but no law prevents them from selling it to individuals.

The Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers Association petitioned the Supreme Court of Bangladesh in August demanding a law against selling acid.

"The No. 1 problem here is police corruption, and the judges are apathetic," said Salma Ali, the executive director of the association, a big-boned, handsome woman in a purple sari who slams the desk to make her point.

The association offices, filled with stern-faced lawyers in bright silk saris, are in downtown Dhaka. The capital is gritty and chaotic, awash in mud and rain but brightened up by trishaw pedalers who have gaily painted Bengali movie stars on their sun visors.

Ali said many acid burn cases go unreported because suspects pay off the police or doctors.

"A lot of doctors are reluctant to report acid burns because families give them money, or they have to go to court," she said.

Dr. S.L. Sen, one of only nine plastic surgeons in the country, heads the eight-bed female burn unit at Dhaka Medical College Hospital and hopes to open a state-of-the-art, 50-bed unit by next year.

"Twenty years ago, we never saw this sort of thing. Now I'm totally inundated," he said. "I have so many girls who come to me for treatment that, emotionally, I've just got to get attached. All I can do is try to give them back their honor."

Dr. Sen also supports banning acid sales to individuals.

"You can't buy alcohol in this country, so why not a law banning acid?" he said.

Bangladesh is by no means the only Asian country where acid attacks are rife. And experts here are quick to note that the attacks are nowhere near as frequent as assaults on women in developed nations.

They do acknowledge, however, that permanent pain and disfigurement, compounded by the traditional subjugation of women on the subcontinent, make for an alarming trend.

"The woman carries the honor of the family in Bangladesh, so if you want to offend the man of the family, you throw acid in the woman's face," said Nasreen Huq, a coordinator of Naripokkho, a women's activist group working with acid-burn survivors.

Huq and her colleague, Dr. John Morrison of The Acid Survivors Foundation, emphasize that great efforts are being made by the government, private groups -- even the national cricket team -- to heighten awareness.

"I think the number of people saying, 'Oh my God, how horrible,' is growing here," said Huq. "In other countries, they are still hidden in silence. But in Bangladesh, we have broken the silence."

Although the judicial system is snail-slow in Bangladesh, at least a dozen prosecutions of acid-throwers have been successful and a similar number are pending. Some of those convicted have been sentenced to death, though none has yet been hanged.

With funding from UNICEF and the Canadian International Development Agency, The Acid Survivors Foundation was launched last year to run a shelter and medical clinic where the survivors get free treatment, counseling, legal advice and moral support from the other victims.

Das and Islam made their way to the shelter for initial medical treatment, -- before plastic surgery. There they could share their ordeal, or just lose themselves in a cheesy Bengali movie on afternoon TV.

Morrison, a Canadian and executive director of the foundation, said a campaign headed by the cricket team -- "Good Men Don't Throw Acid" -- and popular Bangladeshi entertainers are reaching the public.

He said the foundation has helped more than 200 victims.

"The cost of this treatment is expensive and has been possible only through the generosity of the ordinary people of Bangladesh by making donations," Morrison said.

Garment industry workers are big contributors, he said.

Readymade garments are Bangladesh's leading export and many factory owners have gotten their workers to voluntarily donate a day's wages. The acid-burn campaign has become fashionable and the well-to-do are keen to be part of it.

The cause has found important supporters abroad.

Dr. Crescenzo Dionofrio was a big-time plastic surgeon in Rome, performing facelifts. Today he works with two other foreigners at a private hospital in Dhaka treating acid-burn victims in a program sponsored by Coopi, an Italian aid group.

"After a long time working with ladies who were unhappy because their eyes were drooping, I decided to do something for women with real problems," Dionofrio said.

Working alongside him at Gono Shasthro Kendra Hospital is 20-year-old Narunnahar, an acid-burn survivor with hope.

Five years ago, Narunnahar, who uses only one name, was walking to school when a boy from her southern village of Bamanikati asked her to go out with him. When she declined, he replied, "We will see."

A month later, a gang of thugs broke into her house, held down her cousins and mother and doused her in acid.

"I thought it was hot water and I started screaming. I tried to get the bottle from him, that's how I burned my hands," said Narunnahar. "We didn't know what to do, whether to put water on my face."

Water is the best way to rinse away acid before it burns down to the bone, but it is also agonizing and makes steam hiss up from the skin.

It was three days until Narunnahar's family sent her to Dhaka. By then, her face and much of her neck, arms and hands had been destroyed.

Narunnahar felt her life was over, that she would be shunned by society and never get married or have children.

"What's the use, I asked myself," says Narunnahar, whose beauty is still quite vivid beneath her patchwork of skin grafts and painted-on eyebrows. "But my mother told me, 'If you have the courage to finish your studies, you'll have the courage to do anything."'

After repeated operations, Narunnahar went back to school and worked with police and Naripokkho to bring the men to trial.

Eleven young men were arrested and tried in a local magistrate's court. Six were acquitted; five were found guilty and two of them got death sentences. Those two are appealing to the Supreme Court.

Today, Narunnahar is a paid counselor for Coopi, after a training course paid for by The Acid Survivors Foundation. She walks from bed to bed in burn units and shelters, holding hands, assuring patients that their lives are not over, yet preparing them for the long road ahead.

"A lot of the victims feel it's their fault," she says. "I tell them that they're not to blame. Everyone has the right to say no."

Narunnahar, 20, reminds them that beauty is only skin-deep.

"Even now, I still say that I am beautiful."

Copyright 2000 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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