Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Population

WOMEN-BANGLADESH: Disfigured by Acid Attacks Despite Tough Law

Tabibul Islam

DHAKA, Jun 19 2000 (IPS) - With her fair complexion and good looks, the parents of Ruby (not her real name), who live in the Bangladeshi capital, knew they would not have a problem getting her married early.

But their 20-year-old daughter’s pretty face is now only a memory, disfigured by a chemical thrown on her by a young man. Ruby, a college student, no longer goes out with friends and wishes she were not good looking once.

Twenty eight-year-old Salma of Faridpur district, 145 km south of Dhaka, met a similar fate. But it was her own husband who threw acid on her face after 11 years of marriage because Salma’s parents did not give in to his persistent demand for more dowry.

Eighteen-year-old Shirin of Munshigonj district, 40 km from Dhaka, too had her face disfigured by an acid attack by a cousin who wanted to marry her but was not acceptable to the girl’s family.

The three are victims of a vicious form of male violence against women that is growing in Bangladesh despite being a crime punishable with death.

From 47 incidents reported to the police in 1996, the number of acid attacks on women shot up to 230 in 1999. A survey by the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) shows most victims were girls between 11 and 20 years old and from low income families.

According to another survey by a local human rights group, there were 27 such attacks on women in May this year. However, rights groups say the reported incidents account for a small fraction of the attacks actually taking place.

Most cases are never reported to the police by the traumatised families of the victims. Under the 1995 Women and Children Repression Prevention Act, an acid attack can lead to a long jail term and even result in capital punishment.

But this has not deterred attackers because the law has rarely been enforced, say rights groups. They allege that the police do not pursue the complaints properly because most victims are from poor village or urban households.

“What is needed is strict and prompt application of the law so that the offenders cannot escape punishment. Police officials found hobnobbing with the criminals should also be dealt with severely,” says Salma Ali, Executive Director, Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association.

According to Ali, the law should also make attackers pay the full cost of medical treatment for their victims. Male lawyer, Abu Ahmed of the Dhaka Bar Association strongly advocates summary trial for the crime.

However, a women’s rights activist, who did not want to be named, accused national politicians of indifference to the issue, which, she said, is the real reason why acid attackers are not afraid of the law.

Rights activists say there have been cases where public prosecutors who are supposed to stand for the victims in courts, are influenced by the accused party. As a result they present the case in such a way that the accused is let off.

Attacks are usually linked to a girl’s refusal to marry a man, although husbands in the mainly Muslim nation are also known to disfigure wives who object to a second marriage by the man. At times, family property or dowry disputes are behind the attacks.

It is also not easy for victims to seek medical help. Suitable treatment facilities are rare in the state-run hospitals to which most victims go.

There is only one overburdened burns unit at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital that has just 16 beds, half of them for men. A newspaper quoted surgeons of the hospital’s burn unit as saying that new patients may have to wait for years for corrective surgery.

Severe disfigurement as caused by an acid attack, can be rectified only by very expensive plastic surgery which can involve a series of operations, say experts.

A plastic surgery expert in Dhaka has advised the government to set up a burns unit in each of the 16 medical college hospitals and 64 district hospitals in the country.

In recent years, a few private clinics and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have set up free medical treatment facilities for acid attack victims. These include the Monwara clinic, the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association, Gano Shysto Kendra and Acid Survivors Foundation.

In the last two years, the governments of Britain, Canada and Spain and some NGOs from these nations took over a dozen Bangladeshi women who were severely disfigured by acid attacks, abroad for medical treatment and plastic surgery.

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  • Albert Sardjono

    There is no words for me to elaborate these Bangladesh man.Why! must they do that to these ladies.It is cruel and this Bangladesh is a real coward.