Holding a red banner that read "resist acid, save women", Dolly Begum marched slowly through the streets of Dhaka last week. Walking with her were 100 other victims of acid attacks, and following them were columns of men, expressing their commitment to end the blood-curdling crime that routinely disfigures hundreds of young women who turn down their assailants' marriage proposal across Bangladesh every year. The rally, held on the International Women's day, was indeed unprecedented—jointly organised by the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), a private charity, and the Bangla daily Prothom Alo, it was the first gathering on a gender issue aimed at demonstrating the collective shame and anger of Bangladeshi men.
"I find such attacks revolting," said Habibur Rahman, former Bangladesh chief justice, who was present at the rally. "This is our national shame." Bewildered at the callousness of the assailants who resort to such heinous crime, Kumar Biswajeet, a popular singer, lamented: "My heart bleeds when I look at the unfortunate girls."
The scale of the crime is so huge, the law too is taking a second look. The rally was organised in the backdrop of Bangladesh Parliament passing the Restriction of Acid Sale Bill to regulate the retailing of the 'deadly liquid'. Parliament also passed on Wednesday night (March 13) the Prevention of Acid Violence Bill, 2002, which mandates that an acid attack case must be decided within 90 days. That these legal measures are needed sorely was underlined at the rally, devastated as the participants were at the sight of the horribly disfigured and scarred faces of the 100 young women.
Take the case of 14-year-old Dolly Begum, a sprightly, plump girl, who had aspired to become a doctor. Last year, on a dark, rainy night, as Dolly lay asleep at her home in Chak Dakatia, her ancestral village in northern Bogra district, a spurned suitor stealthily stole under the cover of darkness and threw acid on her face. Overnight her beauty was corroded, the six painful operations to reconstruct her face palpably failing to diminish in any way the horror you experience merely by looking at her. "What have I done to deserve this," Dolly asks, her voice dropping to a whisper. Her only crime was to be audacious enough to reject the romantic overtures of a neighbour, Hafizur Rahman, a local handloom factory worker. "He used to pester me every day. I got fed up and told my parents about it," she reminisces.
Undaunted, Hafizur sent a marriage proposal to Dolly's parents, who turned it down. Hafizur retaliated days later—by throwing acid on Dolly through the open window while she was sleeping next to her grandmother in a tin-roofed house—disfiguring in a flash of pathological anger the very beautiful face that had so besotted him. Her grandmother, too, suffered minor injury.
Dolly was taken to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital two days later. But the doctors could do little, it was already too late. The ASF then took Dolly under its wings, helping her overcome the emotional trauma. But the scars are permanent and life appears bleak. Sitting at the ASF office in Banani residential district in Dhaka, Dolly ponders over her uncertain future: "My life is finished. Nobody will give me shelter, let alone marry me," she bemoans. Her poor parents are in no position to help her.
Next to Dolly is Runa Laila, 21, who was attacked in 1998. Hers too is a life without hope. "There's no escape for us. We are ruined forever," she moans.
Such macabre and miserable stories abound in Bangladesh, which has failed to arrest the rising graph of acid attacks despite the law providing death penalty for the culprits. ASF's statistics show there were 221 reported incidents in 2000; the next year the crime registered a whopping 55 per cent growth, totalling 340.Already, 56 such cases have been reported in the first two months of this year.
No one really knows the precise provenance of this crime against women. A law ministry official admits the absence of an effective crime monitoring system in the country, consequently "making it difficult to keep track of the crime". The ASF, though, says the first acid case was reported way back in 1967 in what was East Pakistan then—a bunch of miscreants threw acid on a young woman who had rejected a marriage proposal. Sociologists and women activists, who say the crime, or at least its high incidence, is unique to Bangladesh, are quite baffled at the preponderance of the attacks among the lower classes, and its complete absence in the middle classes.
Experts cite two primary reasons for the rise in acid attacks—easy availability of the deadly substance in the open market and lack of exemplary punishment for the offenders. The complicated legal process and the corruption in police enable most culprits to go scot-free—the attackers are seldom arrested, as in the case of Dolly and Runa, and those arrested are mostly never tried. So far no one has been executed, although 12 have received death sentences ever since death penalty on attackers was passed in 1983.
"If you can procure something as deadly as acid for just 10 taka to harm someone and get away with it," explains Salma Ali, chairperson, Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA), "many would then be encouraged to commit the crime." Adds Badrunnessa Khuku, ASF's legal coordinator: "It's extremely difficult to pursue the cases because invariably the victims are poor."
No wonder, many victims prefer out-of-court settlements, mediated by village elders. Moti Master, a venerable former school principal at Gosarigaon, a village near Dhaka, mediated in a case in 2000. "What's been done cannot be undone," he said of Peara Begum, the victim who cited this as the reason for settling the dispute with her assailant. In this case, though, his efforts proved abortive.
In an attempt to minimise the menace, the new Restriction of Acid Sale Act curbs the sale of the deadly liquid in the open market and allows only licensed shops to retail it. Offenders could face imprisonment up to 10 years. The new law is primarily directed against owners of photo labs and car-battery sellers, considered the most common sources of procuring acid. In addition, the Prevention of Acid Violence Act mandates the conclusion of an acid attack case within 90 days and denial of bail to the alleged offender during the trial period.
Yet legal experts remain sceptic. "There is nothing wrong with the existing law. But the problem lies in its implementation," says Hasan Ariff, the attorney general, who also attended the rally. "Unless and until we don't tackle corruption in the whole process, it would be difficult to achieve our goal."
But the ASF is optimistic. "This is the best chance for Bangladesh to fight the acid menace," says John Morrison, executive director of the ASF, about the new law. "If we fail to take advantage of it, then the consequences would be horrendous." And Morrison should know. The ASF's 15-bed hospital in Savar, 30 miles from here, and the 35-bed nursing facility in the Capital simply can't cope with the numbers. "We're desperately running short of money," says Morrison, throwing up his arms in despair.
With the police in Bangladesh now suitably empowered to tackle the acid menace, it's about time it shows results.