<%-- Page Title--%> Human Rights <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 145 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

March 12, 2004

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We Are No Longer Alone
Srabonti Narmeen Ali

Ostracised by the rest of the villagers, Shewli and her elder sister Bubu sit alone at home. Shewli, a victim of acid violence claims that she does not feel like going out because people are repulsed by her face, while Bubu, recently divorced because of dowry-related issues, says that she cannot go out because people look at her differently because of the divorce. Both sisters cry inconsolably as Bubu says, "The fact that we are born women is a fault in itself."

There was pin-drop silence at the auditorium in Hotel Eastern Residence as the audience watched Amra Ar Eka Noi (Togetherness), a play written and performed by twelve acid survivors, who wore masks throughout the play, taking them off only at the end.

The play succeeded a month-long training programme organised by the Acid Survivors Foundation and sponsored by the Royal Netherlands Embassy. The programme was divided into two sections: Leadership and Performing Arts. Ranjan Karmaker, Executive Director of Steps Towards Development, conducted the training workshop on Leadership, Advocacy and Campaign. Ramendu Mojumdar, Managing Director of Expressions, Ltd and Mamunur Rashid, Chairperson from Bangladesh Group Theatre Federation, assisted with the theatre workshop and the making of the final presentation of the play held on March 3, 2004.

"Violence against women happens worldwide," said Chief Guest Margret Verwijk, Charges d'Affairs of the Royal Netherlands Embassy, in her address before the performance. "In the Netherlands one out of four women are affected by violence. In Bangladesh, however, it is double -- worse. This is not acceptable. We are talking about your mothers, sisters and daughters. It is high time that all of us say no to violence against women."

As the audience applauded her last statement, Verwijk went on to explain how the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) is working towards the prevention of acid violence in Bangladesh. Founded in May 1999, ASF provides survivors with a variety of different opportunities: medical care (including plastic surgery), access to education, training for new skills, finding employment as well as legal advice. Aside from helping survivors to get back on their feet and make a new life for themselves, ASF continues their battle to eliminate acid violence.

"To combat acid violence, the first thing we have to do is to raise awareness," said Monira Rahman, Executive Director, ASF. "Our main target group is the youth, particularly men -- it is important to sensitise them against this kind of violence. We also see that the media has played a big role on our community and policy makers. As long as the media aids us in creating awareness on these issues, we learn more and overcome barriers and teach men that violence against women should be condemned."

While giving the male perspective during his address, Special Guest Ramendu Mojumdar said, "Whenever I come across an acid survivor face to face, I feel nothing but shame, because I know that it is my gender and our mentality that has done this to women. Women suffer so much. And the sad reality is that they see their lives as abused women as a normal existence. The mentality is that it is normal for them to be victims of violence. We have to change that mentality, especially among men."

However, more and more women are learning to speak out and stand up for their rights and learning, in the process, that violence against women is, in fact, NOT normal. This was evident during the Acid Survivors presentation, in which the entire room was filled with acid survivors applauding their "sisters." Not to mention the fact that a dozen young victims wrote and acted out a play speaking out against violence and making a point -- that none of them are alone. It is the last scene that brings this message home…

Shewli spends all her time at home, missing her friends and longing to go back to school. She is scared to go back because of what her old friends might say. None of them have seen her since the attack, except for her close friend Bela, who convinces her to go back to school and continue her education. With great trepidation she takes the walk to school, flanked by Bela and her other friend Koli. Once they reach the school, Shewli's hesitation is evident as she stands at the back watching her schoolmates play. Koli and Bela never leave her side. At some point a girl spots Shewli and squealing in excitement they all rush to welcome her back asking her if she is here to stay. Her teacher comes out to greet her, saying that she must come back to school every day from now on, because all her friends miss her. The play ends with Shewli discovering that her fears are unfounded and that she does not have to go through this alone, nor does she have to isolate herself from her old friends…

"Steps can play a certain role towards, but the real steps come from the survivors," said Ranjan Karmaker, while talking about his experiences in working with the acid survivors. "We are just helping them find their way. It is important for ASF to not just stop here, but go further. We must create some kind of space for women in situations like this."

Mamunur Rashid shared similar views while talking about his experiences. "The women in the training programme have worked so hard to achieve what they did today. They insisted on working during hartals as well. These women have had their dreams robbed from them, but they are now being given new hope."

It was evident that the young performers achieved more in one month than many people do in a lifetime. To recreate a painful experience, share it with strangers, and come out of it smiling is no easy feat. However, these survivors realise that they must continue to speak out against acid violence, in whatever way they can. Every day of this training programme must have been a reminder of what they had to go through, but they persevered, much to the pride of their fellow survivors. They watched from the back and relived every moment with their "sisters" -- hoping that acid attacks will stop altogether, with their collective efforts.



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