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     Volume 4 Issue 2 | July 2, 2004 |


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Campaigning Against Crime

Prothom Alo's Battle Against Acid Violence

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Salma, an eighteen-year-old girl in Sylhet, was to be married today. But on June 18, a man from a neighbouring village threw acid on her face. Salma's crime: refusing his offer to have a romantic relationship with him, and later, her family's rejection of his marriage proposal. On June 19, after a 20-hour struggle with death, Salma succumbed to her injuries.

Salma is one of the many victims of acid violence that occur in hundreds each year in Bangladesh. Some would say she is lucky to have actually died, as opposed to having to deal with the realities of surviving with such a handicap.

Not only must a woman brave a society that puts so much emphasis on her appearance, but she must struggle to actually survive, often with physical disabilities that may not allow her to work to earn a living. She must battle for justice in a system where the perpetrators are often the ones with the advantage. She must have the will to keep living through all this, in a society where heinous crimes like acid-throwing has become a regular phenomenon.

Bottles of acid can be bought for as little as 15 or 20 Taka in this country, and crimes are committed on the simplest of pretexts -- from marital, family and land disputes to politics and the refusal to pay dowry or respond favourably to romantic advances or marriage proposals.

Four hundred and fifty seven cases of acid violence were reported in 2003, according to the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF). We read about them in the papers every other day. We are presented with the facts: the names of the victims and the perpetrators, the reason the crime took place, even the judgments pronounced in cases that actually got that far. But what actually happens to the victims of acid violence? How do they fight for justice? How do they go on with their lives?

Among a handful of organisations like the ASF that have come forward to help rehabilitate "acid victims", Prothom Alo has been a ray of hope for many. From the beginning of its publication, the newspaper has campaigned strongly against acid violence, publishing numerous in-depth news stories and features in order to build awareness and protest against the crime as a step toward its elimination.

In April 2000, to "combat severity of escalating acid violence and promote treatment, provide legal aid and rehabilitation" for victims, Prothom Alo created the Prothom Alo Aid Fund (PAAF). The fund that was inaugurated with the donation of a day's salary by all the employees of the daily soon grew with the kind contributions of readers at home and abroad as well as those of educational institutions, clubs, student groups and even garment workers. Young people have played a particularly strong role in the campaign, organising various film, painting and photo exhibitions to raise funds for the cause.

There are various dimensions to the PAAF which aims at an overall rehabilitation of victims of acid violence. Forty women, with Tk. 500,000, have so far been provided medical assistance and been substantially cured. The fund also provides legal assistance to victims. Those who have been rendered physically unfit to work are given a monthly allowance. Young people who wish to study get stipends with which to complete their education.

Prothom Alo correspondents personally talk to the victims in order to understand their individual needs and demands, providing some with a shop to run while others are given a cow to raise or a trawler, to bring in a regular income. Some destitute victims are given homesteads while others, who wish to be educated, are admitted into school and given all the required books and stationary.

In January 2001, Prothom Alo organised a discussion session in which representatives of different organisations, including government officials and intellectuals, participated. Recommendations were forwarded to different ministries and they proved effective as, according to one of them, the Ministry of Commerce took steps to curb the availability of acid.

The daily also organised the "Bondhushobha" Cycle Rally in which four youths travelled the country on bicycles in order to increase awareness and raise public opinion against acid violence. An exhibition and auction were also held in which photographs were sold and cricket bats, signed by members of the Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Australian teams, were auctioned.

Through the generous contributions of different organisations and individuals, including banks, schools and universities, student groups and business institutions, over 76 lakh Taka has been raised in the campaign, of which over 38 lakh Taka has been spent. A total of 58 women have been rehabilitated with the fund money while 10 more are on the way. Besides this, the fund has donated Tk. 100,000 to the Dhaka Medical College Burn Unit.

Acid-throwing is a crime unheard of in most other countries in the world. In ours, it has been increasing over the years. Seventy-seven people were affected by acid violence between January and April this year, up from 55 during the same period last year. Most victims of acid violence are women, and most of the perpetrators are men. Acid violence has become one more abominable way to keep women repressed in a male-dominated society, for many women will give in to their fears -- or else pay for not doing so.

The importance of the media in today's world cannot be debated. What influence each newspaper, magazine or television network chooses to have is, however, up to them. Prothom Alo, its readers and those who have come forward in the campaign against acid violence have proved that, given dependable information and the proper channels, there are people in our society who are willing to help those in need, whether by spreading awareness or by contributing financially to the rehabilitation of victims. In a society where crime is rampant and the future seems bleak, the goodwill of the common people is really all we have to bank on.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004