Woman on a Mission
Marianne Scholte talks to Shafina Lohani about the impact of the Liberation War on the country's women.
Were you living in Sirajganj in 1971?
Yes, our home is in Sirajganj. I got married in January 1970, and my oldest son was two months old when the war broke out and my husband left to join the Freedom Fighters. I moved around in the remote areas outside the town -- for safety and to help organise and provide supplies to the Freedom Fighters. I also trained some women to fight and took care of weapons. I was 24 or 25. I still dream about one night when Pakistani soldiers had surrounded the house I was staying in and bullets were flying off the tin roof like lightning flashes -- I wake up terrified, wondering how to save myself and my baby.
Did you know what was happening to women during the war?
Oh yes, I knew. We heard that a lot of girls and women were taken by the Pakistani army to their camp and that a lot of girls were raped by the military in front of their father, their mother, their husband...
What did you do after the war?
In 1972, Sheikh Mujib established a rehabilitation centre for women and I was the Secretary General of the centre in Sirajganj. I and two or three other women went out all over the Sirajganj area searching for women who had been thrown out of their homes and rejected by their families. Some lived in the forest. Some were terribly injured. Thirty military men raped one woman. They were bleeding and had to go to the hospital with internal haemorrhaging. Still today, they suffer from their physical injuries.
How many women did you find in 1972?
In total, we found 50 or 60. Some did not want anyone to know they had been raped, so they quietly had treatment and went home. Thirty-six of them ended up living in the centre. They learned to sew and make clothes and do a lot of handicrafts.
What happened in 1975?
After the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the rehabilitation centre was closed and the building was turned over to the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs. All the documents were destroyed. The women scattered, living here and there -- some hid in the forest again. My husband and I also had a lot of trouble: he was put in jail and I was harassed. But when I could, I looked for the women. By 1978, I had found 30. Some had been alone for two or three years.
Again I told them, "You have rights. You are Freedom Fighters and deserve recognition." In 1973, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman came to Sirajganj and met with them and told them, "You are my daughters, all of you are my daughters, so I will take care of you." So I thought, "This is my mission, I need to take care of them" and I started Sirajganj Uttaran Mohila Sangstha (SUMS).
These women are quite old now. How do they live?
The ones who can are still working -- some work in other people's houses. Several of them live in a little house together. And some live with their sons or daughters. Some live alone and are very lonely. People sometimes come forward to help SUMS support them.