When Worlds Collide#6: Facing Uncertain Futures

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 11 March 2012

I was both delighted and depressed watching the 84th Academy (Oscar) Awards ceremony, held in Hollywood on 26 February 2012.

I shared the jubilation of all Pakistanis over their first Oscar, won by young woman film maker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. She and American co-director Daniel Junge won it for the year’s best short documentary. Titled ‘Saving Face’, it is about Pakistani women surviving acid attacks, a dastardly crime that affects at least 100 women every year. Many more cases go unreported.

‘Saving Face’ features two survivors: their battle for justice and arduous journey of healing. It also follows plastic surgeon Dr Mohammad Jawad, who left his lucrative London practice to make multiple surgical mission trips to his home country and help the affected women.

Obaid-Chinoy made an impassioned acceptance speech, dedicating the award to “all the heroes working on the ground in Pakistan” including the two women who agreed to appear in the film, “whose resilience and bravery in the face of such adversity is admirable”.

Despite its upbeat take, I couldn’t help feeling depressed by the grotesque reality the film has showcased. I haven’t seen the full film yet (it just premiered on HBO on March 8, International Women’s Day), but a poignant trailer is online at: www.savingfacefilm.com

Watching it, I remembered Kakoli, another South Asian woman whose life and dreams were shattered by a similar attack. That was over a dozen years ago.

She was the central ‘character’ in ‘Facing the Future’, a documentary on acid attacks in Bangladesh that I commissioned in 2001-2 as part of an Asian regional film series called ‘Truth Talking’. It was directed by Bangladeshi film maker Aminul Islam.

Afroza Akter Kakoli was her full name. She lived in Nator, 240km north of Dhaka. Like any other young woman, she wanted to study hard and do well in life. Her dream was to become a doctor.

That was shattered one night in March 1999, when a man crept into their house and threw industrial acid at her. Kakoli, then 18, suffered severe burns on her face and body.

It wasn’t a hard core criminal who carried out this dastardly attack. In fact, the man was a fellow student who had proposed marriage just a few weeks earlier. Her family told him to wait for a few years, until she finished her studies.

When Aminul filmed with Kakoli more than two years later, her body and mind were still healing. By then, apathetic law enforcement agencies had added insult to severe injury.

As she went through multiple corrective operations in hospital, the legal system made a mockery of justice. The police took a month to arrest the attacker, kept him in custody for about a year and released him on bail. A thousand days later, the case hadn’t gone to trail. Her father suspected bribery.

South Asia has the dubious distinction of leading the world in acid attacks. The top five countries, by reported incidents are (alphabetically): Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nepal and Pakistan.

Motives for such attacks are diverse: soured romances or spurned sexual advances, land or money disputes, and dowry demands. Women are the primary targets: girls, wives, mothers, even children are not spared.

Acid attacks peaked in Bangladesh in 2002, with nearly 500 reported incidents. That year, tough laws were introduced, which included the death penalty for the worst cases. Sale of acid was also better regulated.

These, and widespread advocacy and awareness raising, have probably contributed to the decline of attacks in recent years. The Acid Survivor Foundation of Bangladesh (ASF), a non-profit group, recorded 84 incidents and 111 survivors in 2011. See their tracking

“No punishment would compensate for the damage inflicted on me,” Kakoli said in 2001. “I wish it were possible to burn him in acid and make him understand how much pain I live with.”

The process of recovery from an acid attack is slow and painful. “I believe helping them to be self reliant is the most effective way,” says Dr Samanta Lal Sen, head of Burns and Plastic Surgery at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital in the 2002 film. He carried out skin grafts and reconstructive surgery to minimise the scarring of survivors.

But the psychological scars run deeper. Loss of confidence and a fear of the world outside the hospital are common.

Kakoli was exceptionally courageous to allow her recovery process to be filmed – an act of defiance that inspired other survivors. “I pray that no one should suffer like me…I demand that society, the state, the government will deliver true justice for us.”

Acid attacks need to be seen in the context of wider discrimination against women in societies. This may also explain why, despite strict laws, many attackers are never convicted. Witnesses are frightened or bribed; forensic reports are inaccurate; and doctors are reluctant to appear in court.

Notwithstanding such systemic flaws, the issue has attracted public support in Bangladesh thanks to a vocal civil society and media. On Women’s Day 2002, men and women from all walks of life marched the streets of Dhaka demanding an end to the scourge.

Dolly, one of several hundred women survivors who marched, told the cameras: “They (the attackers) have defaced us, but they haven’t discouraged us. We will go ahead in courage and stand on our own. The criminals must see that they cannot ruin our lives.”

A decade on, many hurdles remain. This week, I asked Bangladeshi writer and activist Rahnuma Ahmed for an update. She replied: “Acid attacks seem to have reduced. But…other forms of violence have increased horribly though — including rape, gang-rape, killing after rape, and girls themselves committing suicide after rape. The atmosphere of impunity that prevails is beyond outrageous.”

South Asian societies have miles to go before women like Kakoli can sleep in peace.

Watch ‘Facing the Future’ in full at: http://tiny.cc/Facing

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

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About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
This entry was posted in Documentary Film, Documentary films, Film making, Gender based violence, Media, Women's Rights and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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