Saturday, January 23, 2010

Helping Pakistan's acid attack victims

When Bushra goes out, she wears the full niqab. It covers her face. She says it stops people staring. If they do catch a sight of her, the Pakistani woman has a story prepared.

She tells them her injuries were caused by hot milk being spilled. It is not true. Bushra looks the way she does because of greed, because of anger, because of the evil in some people's hearts.

Fifteen years ago, she went to the wedding of her brother. It was a happy occasion. There was music and laughter. When she returned to her husband, her in-laws demanded money.They told her it was tradition to bring money back after a wedding.

They wanted 50,000 rupees – almost $600. She told them "I don't have that kind of money. My brothers don't have this kind of money either." It was not what they wanted to hear.

They called her a liar. They beat her repeatedly. Then they tied her up. Her mother-in law grabbed her hair and yanked her head back. "I was terrified," said Bushra.

Her voice quivers, remembering the moment. She gulps hard, chocking back the tears. "Then they put a cloth on a stick, soaked it in acid and her husband rubbed it over the side of my face".

She remembers the pain, but this is not where her ordeal ended. "His uncle snatched the stick and rubbed it across the other side of my face. He forced open my mouth and dripped it on my tongue. It burned".

Bushra does not remember what happened next. She passed out from the pain. She only knows what happened next from what people tell her. Her family tied her body to a ceiling fan and set the house on fire.

They told people in the village on the outskirts of Lahore that Bushra had tried to commit suicide. But people did not just stand around. They burst their way into the house and grabbed her limp body. They took her to hospital.

For a year, she stayed in hospital. She drifted in and out of consciousness. She could not see, could not open her eyes, but she could hear. And she heard people express their disgust at how she looked and run away. And those who stayed made her worried and tense.

She went to live with her sister. When some of her family saw her they fainted. Her body was skinny, but her head was massive. She heard them say, "This is a woman but it doesn't look like a woman because she has no face". And she cried.

That was fifteen years ago. Bushra has gone through 28 operations. "Slowly my face has got better" she tells me. "Maybe if they could fix my nose it would be better".

She would like to be a beautician. And now she is training in a salon in Lahore. It is run by Musarat Misbah. This elegant, articulate woman decided to help Pakistan’s acid burns victims after a chance encounter five and a half years ago.

A woman walked into her office late one evening and demanded her help. She asked her to return in the morning.

"The woman was very insistent and said no, you must help me now. She removed her scarf and I saw a woman without a face. I saw a girl, there was no nose, eyes are gone, she had a contraction from his chin to her chest which meant she could not move her neck. And I sat down. There was no life in my legs. I asked her 'What happened?'"

"She told me acid had been thrown at her by her own family members, her husband, her in-laws. She said she wanted me to help her look beautiful. And no make up could change her features or bring back the eyes, so I told her 'I will help you'".

And Misbah did. Using her own money, she paid for surgery. Word spread and now, almost 400 women and girls have asked Misbah and her Smile Again Foundation for help.

Doctors from Italy and the UK have given their services to help with medical treatment. And she tries to direct many of the women into jobs.

"Employers say, 'We can't have someone who looks like that working in our place, it is too upsetting for everyone else', so I tell them - use them as telephone operators".

Her pushiness and determination means 98 have found work.

Each case brings new heartache, a story worse than the last. There is 17-year-old Naseera with her flawless skin and long blonde hair. He took revenge because she rejected his proposal.

She says "It was like burning in hell." Acid burned through her upper body melting away the skin.

Then there is Shamim who was verbally abused by a street gang. When she rejected their advances, they kidnapped her, raped her and poured acid on her face, trying to silence her forever. She was just 17.

Bushra does not preach forgiveness. Her pain has been too long and too great.

"People are cruel towards young girls and the innocent. Divorce is one thing. If someone does not get along with someone else then its fine, get a divorce and move on.

"But to ruin someone's face, to set fire to someone or to pour acid on someone's face, people who do this, 20 or 25 of them should be hanged in public at once to strike fear into the hearts of people so that men realise that you cannot do this to a woman.

"I've even learned how to drive so that if I see my husband walking on the street I can kill him with my car".

There are no accurate figures for the number of acid attacks in Pakistan each year, but it is thought only a handful are actually reported to police. Even those cases are sometimes hard to pursue.

Misbah tells me: "I took one girl who had been attacked to the police station. The first question the officer asked was 'What did you do to deserve this?'"’

She continues to try to help the victims, and also change the way of thinking.

Al Jazeera

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