Acid Attacks Unite Pakistani And Australians To Stop Violence Against Women

With the Depilex Smile Again Foundation
With the Depilex Smile Again Foundation
Jarni Blakkarly

MELBOURNE â€" For nearly an hour the audience sits in silence as Feryal Ali Gauhar paces the stage, delivering a solo performance that spans three continents and tells the story of various women; mothers and daughters, the wealthy elite and domestic maids.

All the characters in the play are based on real-life stories and have a common theme of gender-based violence and control at the hands of men. “It’s a very immediate medium," she later explains. "For most women in the audience it is an experience that is close to them. The debate begins really on the journey home with their partners and with the families that they come from. So at least the conversation starts."

Feryal, an actress and writer, is also a human rights activist, political economist and a UN Good Will ambassador in Pakistan. Her performance, in Melbourne, Australia, is part of an event to raise funds for the Depilex Smile Again Foundation, an organization that provides free surgeries to victims of acid attacks in Pakistan.

Members of the Pakistani community in Australia offered to put on the fund-raiser, and together with tickets and an auction of donated designer clothes and art works raised more than $50,000.

The Depilex Smile Again Foundation was founded by Musarat Misbah, a successful Pakistani businesswoman who owns a chain of beauty salons. She says that besides covering the costs of cosmetic surgeries, the organization also raises awareness in the community and helps women lead a normal life.

“After a certain number of surgeries, when the eyes have opened up and the limbs start working, we start training these girls in certain skill so that they can become integrated into society and contribute to society again,” Musarat explains.

"There is a way out"

Sabra Sultana, who traveled to Melbourne for the event, is one of the women who was helped by the foundation. Sabra, just 16 at the time, had already been abused by her husband because of a lack of dowry from her family. One day, when she was three months pregnant with her first child, he burnt her face with acid.

Through a translator, Sabra explains that she has had 35 surgeries â€" all part of a slow and painful process that involves removing skin from other parts of her body and putting it on her face. "It takes 10 to 15 years because after each surgery you have to wait six months," she says.

After the acid attack, Sabra's eyes were down to her cheeks. She couldn't open her mouth because it was joined to her neck. It's taken her about a decade just to be able to drink water again out of a glass.

For many years Sabra wouldn't look at herself in the mirror. She says her family has been very supportive. But dealing with the broader community has been extremely difficult. Mostly she covers her face. Otherwise people stare. Sometimes they approach her, physically touch her, and ask direct questions: What happened? Why are you looking like this? With that comes the stigma, the idea that she must have done something wrong. It must have been her fault.

After beginning the long surgery process with the Depilex Foundation, Sabra first trained as a beautician and has now moved on to be the organization's patient co-ordinator for new victims receiving treatment. “She can empathize and sympathize with them," says Musarat. "She knows exactly where it hurts and how much it hurts. So she tells them that she is the light at the end of the tunnel and that there is a way out."

Victim blaming

While acid attacks are a problem unique to South Asia, organizers of the event also want to raise awareness about domestic violence in Australia and show the issues as interlinked.

Tasneem Chopra, the chair of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights, says that violence against women in Australia has inherently the same motivations as in Pakistan.

“Violence against women transcends religious, racial and cultural lines," she says. "It's a really vile mindset that is entrenched in power and domination. So we see that manifest throughout different cultures in different ways, but the end result is always the same: taking away a woman’s identity, sovereignty and ensuring that she is always a victim. The tendency is to remove the capacity of a woman and turn her into a possession."

In Australia more than one woman is murdered by her current or former partner every week. For women under 45, the domestic violence "epidemic," as some people describe it, is the leading cause of preventable death and injury.

Tasneem says that there is a tendency in Australia to view violence against women in developing countries as a different issue to violence here. “In Australia we don’t even discuss it as a religious or ethnic issue. We discuss it for what it is: violence against women," she says. "I think often the tendency when we discuss violence against women in Pakistan or India, or the Middle East, is to somehow cloak it as being a cultural issue.”

The rights activist says that while different countries inevitably take different approaches to the matter, the ultimate goal needs to be same: getting men to change their behavior. Societies, whether in the East or West, also need to "shift from a culture of victim blaming," says Tasneem.

"When we do hear about attacks, be it rape, be it sexual assault or physical assault, we often ask what she was doing to provoke it," she says. "The premise is wrong. There is no excuse for violence.”

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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