By ALICIA TEJADA
With Bangladesh’s interim government cracking down on crime and its military abusing their emergency powers, reporting on human rights has become prevalent. Tensions between police and opposing political activists have erupted in the past few months, leading the country into a state of emergency, postponing elections, and instructing military officials to “clean house” and eliminate corruption.
Bangladesh’s military-backed caretaker government has been targeting labor rights activists, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. Police have used the country’s state of emergency to invoke strict “rules and regulations” resulting in the arrest of many union members in the garment industry – Bangladesh’s main export, and the leading cause of women working.
Amnesty International member, Govind Archarya, said the organization is mostly concerned about journalists’ protections since the capturing of Tasneem Khalil, a CNN news representative. Khalil was detained in Bangladesh and tortured by the military, according to a Human Rights Watch report. “It’s very shocking because he’s well known, even amongst foreigners; usually lesser known journalists are targeted, basically those who are not well connected with the outside world.
Amidst all the political chaos, it seems that there is little room for the spotlight to shine on issues concerning violence against women. And in a country where acid attacks on women – sulfuric acid as the use of a weapon to disfigure women – has been an epidemic in the past decade, cases should still be monitored and awareness spread across the entire state.
“Acid attacks are more of a domestic crime now; low income families in villages where women are not educated, it’s not happening in the city,” explained Amana Begum, who has lived in Jackson Heights for 15 years and just returned from Dhaka after a six month trip. “People don’t see it because it’s more hidden.”
A reporter of the Bangla Patrika, in Long Island, added that remote areas lack communication with the urban areas, preventing women from getting help, thus not being recognized. The accounts are not usually publicized because either people don’t go to the villages, leaving attention to be focused on Dhaka, or women are too afraid to report incidents. Ansar Lovlu said that the government would intervene in those cases but there is not sufficient communication with law and order arsenals. “Urban area authorities take action as soon as they get a complaint, the government works, administrations works, but again, that’s in the urban areas,” said Lovlu.
He said that education plays a big role in these tragedies. “Most people are illiterate and have no education in the village areas so this is the main problem; this leads to violence, when people don’t get educated this is what happens, ultimately this can be eliminated through education,” said Lovlu.
With the lack of education in the rural areas, citizens are not aware about resources available for victims of acid attacks. Women are forced to live in shame, with grotesque burns on their bodies, and sometimes are left blind and deaf. Marielly Minaya, a former intern of the Public Affairs Department at the U.S Embassy in Dhaka, said that the government isn’t fully aware of what goes on with women because they’re so involved in the “cleansing” of the streets, in preparation for the much anticipated elections. “The government’s focused on implementing curfews and fighting corruption through scare tactics and torture, this leads to the rise of organizations like RAB – Rapid Action Battalion – and leaves the issue of acid attacks behind closed doors, which is exactly how they’re happening nowadays, in homes, places of peace where women should be at ease but unfortunately are not,” said Minaya.
Although the amount of acid attacks has decreased significantly since 2003, according to an annual report by the Acid Survivor’s Foundation, the situation still haunts the country. Medical facilities in the village areas are sparse and poorly equipped, and many women are not even aware or lack the resources to receive aid or counseling. The Acid Survivor’s Foundation reported that last year approximately 180 women were attacked with acid, with motives ranging from disputes about property or money to rejection of sex or marriage. Aside from education and resources, another key issue is that people are not willing to speak on the topic.
Bangladeshis in the Jackson Heights area of Queens were reluctant to speak about human rights issues, especially in relation to violence against women and the acid attacks. Monie Fattah, an employee of JMD Clothing has lived in the U.S for 16 years. We spoke about the increase of women working and that men do not fully approve of that; when I brought up the topic of the acid attacks however, Fattah became hostile and quickly changed the topic.
Another woman at a garment shop inside the Bangladesh Plaza agreed to speak with me, even when I mentioned the violence against women; but when I referred to the acid attacks she became quite uncomfortable and requested that I exit the shop.
“It’s also a Hindu versus Muslim controversy because a lot of Hindu women are the victims so people just don’t want to get into that type of conversation. Plus, with the government pushing their clean house agenda, a lot of things go unsaid this may also be why it appears that numbers have gone down. It’s just a time where people are mostly concerned with political issues,” said Sunita Iqbal of Queens, during a phone interview.
With the elections postponed, the caretaker government continues on the road to root out corruption. Even if their tactics may have been taken out of hand, some Bangladeshis believe it’s necessary.
“We need this kind of change; acid attacks used to happen everywhere before, now it just happens in some places, mostly villages, at least it’s not happening in the city the way it used to,” said Akm Nuruzzama, who has lived in the U.S for 16 years and is the owner of Akota Grocery in Jackson Heights.
Bangladeshis in Jackson Heights who were interviewed all agreed that the abuse of power on behalf of the interim government is necessary. When asked if governmental organizations have made efforts towards preventing acid attacks in the villages most did not know or chose not to answer.
Still, the problem remains; there is an elephant in the room when mention of violence against women in Bangladesh comes up.