Dhaka (AsiaNews) – Sima is a ten-year-old girl (here pictured at five). When she was ten months old, her father poured acid on her, hoping to get rid of the greatest problem in his life. The child was not born out of love, but was the result of a youthful indiscretion. Eventually, village elders forced her young parents to marry to fix the misdeed. Since she is a girl, Sima is also an economic burden in a country where women still have to bring a dowry in their marriage. For the man who did not want to marry the girl’s mother, the whole thing was a big problem; so, one night, when she was ten months old, he threw acid on his baby girl. He was convicted for the crime and given a three-month sentence. When he came out of prison, he repudiated his wife and washed his hands of his daughter. Right after the attack, Sima was hospitalised and the doctors and volunteers working with the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) acted quickly to save her life, but since then she had to undergo many operations and skin grafts.
Created in 1999 by British doctor John Morrison, the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) Hospital is a well-equipped medical facility that is staffed with volunteer medical personnel, both local and foreign. It is a front-line service provider that helps in the rehabilitation of victims and in their reintegration into society.
Giovanna Danieletto, an Italian businesswoman, has been based in Dhaka for many years. She lives near the ASF hospital in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, and one day heard about Sima’s case.
“One day, I visited the hospital with an acquaintance,” she said. “Children were running in the hallways and Sima was one of them. Seeing how serious her situation was, I asked around whether I could do something. I spoke to the doctors, including the one treating her since she was ten months old when her father threw the acid.”
Sima is a survivor and a strong kid. Not only did she survive serious burns inflicted upon her that night ten years ago, but she has also put up with operations and operating rooms, skin grafts and rehabilitation, social marginalisation and reactions of disgust by other kids. She has had these experiences her entire life.
“The problem is that the acid did not just burn the skin and the surface area but damaged facial muscles as well,” Ms Danieletto said. “After the first operations, doctors are now adjusting things by taking healthy skin from other parts of the body. As for the face, to avoid different pigmentation and the twinkling artifact, healthy skin must be taken from the upper torso, armpits and inside thighs.”
The face and head are Sima’s main problem areas. “At present, she is suffering from inflammations and abrasions to the head, whose skin is very taut and not very elastic [. . .]. The skin is very thin and hairless,” the Italian businesswoman explained.
“One of her eyes was reopened but it is not clear whether she can see or not. Her nose was partially reconstructed and her mouth can now open after closing up. Now she can speak and eat in a normal way. Only one ear is now normal; a quarter is left in the other.”
Sima is not through with operations though. The child “is growing and her skin is not growing adequately to fit her growing skeleton,” Danieletto explained. “She’ll have to put up with skin grafts all her life.”
Acid attacks are commonplace in Bangladesh. It is a legacy from the time when it was part of Pakistan, a practice used in revenge attacks or to punish others, especially women.
Children, both boys and girls, are also victims of this terrible practice because they are used as scapegoats to punish adults for slights or to spite a bride’s family.
In Sima’s case, to add insult to injury, her father did not completely cut off links with her. During the child’s hospitalisation, the mother started visiting her husband in his village after his release from prison even though he had married again and become the father of two boys.
During one visit, she got pregnant and later gave birth to a baby boy. This was not enough to bring her husband back, but at least this was enough to afford her some protection against the social stigma of repudiation. In the local culture, a woman who is repudiated or widowed becomes the property of the community, and is thus vulnerable to attacks. By continuing to visit her husband, even after the separation, Sima’s mother found some safety.
Giovanna Danieletto wanted something more for Sima, her brother and mother. “I first offered to find them a place to live. I would pay the rent. This way, all three could be free to have a normal family life, here in Dhaka. The mother now works as a cleaner at the ASF hospital. The children could have gone to school in the city,” Danieletto said.
Despite the generous offer, the mother declined without an explanation. “She started saying that she could not, that it was not possible, but would never say why,” Danieletto said. “No one would tell me why the refusal. Later, they started telling me that the husband could come back, if the mother found someone who paid for the rent and child maintenance. That seemed a reasonable proposition. Then I thought, ‘What about the other family?’ I was told that the ‘problem’ could be solved by throwing acid on the others. It is obvious that they were hiding something.”
Slowly, the wall of silence typical of this culture was beginning to crumble. “For us Westerners, it is hard to grasp their mindset, sensibility and social taboos,” the businesswoman said. “We cannot even fathom things that are beyond our imagination.”
The last time she saw the father, Danieletto was able to arrange a meeting between him and the Bangladeshi psychologist who is treating the girl in hospital. Sister Dipika, from the Shanti Rani (Queen of the Apostles) Sisters’ House, also came. Ms Danieletto had told the sisters about Sima’s story.
The truth eventually emerged. “The government pays a certain amount to the heads of households who have an acid victim. It is a kind of disability pension. Sima’s father was seeing the mother in order to pocket the government money.”
Once she realised the deception, Giovanna Danieletto decided to find an alternative solution. Starting in January, the little girl will stay at Sister Dipika’s House in Rajshahi, far from Dhaka, where she will attend a local school.
“It’s a great place where orphans or families on hard times can come,” the Italian woman said. “The school Sima will attend is mixed. It includes orphans, disabled and healthy children. Normal children are taught to help disabled children and so disabilities become something ‘normal’.”
“Now, the child is at peace,” Giovanna Danieletto noted. “We take turns visiting her to see how she is doing. In January, she will start a new chapter in her life. We are at her disposal. In the meantime, we can only wait and see how Sima will react to her new reality and how others will work with her.”