Independent Appeal: Women find their voice on a quest for justice

They are among the most vulnerable of Bangladesh's marginalised people. Andrew 
Buncombe meets disabled rape victims seeking protection in the law

Thursday, 18 December 2008 


Womens Association in Badda, a womens group project set up by ADD charity

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If you could see their faces you would weep. If you could see how young and 
frightened they look as they recount in whispers what happened to them you 
would be horrified. And yet you would also be amazed by their bravery. Amazed 
that these two teenage girls - both disabled and both having been raped by 
people they knew - can muster the courage to speak out. They have chosen not to 
be silent.

Diljahan is 16 and has a learning disability. Her mother and father are dead 
and she lives in a village near the northern Bangladeshi town of Rangpur with 
her grandfather, a wiry, good-natured man with creased, tobacco-brown skin. 
Four years ago she was sexually assaulted by an uncle when her grandfather had 
gone to the market and she was left alone in the house.

"I asked him, 'Why are you doing this, uncle?'" says Diljahan. "He told me that 
if I told anyone about what had happened he would kill me. Five times he 
assaulted me in the house. I did not tell anyone because I was too scared."

Several months later, a female relative of Diljahan discovered the child was 
pregnant and demanded an explanation. The grandfather and other family members 
confronted the uncle, who fled from the authorities. Meanwhile, 13 weeks into 
her pregnancy, Diljahan miscarried. 

Of all the marginalised and oppressed groups in Bangladesh, few are more 
vulnerable than disabled people. A combination of discrimination and a woeful 
lack of organised help from the authorities means that mentally and physically 
disabled people have only their families to care for them. 

And yet the disability rights movements in Bangladesh is growing. In recent 
years there has been a gradual shift. Organisations have started to establish 
self-help groups to which disabled people can look for help. And they have 
started to use the law to defend the rights of the most vulnerable people.

"At the moment we have 70 cases where we are providing legal aid. Most of them 
are rape cases," says Shakil Ahmed Khan, a Dhaka-based law officer with the 
organisation Action on Disability and Development, one of the charities being 
supported by The Independent's Christmas appeal. 

Mr Khan said disabled people were often the victims of sexual assault. "The 
attackers think that disabled people cannot defend themselves, that they will 
not testify. They think they will not disclose what happened to them and that 
they will not be able to afford to go to court," he adds.

Hosna is also 16. She is bright but suffers from a physical disability that has 
left the right side of her body - her upper body in particular - hugely 
weakened. She has three sisters and two brothers and she sits with her mother 
as she tells how she was attacked three-and-a-half years ago. She remembers the 
month, the day and the precise time when she was attacked by her 26-year-old 

"I was cutting grass for a goat, using a scythe. The cousin tried to persuade 
me to go elsewhere to cut grass. I told him I did not want to. I said I had 
enough grass where I was," she says. "He then took my scythe and threw it into 
the jungle and told me to go and collect it. When I went to go and get it he 
came up behind and forcefully raped me. I could not resist. My right side does 
not work. He just held me down on one side. There was a witness and he chased 
the man away."

Given the cultural pressures, the sense of shame, their fear and the slow, 
bullock-cart pace of justice in this country, it would have perhaps been easier 
for the two girls to have done nothing. But with the support of their families 
and the backing of the National Disabled Women's Council they decided to 
confront the authorities with what happened to then and demanded action.

In the case of Diljahan, the uncle was arrested but released on bail. The case 
is pending and the uncle still lives in the same village as the teenager and 
she regularly sees him. Asked how that made her feel, she replies: "I want to 
kill him."

For Hosna, her decision to press charges resulted in the cousin being arrested 
and detained for 18 months. Remarkably - but not necessarily uniquely in south 
Asia - some officials suggested the cousin should "make things right" by 
marrying the young woman. She and her mother rejected this. The cousin has also 
now been released on bail but the case is due to come to trial shortly. "I want 
justice," says Hosna. Her mother, Nur Banu, adds that others in their village 
once considered them weak but now had respect for them.

The teenager says that some days she believes she has put what happened behind 
her. As an indication of her intention to succeed and move on with her life, 
Hosna's mother tells of the painful, exhausting four-hour journey her daughter 
makes every day to get to school. "I thought that my daughter was not good at 
studies," she says. "But the teacher at the school said to me, 'Your daughter 
is brilliant. You should take care of her'." When she says that, mother and 
daughter both smile.





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