Heart-wrenching story of hope for acid victims
From the hands of beauty
Each year we see a growing number of women who become burn victims at the hands of their own husbands and families. However, there is a new attitude in the air and the survivors are no longer resigning to their fates. You! takes a look at these magnificent women…
By Luavut Zahid & Muniza Zahid
The concept of ‘honour’ in Pakistan is enough to send a chill down anyone’s spine. In order to protect that honour our society is willing to kill. Ironically, honour is only the responsibility of women in this country and the keepers of this honour, i.e. the men of society, do nothing but tarnish it further. Every year there are several cases where women are mercilessly thrown acid on or burned with kerosene. All one needs is around Rs. 30 to completely destroy a human being. Things have had a grim outlook for sometime now but times are changing. Victims are now realising that their lives are precious and many are now rising above their scars to face the world and their demons and start a new life.
Survivors are now learning to throw their scars to the dogs and give themselves a chance to be happy.
The Smile Again Foundation has been giving hope to burn victims for the past five years. Headed by Masarrat Misbah, the organisation has registered over 400 cases and facilitated successful surgeries with doctors from Italy. Many of the girls have been given training for their rehabilitation. The most recent lot of girls have now become certified beauticians. “We sent 10 girls to Italy and out of those 10, two were their coordinators and the other eight girls were trained as beauticians and once they finished those programs they came back to different branches of Depilex. At the moment, four of them are working in Depilex Lahore while two of them have opened up their own salons in their villages from where they came. These girls are so disfigured that even after all their surgeries people look at them and ask us why we haven’t tried to help them. Their scars aren’t stopping them, however, and they are treading on in life and now doing things on their own. They now have the courage not only to face their families but the people around them too. Can you imagine what it must be like to be that flawed and then work to make someone else beautiful?” says Masarrat.
Most of us can’t fathom what goes through the minds of these girls when they are beautifying people who have good eyes, hair and skin et cetera. Most of them have either lost one eye or are partially blind. They are working as beauticians, hairdressers, manicurist, pedicurists, and as body masseuse. But with that we need to take notice of the immense courage that these girls have within them. They did not give up on their lives but chose to fight back.
Masarrat is very optimistic about the future of these girls, “It’s beautiful to see that when they come in the morning the first thing they do is start putting on lipstick and anyone who knows them wants them to genuinely be happy. And now that they are earning they have won back their place and their respect. Their families now see them as the bread earners and call them their sons and give them love once more. The problem is that most of the victims come from very poor families. The families can’t help but shun these girls. Once they are married off the parents think their responsibility is over. And when their daughters come back to them burnt; the parents then have to think twice whether they would like to keep taking care of them or let them just rot like vegetables. What happens most of the time is that after a while even those who want to take care of their daughters eventually give up. This is because the surgeries and taking care of them itself is too expensive. On an average a girl will go through 30-35 surgeries and still not recover from her disfigurement. But these girls are not giving up. They are pushing through and now they have found some semblance of happiness and they have carved out a place for themselves in the world again,” she smiles.
Smile Again has been trying for the last five years to not just help them restore their figures and their faces but to rehabilitate them. “In Thailand there is a school where we are now trying to send some of our girls. It teaches massage therapy and that school is only for blind people. Some girls are currently undergoing training to become teleoperators. And that is the best job that anyone can offer them and I would like to urge telecommunications companies and private companies to please give these girls a job because there is no face required to do those jobs. They are the easiest people to hire and work with. These girls are so happy even with the minimum salaries. These girls are very talented with embroidery and stitching but except for Rizwan Beyg nobody has come forward to say, ‘Masarrat Apa, please tell us if we can give these girls any work’. They don’t have any attitude problems or demands and they sit for hours if you tell them to just sit for hours without complaining. They are the best workers and people should be hiring them,” she asserts.
The organisation was responsible for also training some of the girls to speak the Italian language. They came from far flung areas and are now fluent in Italian. “When we have our Italian doctors coming in we then hire them for a week as translators and it’s heart warming to see them interacting with the doctors and having arguments with them in Italian. How many people know Italian? These girls can’t speak proper Urdu but they know Italian like they know the back of their hand!” Masarrat smiles.
In order to help the burn victims the organisation does not wait for the victims to come to them but finds them itself. Automatically, all over Pakistan, the 30 branches of Depilex have become sub offices for Smile Again. If an incident has taken place in Peshawar then the girls from Peshawar salon will go to them and introduce themselves and if the family is willing then they take over there. “The problem is that most of the times the family or the girls are not very open with us; it’s only after they realise they are not getting proper aid from other hospitals they come back to us. There are times when I am called for a case in the Civil Hospital for instance for one girl and I know from experience that I will probably find seven more girls when I go there; I automatically let it be known that we are there to help and support them if they need us. Basically, it’s word of mouth and a lot of media projection has also helped. People are now becoming aware of this project. Even the government hospitals in Lahore and Multan have doctors that very silently call us when they come across these cases,” informs Masarrat.
The point is that no matter what has happened and why it has happened we need to move forward. Of course the perpetrator should be punished and his crime should be recognised but these girls need to get their lives back on track. “They’re still living and breathing and we have to give them hope and bring their smile back again. We have even changed the mindset of our clients who weren’t so happy with having these girls work as their beauticians in the start. And that was not because they had anything against the girls but because most of them had their own problems at home and could not deal with such a harsh reality. But if we turn these girls away then who will take care of them? If I don’t have the strength to take them on then no other parlour will either,” says Masarrat. At the moment the organisation doesn’t just pay for a victim’s physical treatment but also takes care of their psychological treatment.
Talking about the mentality of the people Masarrat says, “We need to educate our men and get them out of this sick mental psyche where they feel it is okay to go and burn a girl just because they are not getting their way. We need classes in our universities, colleges and schools to tell them that this is wrong. The southern belt of Punjab is notorious for having the most cases of this kind and they need to be taught that this is wrong. And when you see little girls who are raped and then thrown acid on you can’t help but wonder what kind of a world we are living in.”
At present the point of focus is not these victims’ injuries but the infinite amount of courage that they have to face the world around them. We live in a perpetual state of chaos and all of us can learn from these women who have quite literally lost everything but chose not to lament or cry about their fate, rather they chose to live.