Sonali was just 17 days old when, as she slept between her parents, an intruder broke into the family’s home and threw acid on them all. Now 15, she travelled to the UK for the first time this week to take part in a fashion show, hosted by ActionAid. “When I’m on the catwalk, I feel strong and powerful,” she tells me backstage before the show. “I want to be stronger because of this.”
Sonali is one of eight participants from Bangladesh, who are all survivors of acid attacks and who all want to raise awareness of the issue around the world.
Ganga was 27 when, having refused a man’s advances, she had acid thrown on her, which lead to her losing her job as a day labourer. Nobody else would employ her, and her attackers offered her £730 to settle the case out of court. Ganga refused and, even though the men were sentenced to life imprisonment, they used their wealth and influence to escape to India. ActionAid helped Ganga to start her own business, collecting and distributing milk, and she attributes her courage to the charity: “I want to show everyone in the village that we did this, we came here and we took part in this. We had the courage to do it and it made us stronger. I want everyone to see the courage we have – how we have developed and grown.”
The fashion show featured clothes by Bibi Russell, a designer and former model. Russell moved from Bangladesh to study at London College of Fashion, before she worked as a model for Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld and Giorgio Armani. She returned to Bangladesh in 1994, keen to work with the local craftspeople to support their way of life. “I went back to Bangladesh to show a positive image in every sector,” she says. “Whatever I do, I respect the human dignity of a person. I never take it away. They might be poor but they have dignity. My work is not to show the misery of the country... I try to show the light in poverty. And I can see the beauty in these survivors. This is a cause very close to my heart.”
Russell joined forces with ActionAid earlier this year to stage a similar event in Dhaka for International Women’s Day. Its success spurred them on to organise the Survivor’s Runway event in London, and Russell feels strongly that her clothes can help give the women she meets courage: “Everyone needs fashion – we could travel all over the world and we still all need clothes. It’s through that you make a better livelihood and ensure that the next generation can have health and education, which is the most important thing. Clothes empower the woman.”
We’re in a digital world, where you can access anything you want with just one finger, and we’re throwing acid at people? This is a very important issue that everyone needs to be aware of. I want to show the world these people’s sparkle, their courage and strength
Russell’s handmade designs are inspired by women in the villages she visits. “I am a spokesperson for all the craftspeople in the world. I am very lucky to have this chance and I can’t think of better models to have in my show."
Sonali says she came here to feel stronger: “I want to show people that this shouldn’t happen to anyone. Not here, not anywhere else.”
“This isn’t just happening in under-developed countries,” says Russell. “It’s happening here, too, in Europe and the UK. Why are we so inhuman that we can throw acid in someone’s face in the 21st century? We’re in a digital world, where you can access anything you want with just one finger, and we’re throwing acid at people? This is a very important issue that everyone needs to be aware of. I want to show the world these people’s sparkle, their courage and strength.”
It’s difficult to estimate the true scale of this problem. So many acid attacks go unreported and many people suffer in silence. “Unfortunately, in Bangladesh we have acid violence because of gender discrimination and greed.,” says ActionAid’s country director for Bangladesh, Farah Kabir. "We want to remind everyone that this injustice could happen to any of us.”
As for the future? Both Ganga and Sonali are hopeful for independence and the ability to stand on their own two feet. As Russell said: “You can burn their faces but you cannot burn their dignity.”