End Violence Against Women by Improving Their Rights

26/11/2012 11:22 GMT | Updated 26/01/2013 10:12 GMT

International Day of the Elimination of Violence against women, on Sunday 25 November 2012, was an opportunity to discuss how to stop women from experiencing discrimination, abuse and torture.

Having worked with survivors of acid and petrol attacks in Bangladesh for the past 14 years, I know that violence is a major obstacle for women's ability to access their rights. Until women have real equality, they will continue to not only suffer the most from poverty but also be subjected to violence.

Most of the women and girls I support were attacked by men who viewed them as commodities and therefore believed they were justified in disfiguring them and violating their rights.

The Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) empowers the women we work with by giving them options to rebuild their lives; we provide them with services ranging from free plastic surgery to helping them start small enterprises.

Gender based violence is not only distressing for women; it also affects families, communities and societies. It is therefore vital that we tackle this issue from all corners.

In Bangladesh, through working with the government, the media, donors and international development organisations we have collectively reduced the number of acid attacks by 70%.

VSO volunteers help the ASF by training Bangladeshi medical professionals in treating burns, helping us establish counselling services and teaching women to produce garments to reduce scarring which are now sold by the people the organisation supports.

Patriarchal societies around the world have cultural traditions which force women to be dependent on men and prevent them from exercising choices about their lives. Bangladeshi women contribute to society in many ways but, even at the most basic levels such as by working in farms, industries or in the home, their participation is not acknowledged.

While the legal age of marriage is 18, the majority of girls are married at 12 and they miss out on an education. Women are denied the opportunity to influence community decisions, so it is even harder for them to raise issues with the local government or beyond.

From a personal perspective I have come across similar barriers. When I took over my position at ASF as its Chief Executive Officer I faced criticism because of my gender and age. I had to prove that I had the ability to run the organisation. By helping women escape abusive husbands and take their cases to court I made some people angry. For years I carried a bottle of water with me because I feared my work would provoke an acid attack. However our campaigns for the government to eliminate acid attacks have been successful and compared with 500 attacks in 2002 there were 111 last year.

While most women in Bangladesh are not allowed to leave their homes, let alone participate in an international context, I have recently been working and sharing learning with charities in the UK. My husband has supported me by caring for our two children while I have participated in the three month Commonwealth Professional Fellowship programme, facilitated by VSO. I have gained vital knowledge to take back learning to Bangladesh from working with Acid Survivors Trust International, Refuge, Changing Faces and Interburns.

I want to see more women in leadership positions across all areas of society. The women I have supported are now role models to other survivors of gender based violence and they have become more powerful than they were before. Having overcome physical and psychological trauma, they are now educated, working and proud of themselves. They have found a voice. By campaigning and telling their stories in the media or in their communities they are changing society's attitudes towards violence and disfigurement.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have achieved a great deal in my country. Yet not enough has been done to empower women. Without a specific target on gender equality it is difficult to measure success or ensure states accountability. It is a woman's right to live a life free from violence and free from the fear of violence.

My goal for 2015 is that there will be no more acid attacks in Bangladesh. But even if this happens, it will be crucial to continue improving women's rights to prevent other forms of violence subjugating them. I hope that whatever replaces the MDGs will include targets and indicators which will help and enable women to become more actively involved in decisions which affect their lives. Only by empowering women and ensuring equality we will have a society which has zero tolerance for violence against women.