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
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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 cousin.

"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.