Welcome to the “Islam’s new Kartinis” series here on MarcGopin.com! As explained in my last post, this column will focus on Muslim women from around the world who work to bring positive incremental change to their communities and beyond. This month, we’re featuring Valerie Khan Yusufzai, chairperson of the Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan.
Raquel: Have you always been interested in human rights work?
Valerie: I grew up in a family where the ideas of freedom, thoughtfulness and fighting for what you believe is right were very much present. My great-grandparents resisted against the Germans in the First World War. My great-grandfather even received the Legion D’Honneur for excellent military conduct. This is the highest distinction for a French soldier. My grandfather, at age 19, joined the clandestine French forces to fight the Nazis during the Second World War. His legacy is a gift to me – a reminder of the absolute necessity of fighting for human rights and enlightened values in the face of tyranny.
Since my youth, I not only understood but felt that we all had a role to play in producing a better society. A few of the first books that I remember as a child – given to me by my mother – were books about the religions of the world, a cartoon book about French history with the declaration of human rights as a preamble, and a book explaining the miracle of human reproduction. I was also taught the value of human rights through enlightened French philosophers of the 18th century like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot. I think I gained a deep respect for human beings through all of these readings.
Later, when I joined a Catholic private school at the age of 12, I discovered the simple happiness of providing help and support. I started my “social work” as a volunteer at the age of 11 and have never stopped.
Raquel: What brought you to work with acid attack survivors in particular?
Valerie: I was blessed with a passionate but occasionally very difficult life. I have never forgotten those who have been there to support me through life’s challenges. I also remember the rare moments when I was not as well supported. Those difficult times further motivated me to always be a support for others.
I believe in the cycle and process of learning. I believe our experiences are meant to teach us how to move forward and be better to one another. Often, society tries to dehumanize us – to make us forget the humanity of others and also abandon it in ourselves. We have to re-learn humanity: how to really see people, really listen to their problems. I think this dehumanization is one of the greatest ills we are facing.
One of the most important learning experiences I’ve had was with acid survivors. I was living in Lahore, and was a customer at a beauty parlor. At the parlor was a woman with tissue expanders (an expander is a way of developing fresh skin to be used for skin grafting. A silicone balloon is placed under the skin, which is expanded over time. As the balloon grows, the surrounding skin stretches and grows. Later, the expander is removed and the excess new skin is used for grafting.) My seven year old son was with me, and asked: “Mummy, what happened to the lady?” I had no answer. I thought maybe she had cancer, that she had a tumor.
A few days later, I went to see the owner of the salon and asked her about the women there. This is how I learned about acid violence in Pakistan. The owner had an NGO and said she was working to get treatment for these patients.
Subsequently, the owner contacted me and offered me the position of coordinator for her NGO. I initially told her that this was not my area of expertise. I was an educator and volunteer, but I had no experience in managing developing organizations.
She insisted. I told her that I would think about it. For a week I had nightmares. I realized that maybe this was my call to action. Leaving my previous job and starting to work with acid attack survivors was the biggest decision I’d ever made.
Unfortunately, three months later, I discovered that the funds for this organization were being used in a suspicious manner, and I suspected that funds were being embezzled. I quit.
In the meantime, we were visited by Acid Survivors Trust International. They told me that if I really wanted to help acid survivors, I should not give up. They trusted me – and advised me to create a board and register our new NGO – Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan. They had the funds and were willing to help get the initiative off the ground.
It took my husband and me one month to decide to start this new organization. We started it in Islamabad with a dedicated group of activists. I will never regret that decision – not when I see women transformed and living happily again. Not when I think about how much I’ve learned, and how much this hast taught me about humility.
Raquel: Is there a common thread you’re noticing in the cases you’re seeing?
Valerie: Yes. The commonalities include violence sourced in poverty, lack of education and feudal /tribal cultural systems.
Raquel: What does the ASF do, and how do you reach victims of acid violence? (For example, is there a networking relationship with hospitals or communities to contact you?)
Valerie: ASF provides comprehensive rehabilitation services to acid survivors, such as medical services, psychological and social counseling, and socio-economic assistance. We also provide legal aid. These services are provided by staff and volunteers as well as pro-bono doctors, specialists and lawyers.
To reach survivors, we have developed a notification and referral system. Our field officer and volunteers are linked to journalists, social workers, hospitals, police stations, government institutions, shelters and other NGOs. When a case has occurred, or an incident has been identified as an acid attack, the appropriate individuals and entities are notified so that the victim can begin receiving services immediately in the most efficient and comprehensive way possible.
ASF also advocates for a new legal framework to be established in order to monitor and regulate the sale of acid and to punish perpetrators of acid attacks. We also seek assistance in securing rehabilitation services for survivors.
Raquel: Can you tell me more about the involvement of men in your fight against acid violence? How do these men come to be involved, and how do they add to the movement?
Valerie: Men have been present in our fight against acid attacks from day one.
To begin with, my husband is the one who fought to get us registered as an NGO – without bribes or illegitimate practices others have used. We have male directors, male doctors and pro-bono lawyers, and a male field officer.
Salim Mahmood Salim was the secretary of the Ministry of Women’s Development at the time of our founding. All of these men help to provide and identify support, mobilize media, assist with fundraising events (such as coordinating a fund-raising rock concert at no cost to our organization), and more. Additionally, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court officially condemned acid violence and asked the Pakistani parliament to act on it from a legislative perspective.
With men on board, supporting you at the highest level, you are better able to reach communities that follow patriarchal traditions. They do not feel threatened. Rather, they are more likely to join you in creating constructive, sustainable changes. When men reach out to other men, they feel proud rather than emasculated. If other men are active, they actually see involvement as their duty. When men support women, our empowerment will arise – naturally and peacefully.
Finally, it is important to note that Pakistan, like many countries, has a male-dominated power structure. Engaging men on this issue ensures that we have a constructive, realistic strategy and approach to change. I also must mention that having men on board is valuable from a safety perspective.
Raquel: There is no denying that stories of acid violence are deeply troubling and the attacks themselves devastating. From what sources do you, personally, derive your hope? How does the organization as a whole maintain a forward-thinking, positive approach in this very difficult work?
Valerie: Raquel, I am a fighter. Ask anyone – that is the first adjective they’d use to describe me. I simply do not give up. At the same time, I am patient.
I believe that if you are fighting for a good cause, God does not let you down. One must concentrate on the achievements – and use that as fuel to tackle all obstacles.
As the chairperson of the organization, it is my job and responsibility to generate positive energy. I need to be able to listen when people are down – and to motivate and mobilize them. When my colleagues need a break, they get one. Direct work with our psychotherapist is not just important for the survivors, but also for us. Clinical supervision and regular check-ins guarantee that none of us suffers from burnout.
We are dedicated to a collaborative approach, and positive feedback and team-building are very much part of our management strategy. We promote and salute both effort and results . One person’s victory or success is a team victory. We are very much like a family, and we recognize the individual efforts of each family member. We are also all activists – and that spirit drives us.
Beyond our organizational approach, we have other reasons to remain hopeful. Every day, we see survivors getting better – physically, mentally and emotionally. They’re rebuilding they’re lives. They’re happy and proud of their achievements. Nazeraan, for example, is blind and disfigured. She is fighting for custody of her two daughters. While she naturally feels sorrow and shares that with us, she is working at learning Braille and sewing. She wants to make a new life for herself and to become a role model.
Nazeraan shows the world that acid may burn you – but it cannot burn you entirely. Your spirit and your will still make you exist as a woman. When the survivors themselves are so full of hope, how can we not follow their example?
Raquel: What are the greatest challenges facing the work of the Acid Survivors Foundation? The economy presents obvious obstacles. But are there especially pressing social, political or other barriers?
Valerie: The greatest barrier to our work is not just obtaining funding for lifesaving and reconstructive surgeries, but also for the rehabilitation center. Pakistani philanthropists have had to face a great deal of corruption from other NGOs, and are not sure who they should support. Additionally, the Pakistani government has other financial priorities – from the situation in Kashmir to terrorism and internally displaced persons.
Generally speaking, political instability and frequent changes in the government make collaboration with officials a bit difficult, since it is hard to get real commitments from them. High rates of illiteracy makes interaction with affected communities even more challenging. Also, our survivors are from around the country. This geographical spread often makes it difficult for us to reach them.
Feudalism and tribalism remain a challenge, as they does not encourage development or interaction with outsiders. The more feudal or tribal an area is, the less welcoming they are likely to be of an organization like ours. Some families even refuse to have their female relatives treated for free. They fear what society might think when they see females “going away.”
Raquel: What would you consider to be some of the greatest victories achieved by the ASF?
Valerie: The case of Naila Farhat was important for us. For the first time, the highest jurisdiction in Pakistan heard the case of an acid attack; and justice was achieved. This has given way to our lobbying work, which has already been cause for hope. The chief justice supports and praises our work, and has demanded that the Parliament establish a legal framework for acid sale regulation. He also supports the punishment of perpetrators and rehabilitation efforts for survivors.
Raquel: What can be done to support the work of the Acid Survivors Foundation?
Valerie: We need awareness to be raised at an international level, both about acid violence – and about our rehabilitation center. The center, which is still developing, is essential for survivors to rebuild their bodies and their lives. We need to increase our ability to both treat survivors and to investigate their cases. To do this, we need more sophisticated medical and forensic equipment, as well as more comprehensive systems to monitor funding and development of the Foundation.
ASF will lobby for legislative changes before the Pakistani national assembly, and continue to do its work locally, nationally and internationally. Financial and other support – like awareness-raising efforts – are key to our success.
To learn more about the Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan, please click here.
To make a donation, please click here. When you open the donation window, please be sure to choose “D-ASF Pakistan” in the drop-down menu under “additional details.” Please note: you will be able to specify your country and donate in the appropriate currency. There is a special link for donations from Canada.
- Saira, a survivor of acid violence, performs a dance
(Photos courtesy Valerie Khan Yusufzai / ASF-P. )
Raquel Evita Saraswati is an American Muslim activist and writer whose main interests are religion and human rights, conflict resolution, women’s issues and democracy.© Marc Gopin