A dangerous cocktail exists in Kamrangirchar, this island slum home to the most vulnerable of Dhaka’s poor.
High rates of child marriage, abject poverty, institutionalised exploitation and intense normalisation of violence against women work together to perpetuate this cycle within the community.
While the statistics vary, all confirm that violence against women is alarmingly high.
The most recent survey found that 80 per cent of married women had suffered abuse at the hands of their husbands.
MSF health promotion poster to raise awareness about sexual and gender-based violence and the MSF services available in Kamrangirchar, Bangladesh. Photo: Alva White/MSF.
Raising awareness in such circumstances is an endless battle.
It is easy to lose hope in the face of women who, when educated about what sexual violence entails, shrug and respond with an ambivalent “then tell me who of us has not experienced it?”.
Like me with my limited Bangla, the words “sexual and gender based violence” may as well be foreign.
Termination, choice, autonomy, survivor, words taught in their native tongue but that seem to sit uncomfortably in their throats.
In a country that does not acknowledge sexual violence perpetrated by a husband as rape, it is easy to understand their unease in receiving something otherwise denied of them: validation of their suffering and commendation of their survival.
MSF Health Promotion Day in Kamrangirchar, Bangladesh. Photo: Alva White/MSF.
In much of medicine it is easy to detach, remove the emotional response and continue to see patient after patient until the work day is complete, but these consultations never get easier.
We drown in numbers, knowing we’re only scratching the surface, but imploring ourselves to remember each number is a representation of a face.
These are not theoretical parameters, but individual humans suffering violations of their rights, seeking care and refuge. It is not ‘us’ and ‘them’: another hard lesson to learn as I had friends break down, acknowledging that they are survivors themselves.
They fight fiercely yet still grapple with disillusion that we can make a difference when awareness, education and understanding did nothing to help keep them safe.
There is no answer, but while there is a clear problem we will continue to respond.
Sometimes we trade in medications and bandages, and psychological care.
But sometimes all we have left to trade is hope, and for many girls and women in Kamrangirchar, hope is a whole lot more than they came with.