Sufia, age 17, lives in the burn unit of the Dhaka Medical College. It has been her home for the last eight months and before that she lived in the district hospital of Narail, about 150 miles north of Dhaka, for five months. She has not known any other home since she was burned.
Here is the story of how she suffered her disabling burns. The rice harvest was done. The men bundled the paddy and threw it in a high heap in the middle of the courtyard. It is the women’s job to process the plants into edible grain – get the grains off the stems, dry it, husk it in the foot pedal and store it. In addition, all the routine cooking and housework of course had to be done. Sufia was at wits end about how to cope with her two sons – the 4-year old did not need much, but the two-month-old son wanted to be breastfed every two hours.
She had a heated quarrel with her 55-year-old husband and went to bed after dinner. As it was Ramadan, she’d have to get up at 3 AM to cook the meal that they would eat before sunrise; nothing to eat is allowed, not even water, during the day.
In the middle of the night, she woke up with a start to find someone sitting on her chest holding her mouth shut. It was her husband – his brother tied her both hands over her head, another brother tied her both feet together. They dragged her off the bed to the corner of the room, poured a cold fluid that smelled like kerosene that was used to fuel the lamps, set her on fire and fled.
Sufia could not scream since her mouth was tied with a piece of rag, and could not run with both feet tied together. But help came when neighbors saw the smoke and fire from the house and started to pour water to put it out. Then they discovered Sufia.
Neighbors hired a vehicle and took her to the nearest treatment facility; they would not take her. Then the neighbors took her to the district hospital and she stayed there for five months. She did not have anyone come visit her or look after her as her parents were dead, and the neighbors lost interest after some time. Only her maternal uncles would come once in a while, but they did not have money enough for her treatment. So she would be with out medicine most of the time, but there was a roof over her head and some food.
She needed a kind-hearted soul to feed her, as both her hands were just stumps. The few fingers that were left in her right arm were so stuck to her hand she could neither move or use them. So on days when she did not find someone willing to feed her, she’d go hungry.
Sometime in March, the kind-hearted doctors transferred her to the Dhaka Medical College Burn Unit. The facilities here were so much superior to those at the district hospital. Her open wounds started to heal, and after a surgery in September, she could stick a spoon between her fingers and feed herself. Now with the Interplast team in the city, she was selected as one of the lucky ones to have the hand surgery in which the team specializes.
One thing that Sufia wants most is to be able to use her hands, to find work, to be able to support herself, and maybe see her two sons again if she is lucky. She knows nothing about them. Her uncles told her that there was no police case against her husband and his relatives, and Sufia’s uncle did not have money to bribe the police to pursue the case.
Even if the hand surgery is a phenomenal success, she will probably have about two or three functioning fingers in the right hand only. All other fingers are gone. Sufia has no home to go back to, no relatives to take care of her and no one to help her with negotiating her way in the world outside her home. She was married at 10 years of age, has no experience outside her home, never been to a bank, a market or inside any office. She had virtually no education or any skills to enable her to earn a living. So the future is frightening and unknown.