Monday, April 6, 2009

Put to the Acid Test

The Sydney Morning Herald
January 17, 2009
Photo: Kate Geraghty

Achieving a Rhodes Scholarship was almost a cakewalk compared with the challenges Natasha Simonsen has set herself. Erin O'Dwyer reports.

Natasha Simonsen is curled up in an armchair, dressed in skinny black jeans and a hot pink T-shirt. For a young woman who has spent the past year travelling around Pakistan, working for the UN and dressed in a salwar kameez - the traditional tunic-style Pakistani dress - it's a liberating feeling. Yet Simonsen feels conflicted by Sydney's clean streets and affluent largesse.

"One of the hardest things has been the decision to leave Pakistan," says the 23-year-old Rhodes scholar, who describes her work with the United Nations Children's Fund's juvenile justice program as a "jail tour" of Pakistan.

Simonsen arrived in Pakistan last January, just two weeks after Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. She spent three months as an intern with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, before she took up a paid position with UNICEF, reporting on jail conditions and working to reform child protection laws.

On her first day in the job she visited a jail in Rawalpindi. The national English-language daily The News had splashed with a story about overcrowding in jails and UNICEF wanted to see for itself. Simonsen arrived to see 120 males - aged 10 to 20 - crowded into a cell block fit for 50.

"They don't have beds, they just have raised concrete blocks," says the pretty, petite blonde. "That's where 50 of them sleep and the other 70 just squeeze in wherever they can. They are all dirty and some of them looked sick. Some had cuts on their arms they are so depressed."

It wasn't the worst jail Simonsen saw.

In Haripur, in the country's North-West Frontier Province, she visited two mentally ill boys. "They were chained up to their beds," she says. "They were sitting in their own filth and they didn't look like they had been touched for a very long time. I went home and cried and cried and cried."

Officially, 2500 children are in jail in Pakistan. The real figure is nearer 5000, including thousands of children incarcerated with their mothers. Nearly 90 per cent of inmates eventually will be acquitted because of corruption, poor prosecution and insufficient evidence. Simonsen visited about 10 jails across Pakistan.

From plane windows, she saw Himalayan landscapes with glaciers and valleys exquisite and untouched. On the ground, in the jails, conditions were horrendous. "I used to cry quite a lot," she admits. "Not there, not there ever, but when I got home. There were nights when it was hard to sleep. The faces of the kids would stick in my mind."

Simonsen lived alone in Islamabad - on the upper floor of a family home in an upmarket zone. It was a stark contrast to the lively student share-house she left in Redfern and to her parents' comfortable McMahons Point terrace. There were times when she longed for company. Instead she withdrew, confronting the images in her own head.

"There were times I felt so profoundly saddened," she says. "Not just by what we were seeing but because I went there and I was doing this job and I had all these brilliant ideals and I wanted to make such a difference. But at the end of the day I'd leave the jail and nothing would change for those kids."

She adds: "Crying is not an immediate response. It's really a response to your own helplessness. What do we do at the end of it? We write a report to the government and say don't chain up kids. But what can we really do? Not that much. That's what is more upsetting."

Amid all this, an email from a friend arrived in Simonsen's inbox. It was a story from the Herald about the work of the Acid Survivors Foundation in Pakistan. Acid attacks are on the rise in rural Pakistan, particularly in the cotton-growing Seraiki belt in southern Punjab and northern Sindh. More men are using highly caustic acid against their wives in horrific domestic violence attacks. Usually the woman has refused sex or been accused of an affair. As well, in some cases a second wife is attacked by the family of a jealous first wife.

"Acid is cheap and freely available in Pakistan," explains Simonsen. "You can buy it for less than five cents in a little Pepsi bottle at your local store. It's used as a pesticide for cotton seeds so it's something that is sitting on the shelf in a lot of homes."

The acid melts both skin and bones, leaving the victims disfigured and psychologically shattered. No one knows how many women have been victims but the foundation has treated about 170 women since it was established in early 2006 by a Frenchwoman, Valerie Khan. Simonsen looked up the foundation's address and discovered it was just around the corner from her office.

"I popped in one day after work," she says. "Valerie said, 'Oh hello', and then she presented me with this list of 100 things that needed to happen. She was like, 'Can you help?' and I was like, 'I don't know but let's give it a go'."

So grateful was Khan that she drove her young Australian visitor directly to the foundation's clinic. There, a team of nurses and a highly specialised plastic surgeon working free of charge were treating women with skin grafts and surgery to restore movement by separating the chin from the neck. Each treatment lasted three months and women were given accommodation in the foundation's shelter. One in every four patients was a child, caught in the crossfire.

Simonsen does not temper her words in describing what she saw that day.

"I've never seen anything like it," she says, her eyes welling up, still overcome with emotion. "Some women don't have a face at all. They are absolutely unrecognisable, like something out of The X-Files. Really, like glue or Glad Wrap over the face. It is devastating."

That night, she went home and was physically sick.

"It's not just that it's terrible for them but you feel actually quite repulsed. You're there talking to these women and trying to fight your own revulsion. You feel sick for them and feel sick at yourself for how you have reacted."

That same day Khan received a call about a woman who had burns to 80 per cent of her body. The foundation could not afford the treatment, so Simonsen sent an email to her family and friends. It was her birthday the next day and she wrote asking for money rather than gifts. With one email, she raised $2000. A few weeks later, she sent a thank-you note with a photo of 32-year-old Rabia. Her friends sent another $2000. Simonsen chipped in half her first pay as well.

Sitting alongside Rabia's bed in the days and weeks after the surgery, Simonsen learnt something of the young woman's story. A second wife from a remote village in Rahim Yar Khan, in Punjab, she had incurred the wrath of the first wife's family. She was attacked while she was sleeping by the brothers of the first wife. Her back, chest and face were so badly burned that the entire blackened skin had to be removed. Initial surgery lasted 10 hours and required five bottles of blood. "It just burns away at the skin and keeps burning, unless you wash it off with water," explains Simonsen. "If it's not washed off, it continues to eat away so it can get at your internal organs."

Tragically, Rabia died weeks after her second treatment, her fragile body crashing after a blood transfusion. Her death broke Simonsen's heart. "[She] was the only patient they had ever lost and I felt like she was my patient," she says. "It was really devastating. But not as devastating as it would have been had she not been able to have the treatment at all, had died somewhere back in the village with no chance at all."

The tragedy spurred Simonsen. She has since helped raise funds to buy an ambulance for the foundation and secured a $20,000 grant from a UN development program. She is also establishing legal aid for women who want to testify against their attackers.

Now back in Sydney, Simonsen continues to spread the word. Each woman's treatment, she says, costs just $750 - unaffordable for most Pakistanis.

"Some of the other work I've done has been quite frustrating," she says. "But with the Acid Survivors Foundation I just know such a little bit goes such a long way."

For more information about the Acid Survivors Foundation and the work it does go to

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