ISLAMABAD: When Valerie Khan Yusufzai came to Pakistan in 1996, she had no idea that she would be setting up an organisation dedicated to changing the lives of acid victims in the country.
With her husband, Mohammad Yusufzai, she moved first to Swabi and then to Islamabad.
“My family was not worried about me marrying a Pakistani man; they were more worried about me moving to Pakistan,” said Valerie.
She grew up in a strict environment with strong values in France. “So moving to NWFP actually felt like home,” she said.
A French literature graduate, she taught French for 12 years in Islamabad. But in 2005, Valerie’s mission began, when she first learnt about acid violence in Pakistan.
“I was not aware of the phenomenon [of acid violence] until I saw a victim at the beauty parlour. Seeing her disfigurement from a woman’s perspective, there was a strong instinctive force inside me that pushed me to help her,” she said.
Valerie helped the woman as much as she could, until financial and administration issues surfaced and she could not continue.
But it seemed Valerie had found her calling. With the support of family and friends, she turned her humanitarian efforts into a more formal organisation and the Acid Survivors Foundation was registered in 2007, with Valerie as Chairperson and her husband as Executive Director.
Since January 2007, 87 patients have registered with the organisation.
“Now we are facing financial issues, not because more cases have started occurring, but because more are being reported,” she said.
Victims can get free surgery at Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences in Islamabad and Benazir Bhutto Hospital in Rawalpindi but these hospitals are already overburdened with patients.
Valerie feels that, even more than hospital burn centres, “The government needs to provide us with area to build Nursing Rehabilitation Units.”
These units will provide comprehensive rehabilitation services, medical and surgical nursing care, physiotherapy and psychotherapy as well as socioeconomic services.
“The rehabilitation is not just physical; the real work is to rebuild their shattered confidence and help them face the world again,” Valerie said.
At present, the patients are kept at a nursing care rehabilitation unit in Sector I-10.
“None of the victims will ever be exactly the same. We are not magicians, we are just social workers trying to make a difference,” she said.
Valerie said there was no support from the government in terms of funds because they did not trust local NGOs. “The government should double check the credibility of NGOs by checking their receipts, bank statements, legal documents. If this is done, the corrupt ones will be identified,” she said.
“The Acid Crime and Protection Bill was tabled in the National Assembly in December 2009 and much more work needs to be done to get it implemented,” she said.
The number of acid violence incidents increased in the last eights years, with 10 in 2002 and almost 50 in 2008, according to statistics from the Acid Survivor Foundation collected between 1991 and 2008.
The reason behind almost half of all reported cases, is family disputes, and 90 percent of the cases are reported in Punjab. Of all cases reported between 1991 and 2009, 61 percent of victims were female and 39 percent were male.
Valerie said her mission would continue as long as she lives. “We do thank God for what we are blessed with but every now and then there is a feeling within us that we must achieve more.”
“Do not believe you are doing something big because there are many exceptional people out there making a difference. One must always remain humble,” Valerie said.
Published in the Express Tribune, June 5th, 2010.