Kanon Gomes (left) and Sornolota Falia receive awards from the Christian Welfare Society in Dhaka on June 15 in recognition of their suffering at the hands of Pakistan’s military during the 1971 War of Independence. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
For most people in Bangladesh, the 1971 War of Independence from Pakistan has a special place in the nation’s history.
The nine-month war saw Bengali guerrilla fighters defeat Pakistan’s army with support from neighboring India to achieve an independent Bangladesh.
However, for Sornolota Falia, 65, a Catholic, the war left deep, haunting scars that remain with her even now.
Pakistan’s army and local Islamist collaborators massacred an estimated three million people and carried out widespread looting, destruction, abductions and torture, forcing some 10 million people to flee to India as refugees.
The military also raped and made sex slaves of 200,000 to 300,000 women. It is believed that the rape spree was a premeditated tool to terrorize and break up families of independence supporters as rape is considered a loss of honor and a cause of social ostracism in conservative Bangladeshi society.
Falia, from Barishal district in southern Bangladesh, was one of the women violated by Pakistani soldiers.
When the war broke out, she was an eighth-grader at a church-run school in Gopalganj district of central Bangladesh.
“The military were relatively less aggressive toward Christians but they didn’t spare young Christian women in the hostel. After abusing us, the military left us sick and unconscious, and then a religious brother saved and treated us,” Falia told ucanews.com.
Like other violated young women, she didn’t give up. She joined a local guerrilla fighter group as an informant and contributed to winning several battles.
However, her real war started in independent Bangladesh. Her family, society and education institutes despised her. She wanted to become a nurse but her entry to a nursing institute was blocked when she wrote about her ordeal for an entry exam.
“No recognition, no job and no food. Life became unbearable and I even pondered committing suicide. Sometimes I wonder how I have survived,” she said.
Falia married a Muslim man after failing to tie knot with Christian men due to the social stigma attached to her rape. The marriage didn’t last long as her husband was abusive.
“He put me through various forms of torture and I lost three children after birth. Finally, a daughter was born and I left him,” she said.
She undertook various odd jobs — selling newspapers, sweeping roads and supplying water to people — to earn a living.
Her daughter recently completed a master’s degree in business administration but has yet to find a job to support her elderly mother.
Physical and mental trauma
Another Catholic woman, Kanon Gomes, was raped in the same area during the war. The daughter of a poor teacher in Barishal district, she lost her mother at the age of three.
“The military specifically targeted Hindus because India supported Bangladeshi independence, so we thought Christians had nothing to fear. But they also attacked Christians because their collaborators informed them that Christians were also joining the freedom fighters,” Gomes told ucanews.com.
After recovering from the physical and mental trauma related to rape, she returned home at the end of the war, but she never told her father what had happened to her.
“My father was a poor man, but as a teacher he enjoyed social respect. If he had known about my ordeal, he could have died from a heart attack, so I kept silent,” she said.
After her father died, she married a Christian man and gave birth to a son. Her husband never knew about her ordeal before dying an untimely death a few years into the marriage.
To run the family, Gomes worked a housemaid, cook and tailor. She was able to educate her son up to graduation and he now has a job. “Life is still hard but we have managed to survive,” she said.
Social stigma and government recognition
Aware of the social stigma attached to rape in Bangladesh, the government in 1972 declared all women abused during the war as “Birangona” (war heroines).
Rehabilitation centers were set up across the country where thousands of abused women found shelter after their families rejected them. These centers provided abortions, put children up for international adoption, arranged marriages, trained women in vocational skills and helped them to get government jobs.
However, not all abused women found refuge in those centers and instead decided to have lives of seclusion away from the public eye.
In 2015, Bangladesh’s government bestowed “freedom fighter” status on all Birangona women. It allowed these women to receive 10,000 taka (US$118) as a monthly allowance from the government.
For struggling women like Falia and Gomes, the support was vital but too late.
“We are somehow surviving with the monthly allowance. Most women like us have no good place to live. That support could be the last thing we can expect from the state,” Gomes said.
For years, both women lamented that the Christian community didn’t recognize their struggles, although they received national and media recognition.
To fill the void, the Christian Welfare Society, a Protestant group, rewarded the women in capital Dhaka on June 15. The event at a Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh center drew 60 participants including Holy Cross Bishop Lawrence Subrato Howlader of Barishal.
The women told the audience about their suffering with teary eyes. They received crests in recognition of their bravery and Christian leaders promised to support their families.
“This initiative is great but late because many women didn’t speak up about their suffering due to social stigma. I believe there might be more such women and the Church will try to find them,” Bishop Howlader told ucanews.com.
Gomes said the recognition has delighted her. “I will not forget the day that the Christian community recognized us. It’s a great honor for us,” she said.
The government sees both male and female freedom fighters equally, said Syed Mahmud, secretary of the state-run Freedom Fighters Welfare Trust.
“If necessary, we will increase their allowances. For landless women, the government will buy land and construct houses and find jobs for their children. Freedom fighters are our asset and priority,” Mahmud told ucanews.com.