The Bangladeshi teens are not related by blood, but consider themselves sisters. They met in a house for survivors of acid attacks. They traveled together to the United States to continue their education and spread awareness about violence against women.
Now Cincinnati residents, they recently spoke at the University of Cincinnati for International Women's Day.
Bina Akhter, 19, was a high school freshman training for the Olympics in the high jump, long jump and 800-meter run before she was attacked. She lived with her uncle, aunt, mother and cousin near a neighborhood thug who got his nickname, Dano ("Milk"), from throwing bombs enclosed in milk bottles.
Dano decided to pursue Bina's cousin, Mokti. He spent two days writing love letters and sending flowers -- then, after rejection, attempted to kidnap her. When he and his gang broke into the family's home, Bina stood in front of her cousin. She felt something hot splash in her face, and assumed it was boiling water.
She did not know it was acid, and did not wash it off.
"I spent nine months in the hospital," she says. "After that, my face was gone. I was so sad."
The young woman underwent 10 operations that cost her family their entire savings, Bina Akhter says. They pressed criminal charges, but after six years there was still no progress. During that time they were harassed and threatened by Dano's gang, she says.
Acid attacks are common occurrence in Bangladesh, according to Jharna Akhter.
"Every day there is an acid burn or house fire," she says. "This happens like every week in Bangladesh. It's a normal thing. If someone asks you on a date and you say no, it's like, 'Oh, you refuse me? Then I will throw acid on you, and no one will marry you.' Maybe people want to say something but don't for fear someone will hurt them."
'My inside is still OK'
Jharna Akhter, 16, was attacked at age 12 by a shopkeeper who enjoyed speaking crudely to her. One day he invited her inside for free cosmetics. He said if she refused, he would give her something that would make her even more beautiful. Jharna Akhter says she didn't understand the threat.
That night, when she was in bed, the man threw acid through her window, then jammed the door so the family couldn't get help. Her grandmother received burns all over her back, and her sister's clothes were burned off her.
Her father broke down the door, and after several hours they all went to a hospital, which only had eight beds for females, one room for burn victims and no doctor on duty.
"I was in the hospital for three months," Jharna Akhter says. "Afterward no one spoke to me. They thought I was a bad girl and that's why I got burned."
Victims of acid attack usually do not receive much sympathy, according to Jharna Akhter.
"They (people on the street) would call Bina a monkey -- or ask what happened to my face: Did a tornado hit it?" she says.
Like Bina Akhter, Jharna Akhter says medical care and justice were hard to come by in Bangladesh.
"My dad was really upset," she says. "He took me to Madras for surgery. He sold the house and spent all his money. I had surgery there, still looked bad, but better than before.
"I went to court, nothing happened. That man kidnapped my younger sister, Havviva, who was 10, while she was going to school. He kept her for a few days, then sent her home with the message that if we did not withdraw the case, they would kill her and everyone in the family -- and if I were to return, he and his friends would do something to me that couldn't be fixed."
Both women have an amazingly positive outlook. They have been in the United States for more than two years.
Jharna Akhter wants to finish her education.
"I don't want to get married," she says. "I want to go to school and college so someday I can help my dad, because he gave us everything and now he is like a beggar."
She aspires to become a lawyer and help women who have suffered.
Bina Akhter also has impressive resolve.
"I said to myself, 'My inside is still OK. I am going to work. I am going to run,' " she says.
Bina Akhter joined the Acid Survivors and Naripakkho, a women's rights organization in Bangladesh, and has since been interviewed by international news media, including Connie Chung. She recently completed training to be a nursing assistant and is waiting on a permit to work in nursing homes.
"I like to help people," she says.
Both women have removed their veils to show what is happening to women in Bangladesh.
Many women who are disfigured by acid attacks lose their will to live. Bina Akhter admits when she first looked in a mirror after being burned, she wanted to end her life. Now she hopes to inspire others and inform the world of the injustice women are experiencing. ©