Showing Compassion to Women Affected by Arsenic Poisoning

Wednesday, 13 March 2019 Showing Compassion to Women Affected by Arsenic Poisoning Leila is an anomaly in more ways than one. She serves with SIM Bangladesh’s Arsenic Alleviation & Awareness Program (AAAP) and is challenging the status quo by working in a non-traditional role for women in her society. Leila is also a follower of Jesus in a country where only 0.4% of the population profess faith in Christ. It is this love of Christ that compels Leila to make a difference in the lives of women and their families affected by arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh.

Arsenic contamination is a serious public health crisis in Bangladesh. In the 1970s, the Bangladeshi government received funding to drill millions of shallow tube wells in the villages to supply clean drinking water to the people. It wasn’t until twenty years later in the 1990s that it was discovered that water from these wells contained dangerously high levels of naturally occurring arsenic from the soil. In what has been called ‘the largest mass poisoning of a population in history’  by the World Health Organisation (WHO), roughly 80 million people in Bangladesh are affected and one in ten have a high probability of developing cancerous tumours. A lot of money was poured into arsenic mitigation in the 2000s, but the funding died off after five or six years. What’s being done now is a trickle in the ocean in relation to the scale of the problem. 

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the statistics but the AAAP team is focused on assisting one family at a time in ‘Drinking Water Fit for Life’. The team takes a holistic approach to tackling arsenic contamination by focusing on four key areas: awareness raising, water testing, water filter installation and maintenance, and patient treatment. When making contact with families, Leila has a special advantage as a woman. Bangladeshi society is very conservative with men and women outside of the family context having very little contact with each other. Leila explains:

“A lot of women wouldn’t want to speak with a man because they would be embarrassed, but I can speak to them inside their home and they share things with me. In some homes, men don’t want people to know their wives are arsenicosis patients so they keep it a secret. I like that these ladies will share and are open with me. We might not have the opportunity to help these women in the same way if I didn’t serve on the team.”

Leila has made a serious impact on the lives of many women through raising awareness about arsenic poisoning. Education is vital since it is an invisible problem that cannot be seen or tasted. A lot of people don’t even know that the water they are drinking is poisonous because it often takes fifteen to twenty years for the poisoning to start manifesting in visible symptoms, such as tumours. The team uses a range of different resources, including picture books, and conduct roughly 530 awareness sessions on an annual basis. 

Clearing up misconceptions is also part of Leila’s job as Bangladeshis with arsenicosis can be subject to stigma and ostracised by their families. Leila was able to help one arsenicosis patient who was rejected by her husband’s family because of her diagnosis. Leila spoke with the family and explained the cause of arsenic poisoning. She dispelled the myth that the disease would transmit to her husband and future children. Eventually, the family became convinced and accepted their daughter-in-law once again. 

Even though this woman would later pass away from arsenic-related disease, Leila helped to make a difference for this marginalised woman. As the team demystifies arsenic poisoning through education, they are in turn destigmatising those who are affected and affirming their dignity as image-bearers of God. The scale of the problem might be large, but AAAP is making a difference in countless lives as they demonstrate the love of Christ. When asked for about her motivation for working with AAAP, Leila replied: “Christ calls us to serve all people”
Give thanks for Leila and the AAAP team for the way they serve marginalised Bangladeshi people with the love of Christ. Pray that all Bangladeshi people would be able to access clean, arsenic-free water for drinking. 

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