Dis­fig­ured for Life

Acid vi­o­lence re­mains un­der-re­ported but scores of women are vic­tim­ized by this bru­tal act in South Asia ev­ery year.

Southasia - - Acid Victims - By Zara Maq­bool

The United Na­tions de­fines vi­o­lence against women as ‘ any act of gen­der-based vi­o­lence that re­sults in phys­i­cal, sex­ual or men­tal harm or suf­fer­ing to women.’ Throw­ing acid on a woman is by far the cru­elest form of abus­ing a per­son, leav­ing the in­di­vid­ual par­a­lyzed and psy­cho­log­i­cally un­able to face so­ci­ety con­fi­dently again.

An acid at­tack is a de­lib­er­ate act of throw­ing acid on a vic­tim, mostly women, usu­ally on the face that causes se­vere pain, per­ma­nent dis­fig­ure­ment, sub­se­quent in­fec­tions and of­ten blind­ness in one or both eyes. The chem­i­cal agents most com­monly used to com­mit these at­tacks are hy­drochlo­ric and sul­fu­ric acid. The at­tacker com­mits acid at­tacks for a num­ber of rea­sons, in­clud­ing re­venge for re­fusal of a mar­riage pro­posal or other ro­man­tic or sex­ual ad­vances; land dis­putes; per­ceived dis­honor; and jeal­ousy. Va­lerie Khan, Di­rec­tor, Acid Sur­vivors Foun­da­tion (ASF) says, “60 % of these at­tacks oc­cur as the epit­ome of an al­ready ex­ist­ing cy­cle of vi­o­lence.” While acid at­tacks are most preva­lent in Bangladesh, Cam­bo­dia, In­dia and Pak­istan, they have also been widely re­ported in Afghanistan and in parts of Africa and Europe.

In Pak­istan, ap­prox­i­mately only 30% of acid cases are re­ported. Ex­act statis­tics on acid at­tacks in Pak­istan are not avail­able but roughly around 200 acid at­tacks take place in Pak­istan ev­ery year; at least 9000 acid at­tacks were re­ported be­tween 1994 and 2011, ac­cord­ing to data com­piled by the Pro­gres­sive Women’s As­so­ci­a­tion (PWA). A weak ju­di­cial sys­tem and lack of sup­port from the po­lice is partly to be blamed for the un­der re­port­ing of such cases. An­other ma­jor rea­son is that the vic­tim’s fam­i­lies reach out of court set­tle­ments due to fi­nan­cial pres­sure, which pre­vents the com­pi­la­tion of any of­fi­cial statis­tics.

Acid at­tacks, a leading act of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, are com­mon for a num­ber of rea­sons. Acid is read­ily avail­able not only in ma­jor cities but also in small towns across ru­ral ar­eas, cost­ing less than Rs 100 a liter and is of­ten used for house­hold clean­ing or for cot­ton pro­cess­ing in ru­ral ar­eas. Shop­keep­ers are un­aware of any reg­u­la­tory re­quire­ment con­cern­ing the sales and any­one can pur­chase an un­lim­ited amount with­out ques­tion.

An im­por­tant pre­cau­tion, one that many are un­aware of, is that the vic­tims of acid burn should quickly douse them­selves with wa­ter, for at least 30 min­utes as it is im­por­tant to neu­tral­ize the sever­ity of the acid as quickly as pos­si­ble. Given the lim­ited med­i­cal care fa­cil­i­ties avail­able in Pak­istan, this might be the vic­tim’s only chance to re­duce the sever­ity of the at­tack.

Shah­naz Bokhari, founder of Pro­gres­sive Women’s As­so­ci­a­tion (PWA) based in Islamabad says, “I am proud to say that the first Burn Cen­ter in Islamabad was made af­ter PWA’s long sus­tained strug­gle for burn vic­tims since 1986.” PWA is per­haps the old­est NGO work­ing for burn vic­tims. From 2003 on­wards, Smile Again and ASF have made strides in fight­ing for the rights of acid vic­tims in Pak­istan. How­ever, such crimes re­main un­der re­ported and ac­cord­ing to Bokhari, “from 1994 till 2011 we in­ves­ti­gated

600 cases and were able to get only 2% con­vic­tions. This is the most dis­turb­ing el­e­ment.”

Va­lerie Khan adds, “The first holis­tic in­ter­ven­tion was launched by ASF-Pak­istan with the sup­port of Acid Sur­vivors Trust In­ter­na­tional (ASTI) when the first Nurs­ing Care and Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Unit was con­structed in Jan­uary 2007. ASTI, the only in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion ad­dress­ing acid vi­o­lence, has es­tab­lished sev­eral ASF in South Asia.”

‘Smile Again,’ an or­ga­ni­za­tion started by Mus­sarat Mis­bah goes a step ahead by not only guar­an­tee­ing re­con­struc­tive surgery for acid vic­tims but also train­ing them and em­ploy­ing them at Depilex, fa­mous beauty sa­lon run by Mis­bah.

In other South Asian coun­tries, the gov­ern­ment has also taken a proac­tive ap­proach to the crime. In 2002, Bangladesh in­tro­duced the death penalty for throw­ing acid and im­ple­mented laws strictly con­trol­ling the sales of acids. In 2011, Pak­istan passed a law in the form of Acid Con­trol and Acid Crime Pre­ven­tion Bill that es­tab­lished tougher penal­ties for an acid-at­tack con­vic­tion -- 14 years to life be­hind bars and a fine of up to $11,000.

But women’s rights ac­tivists are de­mand­ing greater reg­u­la­tion of the sale and dis­tri­bu­tion of acid to pre­vent these at­tacks. Bet­ter re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion ser­vices are also cru­cial for vic­tims so they can re­build their lives. Af­ter an at­tack, the vic­tim faces phys­i­cal chal­lenges, which re­quire long-term sur­gi­cal treat­ment, as well as psy­cho­log­i­cal chal­lenges, which de­mand in-depth coun­sel­ing from psy­chol­o­gists at each stage of phys­i­cal re­cov­ery

Re­ports of acid burn cases are alarm­ingly on the rise but leg­is­la­tion to counter this re­mains want­ing. Many hope that Sharmeen Obaid-Chi­noy’s Os­car win­ning film, “Sav­ing Face,” ex­plor­ing acid-at­tacks, will bring the much needed pres­sure to trans­form the Acid Con­trol and Acid Crime Pre­ven­tion Bill into ac­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to Shah­naz Bokhari, “This acid crime doc­u­men­tary has brought an Os­car award and I pray it brings aware­ness and im­ple­ments gen­uine laws on the grass root lev­els so our women are re­lieved of this hor­ren­dous crime.” Va­lerie Khan sup­ports her opin­ion, “A global re­sponse is needed for a global is­sue. It will mo­ti­vate Pak­istani pol­icy mak­ers to ad­dress and even­tu­ally erad­i­cate this mon­ster and project Pak­istan as a role model to ad­dress a hu­man rights vi­o­la­tion. The doc­u­men­tary in­sists on pro­ject­ing the ef­forts and re­sults. In that sense it is a pos­i­tive hope­ful mes­sage!”

Ev­ery year, scores of Pak­istani women are dis­fig­ured in acid at­tacks, usu­ally at the hands of hus­bands or rel­a­tives. The at­tacks, of­ten brought on by fits of jeal­ousy or rage, go largely ig­nored and are rarely pros­e­cuted. Only in the last decade, has the me­dia in­creased cov­er­age of such so­cial is­sues.

The use of acid as a weapon has deep roots in Pak­istani soci- ety. Short of mur­der, an acid at­tack is the most dev­as­tat­ing form of ag­gres­sion, trans­form­ing the vic­tim into a fig­ure of hor­ror and an out­cast. If this is not the time to do some­thing about this atro­cious act of vi­o­lence, then one won­ders if there ever will be a right time.

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