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