A LITRE of acid in Pakistan costs less than a bottle of water in the US. In less than one dollar, it has the power to destroy an individual’s life in less than a few seconds. This is a unique form of ‘gender terrorism’, a personal attack, which garners much less attention in the public eye versus bomb explosion-centric terrorism.
The Department for International Development reported that between 2007 and 2012 there were a total of 786 acid attacks in Pakistan. In 2011, Pakistan passed the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill, which attempted to criminalise acid attacks by recommending up to 14 years of imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs1 million for perpetrators.
According to Valeria Khan, president of Acid Survivors Pakistan, convictions rose from 6pc before the bill was passed to 18pc in 2012. A follow-up Comprehensive Acid and Burn Crimes Bill was also presented in the Punjab Assembly earlier this year.
Whilst improvement has occurred, the scales of justice have not been in favour of victims from the start. Despite legislation, approximately 150 cases of acid attacks are reported each year in Pakistan, with numerous incidents going unreported due to fear of consequences. A key reason for the gap between law and positive outcome is the fact that the bill did not address the much needed restriction of the availability of acid. Another issue is the legacy of accepted female subjugation and domestic violence that continues to exist as background noise in Pakistan.
The scales of justice are against acid attack victims.
According to the Acid Survivors Foundation, 65pc of victims are women, 15pc are children, and 80pc of survivors earn under Rs8,000 a month, rendering it an undoubtedly gender-skewed phenomenon. The crime is ubiquitous in countries where acid is easily accessible and women are not empowered. From jilted lovers to allegations of ‘dishonour’ to women demanding divorces, ‘reasons’ for such attacks are usually unproven and baseless.
Acid attacks have a two-pronged underlying motive: firstly, to ruin an individual’s physical appearance; secondly, to reiterate control by destroying a person’s identity. By disfiguring a person’s face, the attempt is to incapacitate them to continue pursuing a regular life, but without killing them — in many ways a fate more brutal than death.
The socio-psychological effects of these attacks are innumerable. Many acid attack survivors face mental health issues upon ‘recovery’. Their dependency on men increases as their chances of attaining employment are minimised due to disfigurement and handicap.
In Pakistan, medical care is prohibitively expensive, out-of-court settlements exacerbate injustice, reliable statistics are unavailable and state intervention to provide pro bono services is virtually non-existent.
The Acid Survivors Foundation works towards supporting victims and provides legal recourse, and has played a role in catalysing the bill that was passed earlier against acid attacks in Pakistan. Dr Mohammad Jawad, a British-Pakistani plastic surgeon also began visiting Pakistan to provide volunteer treatment to women who were targeted when he learnt about the scale of such attacks. He was inspired by the bravery of TV presenter and acid attack victim Katie Piper (whose face he rebuilt) and thereafter continued to help other mutilated women.
Neighbouring countries including India also struggle with providing justice to victims of acid attacks. In 2013, acid sales in India were regulated; the ruling came by the country’s top court on the heels of an acid attack on four sisters by two men on a motorbike.
Additionally, Indian acid attack survivor Shirin Juwaley founded the Palash Foundation to help other survivors with psycho-social rehabilitation, an important element of the recovery process. The predicament is nonetheless serious and whilst the private sector and individuals can lobby for change, meaningful transformation can only be achieved with state-level intervention and action.
In countries such as Pakistan and India, it is vital to acknowledge the socio-cultural infrastructure that has existed for several decades to allow such crimes to occur and which cannot be overturned with immediacy. In such a context, medium- to long-term measures must address these ‘norms’, for until they are not questioned, the majority of victims will refrain from raising their voices for justice.
Whilst some would assume that most of these cases should be ‘open’ and ‘shut’, that is far from reality. The investigative process and the role of the security forces and law-enforcement agencies have to become much more efficient and transparent.
Finally, there is an argument that women must understand that remaining veiled to obscure their physical destruction is synonymous with remaining silent and will only exacerbate this violence. But then, it must also be said that the onus of providing these women with a voice lies primarily on the state, for it is only in an enabling, secure environment that we can expect them to fight this battle, without the fear of provoking even more brutal consequences.
The writer has studied anthropology at the University of Oxford.
Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2014