Can an Oscar prevent acid attacks?

Published: March 5, 2012

The writer is a development consultant and a PhD student at the University of Melbourne [email protected]

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Oscar for a documentary on the acid attacks is no doubt a big win for Pakistan’s arts and entertainment industry. Even the prime minister has taken the opportunity of announcing an award for Sharmeen. One does, however, wonder if this personal accomplishment will effectively help prevent this form of brutal violence against women in our country.

Some years ago, I was commissioned to undertake a situation analysis of the acid attack phenomenon by the same NGO with which Sharmeen worked, with funding from a UN agency. While Sharmeen’s documentary focuses on the personal story of victims and their medical rehabilitation, the scope of my study went beyond documenting the horror unleashed upon the victims of acid attacks: that is, to try to meet with communities where these incidents had taken place. Together with police and judicial authorities, I met with the communities in order to probe why these attacks were taking place and what could be done to prevent them and help those who had fallen prey to them.

Refused marriage proposals or sexual advances, problems with in-laws and property disputes were seen to be common reasons for such attacks. But one also noticed how many of these attacks caused collateral damage to many young children who happened to be in close physical proximity of their mothers at the time of the incident. I remember meeting the husband of one such woman who had recently tried committing suicide — by ingesting pesticide out of sheer despondency — due to the tragedy that had befallen his family.

Conversely, one also found that a major reason why many perpetrators of this act were not being brought to justice did not only have to do with weak legislation, faulty medico-legal reporting or falsification of police cases, but because families of victims themselves had reached out of court settlements to cash in on the tragedy which had befallen a woman of their household since the state had hardly stepped in to offer them any significant help. In fact, many of these poor and badly-disfigured women were still found to be struggling to access social safety nets, such as the Benazir Income Support Programme.

It was also shocking to see the widespread sale of hydrochloric or sulfuric acid not only in major cities, but also in small towns across rural areas. Within cities, highly-concentrated acid was being sold casually for household use such as cleaning toilets, whereas its sale in towns adjoining rural areas, was primarily for use in delinting cotton seeds prior to sowing them. Shopkeepers or even wholesalers seemed oblivious to any regulatory requirements concerning these sales, so anyone could walk in and buy half a litre or a few gallons of acid without any questions asked.

Acid attacks are not limited to Pakistan. Similar incidents are reported from across Southeast Asia, Africa and other neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, India and Afghanistan. However, thousands have now fallen victim to acid attacks in our own country and the problem largely remains unaddressed. Activists working on this issue estimate that approximately 200 attacks continue taking place each year.

In 2011, legislation was introduced in the form of the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill, which stipulates that attackers can be sentenced for 14 years to life imprisonment, in addition to a million rupees fine. Women’s rights activists, however, are calling for greater regulation of the sale and distribution of acid which goes beyond punishing perpetrators in order to prevent attacks and help victims rebuild their lives. Such measures require better rehabilitation services, means to ensure expedient investigations and just trials, adequate funding for victims and an effective monitoring system of acid attacks.

It would be great to see all of the attention drawn towards Sharmeen’s Oscar win translate into addressing the above mentioned on-ground gaps so as to curb this brutal phenomenon for good.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 6th, 2012.

Reader Comments (16)

  • unbeliever
    Mar 5, 2012 - 11:18PM

    yes it’s an issue even in india.
    actor kangana ranawat’s sister herself became a victim to it.

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  • SaudiRules
    Mar 6, 2012 - 12:11AM

    Isn’t it ironic that the most nauseating and brutal custom of this land brought the ‘good’ international-fame in the shape of Oscar, that all people are so proud of? May be next documentary to bring internation-fame will be a documentary based on karo-kari!!
    How many of the reader here think that the west/hollywood would have given the Oscar to the documentary based on good thing happening in pakistan, for example, the Edhi Foundation or Abdul Sitar Edhi??? No, is my answer.

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  • yousaf
    Mar 6, 2012 - 12:31AM

    @author:–your optimistic last lines of the article are a welcome gesture but I doubt what you assume is possible.I do not agree that the life of the acid victim gets normal ever again.The agony that the victim and those who hear of this heinous crime go through is unfathomable.The only solace for the victim is drastic punishment to the culprit responsible for the offence.He/she may never come out of jail,no out of court settlement be allowed and the victim should get free treatment and life-time compensation by the offender

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  • Apnakarachi
    Mar 6, 2012 - 1:30AM

    Could Dharnas stopped the Drone Attacks?

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  • MarkH
    Mar 6, 2012 - 6:48AM

    No, it can’t prevent it. Not even a little bit. Nobody can say they don’t know throwing acid on someone is just cruel. They do it out of spite and cruelty, consciously. The best a documentary can do is pressure action against perpetrators which, if it actually happens, may make them think twice because they don’t want time in jail.

    There wasn’t any confusion or hazy view to begin with.

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  • Always Learning
    Mar 6, 2012 - 8:21AM

    I do not know if the makers of the documentary had any illusion that one film would end acid attacks. If such were the purpose of documentaries, no one would make films at all. The film helps raise awareness. The fact that so many columns are being written on the subject is evidence enough. Everyone chips in to address societal malaise not to solve them immediately. According to the columnist, he conducted a far more substantial ‘situation analysis’, under UN auspices. Did that eliminate the attacks? Apparently not, but it probably helped.

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  • usman
    Mar 6, 2012 - 12:26PM

    great article. it is heartening to note that people like the author are actually working to help solve some of the problems facing the citizens of this country. bravo Mr. Ali!

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  • Anthony Permal
    Mar 6, 2012 - 3:12PM

    Did the author not read the news in this same newspaper a few days ago that Sharmeen Chinoy has started an acid-attack rehabilitation campaign?

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  • Uza Syed
    Mar 6, 2012 - 5:50PM

    An Oscar might not prevent this crime of throwing on face and burning women but it sure has created a lot of debate among those of us who just didn’t consider it a serious issue over here. I consider it a positive outcome of the Oscar for a fild on this issue. Now, instead of debating the Oscar we all must find a way to fight this menace. A united and resolute public opinion against it and zero tolerance for this crime would help, I like to believe.

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  • Armita
    Mar 6, 2012 - 6:44PM

    I wish people would stop analysing Sharmeen’s Oscar and what it means. She made a documentary about critical issue, and she won an award for it.

    As for what it means beyond it, that is up to you all; the world and most importantly, the citizens of Pakistan. Now that you are aware of the issue, what will you do?

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  • Talat Haque
    Mar 6, 2012 - 6:52PM

    Change the mind set …………. it’s a long uphill task, we can’t give up on it though ………… mothers can begin by treating their sons and daughters with justice and equality ……… it will go a long way in changing a lop-sided society.

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  • Raza
    Mar 6, 2012 - 7:10PM

    I agree to Yousaf, the oscar lady should now try to pull all efforts together for a bill which clearly denies any such ” out of court” settlement for acid attacks. We have seen worst cases of “out of court” settlement, the recent slapping by one of the bureaucratic woman to this poor polling agent was one of the example which later settled “out of court”..what rubbish.. who is going to buy this.. NOT USRecommend

  • munnabhai
    Mar 6, 2012 - 7:24PM

    @Talat Haque:
    True. But it would take a generation before Pakistan cpuld actually see a difference.

    Sometimes I think the world would be better with women running countries. After all,a mother wouldn’t leave her children in trouble.

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  • Awais Ch
    Mar 6, 2012 - 11:13PM

    Can an Oscar prevent acid attacks? Never, Never, Never

    Oscar for 1 Pakistani and image distraction for 18 crore Pakistanis. Lack of education and low living standard are the main reasons behind hundreds of problems like this.

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  • AIN
    Mar 8, 2012 - 11:56AM

    never at least not in near future….
    it will take time to change the mentality of most of the pakistanis male to consider the females atleast human…

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  • Talat Afridi
    Mar 8, 2012 - 10:40PM

    Pakistan is inundated with television stations there are shows to feed the appetite for every genre then one begs to ask the question why is there no channel that dedicates it self to the ill that face our society a show like American television has called “SIXTY MINUTES” an investigative program that uses decoys and hidden camera to display the ill deed that occur on a daily basis. When evil doers are exposed the shame and fear stems others from repeating such crimes. Will it end all social injustices probably not but the citizens of the land can send anonymous tips to the corruption and inequality so justice can be served without fear of repercussions.

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