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.