How to combat acid violence

Published: April 27, 2012

The writer practices law in Lahore and is a recent law graduate from the University of Cambridge.

Horrific memories have a staying power, easily rekindled upon the appropriate trigger. The tragic end of Fakhra Younus in Rome last month was one such trigger. It took me back to the summer afternoon, some years ago, at the Mayo Hospital in Lahore: a dark room with a hospital bed covered by a makeshift protective tent and a muffled voice emanating from behind. A disfigured limb reached out; I stepped closer to encounter a persona, not recognisable in its physical form as human, melted away indiscriminately by the corrosive acid thrown on her by her spouse. Words of comfort and promises of redress and legal action offered by the team of aid workers I accompanied did little to move the maimed woman, who had resigned to the dictates of fate, uninterested in seeking justice. The image is hard to forget and evokes horror, disgust, guilt and insecurity even today. It epitomises the capacity of evil, the frailty of life and the desperate dependability of women on patriarchal social norms and structures that remain untouched by a passive, and at times, complicit legal system.

Our legislature appears cognisant of the evil of acid violence and has taken the initial steps to redress it. The Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act passed last December — through the insertion of Section 336-A and 336-B in the Pakistan Penal Code — has explicitly identified “causing hurt by dangerous means or substance”, including any corrosive substance or acid, as a crime. It also provides for stringent punishment, extending to life imprisonment. However, the definitional clarity brought by the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act is not a sufficient response to the incidence of acid crimes in Pakistan, where over 700 cases of acid violence have been reported since 2006. Violence against women is recognised as a human rights violation that states are duty-bound to guard against. Under the due diligence standard identified by the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) committee as a tool to assess state action, Pakistan is duty-bound to introduce and enforce appropriate measures for the prevention, protection, investigation, prosecution and punishment of all forms of gender violence, whether perpetrated by the state or private actors. Whether the Acid and Burn Crime Bill 2012 — which is a follow-up to the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act — meets these due diligence requirements, if approved by the federal and provincial assemblies, will have to await determination.

The experience of Bangladesh indicates that a legislative enactment that criminalises acid violence within a supporting legal framework that ensures effective and timely investigation, speedy trials and legal support to victims, can cause a significant reduction in the incidence of the crime. Following the promulgation of the Acid Crime Control Act 2002, in Bangladesh, reported cases of acid violence have fallen from 416 cases in 2003 to 84 cases in 2011 as reported by the Acid Survivors Foundation. The 2002 Act criminalises the commission of attempting to and abetting in ‘hurt by acid’ and specifies applicable sanctions. This aspect of the Bangladeshi law deserves particular reference because of its regulation and oversight of investigative and prosecutorial procedures in acid violence cases. The Act establishes special tribunals to prosecute ‘hurt by acid’ and mandates a verdict within a period of 90 days from the date of receipt of the file. Investigating agencies, too, operate on a defined time frame of 30 days to complete requisite investigations and are subject to review and scrutiny by the special tribunal, empowered under the Act to call for the replacement of investigating officers (if their actions seem wanting) and command censure for their negligence or tardy investigations by relevant superior authorities. Moreover, victim support centres established under the Act at police stations provide protection against intimidation to victims and witnesses, further reinforcing the investigative process.

Underlying this regulatory aspect of the Bangladeshi Act is the acknowledgment that systemic failures of delayed prosecution and inadequate and tampered investigations permit perpetrators of acid crimes to employ their sociopolitical prowess to manipulate and outwit the criminal justice system. Fakhra Younus eventually succumbed to these structural failures.

The Bangladeshi experience carries an important lesson. It is not argued that the Bangladeshi acid crime prevention regime is foolproof. In fact, gaps in the legal system permit lapses in investigation, police corruption, gender bias and witness intimidation — problems that are equally descriptive of our legal system. The Bangladeshi model should guide Pakistan in meeting the dictates of the due diligence standard to eliminate all forms of violence against women. For a start, the federal and provincial legislature should, as recommended by the National Commission on the Status of Women, pass the Acid and Burn Crime Bill 2012, which in a manner similar to the Bangladeshi enactment regulates the investigation and trial of acid violence and provides free legal aid and medical and rehabilitation services to victims. It is also critical that state undertakes measures to prevent commission of the crime and protect victims. The state of Pakistan should put in place an effective reporting system and an emergency response scheme that permits and trains investigation and law enforcement agencies to respond to acid violence. A mechanism should ensure monitoring and enforcement of protective orders, forbidding perpetrators or potential perpetrators from contacting victims and providing shelter where victims may seek refuge. Only within a more comprehensive legal system can the state’s criminalisation of  ‘hurt by acid’ and its commitment to gender equality and elimination of gender violence bear fruit. Failure to discharge its due diligence duties through the provision of such a framework will render Pakistan complicit in the violation of human rights of its own people.

Victims of acid violence may find little consolation in what has been achieved thus far in the fight against the vilest form of domestic violence. Indeed, there was no consolation for Fakhra Younus or the despondent woman who lay under the protective tent at Mayo Hospital. However, there exists a pro-reform sentiment now that must be capitalised upon to spare future victims from the woeful fate that befell these women.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 27th, 2012.

on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook

Reader Comments (27)

  • Hasan Awan
    Apr 27, 2012 - 12:32AM

    Also i would add that In Pakistan Acid is mostly used to clear up the choked sewage lines and its use is wide spread. Simply do one thing that introduce cleaners that will be mildly acidic and they will not be in pure liquid form rather they will be in the form of gel like or will be in the form of shampoo like liquids and then put a legislation to simply ban acid from Pakistan.
    In my city I have seen that there are small plants who produce concentrated acid and the solution is simple to bring all these producers on the table and then give them a new formulation of cleaners that will be less acidic and hazardous. PCSIR ( Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial research) is an organization which helps many companies in their products and government could give them the task to bring up a new formulation and later it will be an open sourced formulation so that pure acid usage will be replaced with the new less hazardous formulation.

    Recommend

  • Mohammad Ali Siddiqui
    Apr 27, 2012 - 12:54AM

    Unless acid will be available for sale in the open market and will remain in the reach of common man, it is difficult to combat acid violence.

    There should be a proper legislation for this, as who can purchase acid and who cannot.

    The best way to deal with the sale of acid is that unless an individual or a company is not issued a license from the Provincial Home Ministry, it should not be sold.

    The storage spaces where acid is kept should also be kept in strict vigilance.

    Recommend

  • Abid P Khan
    Apr 27, 2012 - 2:22AM

    @Mohammad Ali Siddiqui:

    In Canada it is as easy to get a gun license as in the US. People normally don’t latch their doors in Canada while in the US people use even more than two locks.
    In the industrialised countries, any paint shop carries chemicals like acids etc but hardly ever does one hear of acid being thrown in some ones face.

    It is not necessarily the availability but has more to do with the prevalent values of the society.
    Lets not deduce wrong conclusions.

    Recommend

  • Chulbul Pandey
    Apr 27, 2012 - 2:23AM

    @Mohammad Ali Siddiqui:
    Or, how about prosecuting the culprits to the maximum punishment, allowed by the law? No exceptions? There appears to be a need to put the fear of law in the hearts of offending people. Your suggestion does sound good. But, the law needs to be implemented strictly and people educated.

    Recommend

  • Apr 27, 2012 - 3:19AM

    Sahar, A very well written piece. Given the utmost cruelty of such a crime, I suggest even harsher and more holistic consequences for not just the criminal but also others involved (usually active – sometimes passive – family members who may stand by and allow a situation to build to the point where a man commits this disgusting crime).

    The Acid and Burn Crime Bill in Pakistan should go further and also threaten the surrounding family members or any other accomplice of this crime.

    Crimes such as this don’t just happen out of the blue – a situation builds up over some time and ends in a woman being burnt. Most times, family members are equally involved in encouraging the man to commit this crime.

    Somehow, we the law of the land must clearly threaten any passive accomplice also – for not doing their duty and reporting the situation before it gets to a head.

    Recommend

  • Aryan Imtiaz
    Apr 27, 2012 - 9:33AM

    We should deffo follow Bangladesh’s model we have so much to learn from them.

    Recommend

  • Baba Ji
    Apr 27, 2012 - 9:57AM

    well i don’t want to sound too harsh but amputate one hand and one leg of the convict …. result = acid attacks = NIL …. desired statistics achieved ?

    Recommend

  • Apr 27, 2012 - 11:20AM

    I agree the punishment for these men should be cut off their hand or leg . so that no body wud ever think of this
    what shud the punishment be for Mother in laws who burn their daughter in laws ?
    hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

    Recommend

  • gaurav
    Apr 27, 2012 - 12:29PM

    Well Miss Sahar, one option is to come to india, although things are not brilliant for women here, but atleast criminals dont go free here. Come here and marry a nice guy like me and live happily :)Recommend

  • sars
    Apr 27, 2012 - 1:50PM

    in Iran a woman who was blinded by acid was allowed to do the same to her attacker. The criminlas mother was pleading for leniency for her son, (even though he showed none for the poor victim). Unless we can address the acceptance of violence by society , this crime will not abate.
    The punishment must be strict, enforced,(no jailbreaks or clemency) and in proportion to the crime.
    Once a couple of jilted studs and enraged husbands are disfigured for life others will think twice before doing the same

    Recommend

  • Pakistani
    Apr 27, 2012 - 2:43PM

    Acid Throwers should be hanged to death in a public trial. Few punishments like these may reduce this kind of horrific incidents. where men consider women as their slaves and properties…

    Recommend

  • Lahore1
    Apr 27, 2012 - 2:50PM

    Sahar, this was very informative. It is a failure of our legal system that such open acts of cruelty in many cases go unnoticed. If this legislation will deter future acts of acid attacks then such legislation should also cover individuals who committed this crime in the past. Why should they not be punished? Our biggest problem is that there’s no fear of law and in a country that doesn’t have a strict legal and justice system in place, people automatically feel the desire to exploit this absence of fear. Our legal system should give exemplary punishments to those responsible for acid attacks so that next time anyone even contemplating to commit such a crime should always remember what happened to those before him. This is a failure of our value system and when our values can’t teach the basics, let our legal system impose them. In this case they NEED to be forced!Recommend

  • x
    Apr 27, 2012 - 3:33PM

    @ sars, totally agree.

    Recommend

  • elementary
    Apr 27, 2012 - 6:28PM

    @Abid P Khan: But untill the time you get your people more civilized ,there is no harm in keeping the acid out of their reach.I think it is good idea to make Acid’s availability scarce and restricted/monitored.

    Recommend

  • elementary
    Apr 27, 2012 - 6:37PM

    Intensity of punishment doesn’t work unless it is also consistent.No one should hope to escape ,not even Bilal Khar.

    Recommend

  • Abid P Khan
    Apr 27, 2012 - 6:58PM

    @elementary:

    “@…untill the time you get your people more civilized ,there is no harm in keeping the acid out of their reach.I think it is good idea to make Acid’s availability scarce and restricted/monitored.”

    The point I am trying to make is that the society has become too brutalised and callous, more restrictions and harsher punishment is being demanded. This is no Cowboy Country. Curtailing the availability such chemicals may have a cursory effect and can be a first step.

    When the ex-Home Minister of Sindh proudly claims that he had armed (ca)2500 persons or in these pages we here quite often the demand of public hangings. Hopes cannot be very high.

    Recommend

  • elementary
    Apr 27, 2012 - 8:11PM

    In any developed country you can not buy an Acid over the counter.
    It’s free sale should be banned in Pakistan.

    Recommend

  • Amjad Khan
    Apr 27, 2012 - 8:28PM

    I am a British Bangladeshi and I have been observing my country of origin Bangladesh relating to Acid attacks, I have noticed that their is a radical change in the government system and how people buying Acid over the counters are asked simultaneous questions before being able to purchase the goods which is a good thing.

    Pakistan can follow the same Model as advised by Miss Sahar, I think she is spot on with this article Mashallah to Her.

    Also I am a bit baffled why Indians always having to give negative remarks on Muslim affairs relating to Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.

    Recommend

  • Nikarish
    Apr 27, 2012 - 8:54PM

    How about granting women rights and treating them as humans rather than burden?

    Recommend

  • Amjad Khan
    Apr 27, 2012 - 9:15PM

    In Islam it is said that Woman should be treated equally, I admit that when it comes to woman’s rights in Pakistan and Bangladesh they are totally behind.

    My brother is married to a Pakistani woman and trust me although he may treat her equally Mashallah, thus is totally to do with the education and lack of backwardness in the UK.

    Pakistan and Bangladesh lack that area of education which woman are derived even t the poor people.

    The men who carry out these atrocious attacks on woman lack a lot of education and use their culture as a source to justify these attacks which is totally wrong.

    Recommend

  • usman
    Apr 27, 2012 - 9:48PM

    Very well written article. In my opinion, punishment should be swift and severe so that it acts as a deterrent.

    Recommend

  • Mirza
    Apr 27, 2012 - 10:05PM

    With due respect the people who want to ban the sale of acid, should also ban the sale of caustic, knives, steel rods to change tires, hammers, ropes and matches to name a few. These things are all useful they do not kill, our sick brain and mindless people kill. Unless we change our sexist thinking and stop treating women as our property like animals nothing would work. Unless our mullah stop opposing strict penalties and promote laws for protection of women nothing would change. When was the last time acid or any crime against women was condemned like the Memo, contempt or other manufactured cases?We are basically dishonest and choose what we like and ignore the rest which is not beneficial to us. Recommend

  • elementary
    Apr 27, 2012 - 11:19PM

    And untill we achieve woman emancipation we should just accept acid attack as part of our miserable routine life and continue twiddling our thumbs.
    .Acid is a harmful chemical substance and should not be accessible to general public.

    Recommend

  • Abid P Khan
    Apr 27, 2012 - 11:55PM

    @elementary:

    “In any developed country you can not buy an Acid over the counter.”

    You based this claim on what?

    Recommend

  • elementary
    Apr 28, 2012 - 12:45AM

    Try asking for sulphuric/hydrochloric or Nitric Acid in any super market in UK or USA/canada.
    Not all acids are same,I hope you are not confusing weak acids such as citric acid /acetic / ascorbic acid etc or alkalis found in bleaches.I am talking about strong acids capable of mutilating.

    Recommend

  • Abid P Khan
    Apr 28, 2012 - 3:47AM

    I mentioned paint store not a grocery.

    Recommend

  • Apr 29, 2012 - 8:00PM

    Have Pakistanis organized any mass marches or large demonstrations against acid violence?

    Recommend

More in Opinion