Pakistan’s National Assembly passed ‘The Acid and Burn Crime Bill 2017’ in May 2018. The bill stipulates free medical treatment and rehabilitation for acid victims and also outlines a process for conducting trials of accused in the shortest possible time. It remains to be passed by the Senate of Pakistan. Regardless of politics, the upper house should expedite passage of this bill, in order to ensure that victims of acid violence can access their fundamental right to healthcare.
Prevention of this crime needs to be a mainstay; and the incoming government must review the impediments that stand in the way of implementing the already exiting legislation and frameworks.
Pakistan made a significant stride with the enactment of ‘The Acid Control and Acid Crimes Prevention Act, 2011’, which makes the offence punishable with imprisonment of a minimum of 14 years and a fine of Rs1 million. Another historic decision was taken in 2012, whereby it was held that such an offence should be tried exclusively in the Anti-Terrorism Courts (ATC). In the case of Beenish Sharif and Summon, survivors of acid attacks from Lahore, the ATC awarded long-term imprisonments and hefty fines to make the punishments exemplary.
There has undoubtedly been progress since the legislation was enacted. A study by the Acid Survivors Foundation in Islamabad reported that there has been a 50% decline in acid crime cases across Pakistan since 2014. However, such crimes have the ability to persist.
According to news reports, just last week, Salman threw a bottle of acid on his wife, Sobia, during a quarrel in Talha Town. Last month, two girls were injured in an acid attack while they were sleeping. In the same month, a man threw acid on his wife, which not only injured her but also her niece when she tried to rescue her. A girl suffered 90% burns on her body in Sialkot because she refused a marriage proposal. Eighteen-year-old Maryam Nazir, a teacher at a local school, was attacked on her doorstep. Twenty-three-year-old Mehwish suffered serious burn injuries when her cousin sprayed acid on her face and body. Twenty-five-year-old Asma Yaqoob, a Pakistani Christian woman, was doused with acid and set on fire for refusing a Muslim man.
It must be noted that these practices are mostly prevalent in remote rural areas where reporting standards are poor, and many cases go unaddressed due to the cultural stigma of reporting crimes—women, especially, fear possible bias in courts, unsupportive family dynamics, astronomical legal fees, and potential repercussions from their attackers.
Acid violence is one of the worst forms of gender-based violence in Pakistan. This heinous act is usually instigated by family disputes, refusal of a marriage proposal and family ‘honour’ issues. Perpetrators usually intend to disfigure rather than kill their victims, resulting in lifelong bodily disfigurement as well as severe emotional and psychological trauma.
In terms of the way forward, the widespread availability of acids and chemicals is one of the major reasons behind acid attacks. The sale of acid should be banned or at least regulated so no more lives are destroyed.
The use of Diyat (financial compensation paid to the victim or heirs of a victim), which is usually resorted to in such cases should be discouraged. There is a greater need to penalise perpetrators by awarding longer jail sentences and hefty fines. Additionally, there is a need to establish burn and rehabilitation centres as well as to ensure legal aid and free access to medical services for acid attack survivors. Law-enforcement agencies should be especially trained to deal with victims of acid attacks.
Most importantly, there is need for a change in mindset. Recently, key findings from the 2017 Extended General Population Poll and Justice Sector Survey of the World Justice Project shows that 31% of men in Pakistan believe that “a man has a right to hit his wife if she ‘misbehaves’…”. There is shocking systemic tolerance for violence and criminal practices against women and girls in both Pakistan as well as across much of the world. Attitudes towards women need to change for there to be further progress. Awareness campaigns on laws relating to acid violence, gender equality and peace and tolerance need to be significantly bolstered to deter perpetrators.
I witnessed firsthand the plight of these survivors when I had the privilege of working with them during an internship at the Acid Survivors Foundation, an NGO dedicated to alleviating the suffering of victims of acid terrorism. The imprint of their tragically disfigured faces will remain etched in my memory, forever. They were all women; their perpetrators invariably men. My interactions with them were a painful reminder of the blatant human rights violations, which continue in this day and age, as a result of which women and children remain particularly vulnerable. In a country so charged with human suffering there exists the need for people to stand in solidarity and fight for the marginalised communities.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 9th, 2018.