In December 2011, some survivors of acid attacks sat in the Senate’s gallery to observe the passage of an amendment to the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) that declared such attacks criminal. The strong support of our Parliament on that bill was a major step toward dealing with this inhumane crime.
Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s Oscar for a film on acid survivors got national and international acclaim and helped to move public opinion against this crime. The suicide death of acid victim Fakhra Yunus was another jolt. After numerous operations to normalise her face and body, she finally gave up and committed suicide in Italy. Many in Pakistan mourned her loss and wanted to put a stop to the menace of acid attacks, but the horror stories continue. Many more have become victims, blinded and deformed by egotistical criminals. Each of these attacks defaces the image of Pakistani society.
Since 2010, the Acid Survivors Foundation has led a movement to criminalise these inhumane acts. It received support from government officials, health practitioners, the academia, burn centre officials, civil society and parliamentarians. They worked together for a year to produce two draft bills. One was the PPC amendment to criminalise the action of acid and burn attacks, while the other was a comprehensive bill to strengthen the courts’ ability to convict the criminal and support the victim.
This second bill is necessary because the judicial process is complex. These crimes will not end only by criminalising the specific act. There are a number of other issues relating to the process of reporting, investigation, collecting medical evidence, compensation for rehabilitation, and protection for the victim and the witnesses. Both of these bills, like the twin laws against sexual harassment, are needed to address the complex social web surrounding this crime. Without these comprehensive laws, criminals will walk free while their victims will continue to live in shame and misery.
With regard to devolution, the provinces must address the issue in their assemblies while the federal government must take forth the bill for Islamabad. By October 2011, the National Commission on the Status of Women had reviewed the second, more comprehensive bill with its own legal experts and civil society. However, despite national resolve on this issue, not a single assembly has taken any step towards the passage of bills.
One wonders what is preventing the assemblies from taking up a bill that has been well-prepared, and is essential for the handling of heinous crimes. We have a federal government which has proven its commitment to women - having passed seven pro-women laws in the last three years. We have provincial governments that have taken on their devolved portfolio of women’s development quite well after June 2011, and are picking up the pace of action on implementing anti-sexual harassment laws.
One realises that the clash of our major national institutions has deflected priorities away from substantive issues, but the daughters of this country cannot keep losing their faces. How many more women will be deformed before the wake-up call is heard by chief ministers?
In the last three years, the partnership between the government and civil society on social legislation has been well established. The draft is ready, but the bill has to be moved. Who can we count on to keep up the pressure until a comprehensive law on acid crimes is passed? Can we count on the prime minister to push for passage of the bill for Islamabad, setting a positive lead for the provincial assemblies to follow? Can we count on the chief ministers to take this draft law up urgently, as if the next woman to lose her face will be their own daughter?
The latest democratic period has brought us many needed changes in our laws, and one continues to be optimistic that the society will soon move in a direction to resolve this issue as well.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 30th, 2012.