By Umamah Basit, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy.
Acid violence seems to have become the “norm” in various segments of South Asian society, particularly in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. It is among the most brutal forms of gender-based oppression, leaving victims both physically and emotionally scarred for life. Despite changes in legislation and large public awareness campaigns, acid attacks are rising at an alarming rate; and though women receive legal, medical and psychological support, many continue to live in a state of extreme vulnerability.
Recent incidents in Pakistan have particularly drawn international attention. Last month, Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for an acid attack carried out on a college van in the city of Parachinar in Northern Pakistan. While one boy was shot, two girls were left with severe burns on their faces. This is just one of the many cruel tactics used by local extremists to prevent young girls and women from pursuing an education. A few weeks back, a 16-year old girl named Anusha also became the victim of a horrific acid attack carried out by her own parents at their home in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan-administered Kashmir. According to claims made by the couple, Anusha glanced at some boys outside their home, leading the parents to fear that she might end up following in her elder sister’s footsteps and “bring shame” on the family. The girl died two days later after suffering 70% of burns. Such occurrences are hardly uncommon. Acid Survivors Foundation estimates that roughly 200 people are victims of acid violence each year. Acid attacks are clearly at an all time high in most areas of the country and the need to address this terrifying social problem has become more crucial than ever before.
Earlier this year, directors Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Daniel Junge won an Oscar Academy Award for their short documentary, ‘Saving Face’. The film tells the stories of two acid attack survivors in Pakistan as they embark on a long struggle for justice, and the London-based Pakistani plastic surgeon, Dr. Mohammad Jawad, who travels to Pakistan to perform reconstructive surgery on these victims. What is extremely positive about this documentary is that it has tackled issues which continue to be ignored in these societies. In most male-dominated and conservative cultures, women are not only deprived of their basic fundamental rights, but are also victims of constant blame. This explains the “rationale” behind some of the attacks, which are usually motivated by revenge or jealousy. According to Rukhshanda Naz, a Pakistani lawyer and activist, “The core problem is that in patriarchal societies, men see women as commodities.” This is exactly why men find it so “acceptable” to carry out such acts, for instance when they are rejected by a lover, when a daughter marries without the consent of the family or in some situations, due to an internal family dispute or “perceived dishonour”. In fact, in those cases where both parents have carried out an honor killing, it is usually because women “get dragged into the crime with other male members of the family.” The problem of underreporting can also be explained in this context. When it comes to defending their rights, many women choose to remain silent not only because they fear more harassment, but also because they want to protect their reputation and honor in society. Even when they do speak up, they are either accused of lying or silenced by family members.
Saving Face is definitely a step in the right direction. It is also a good example of some of the ways in which greater awareness can be brought to the public masses, for example through film, contemporary arts and even photography. Of course, national and international NGOs also have a vital role to play in women’s rights advocacy and the provision of aid to abused victims. While current efforts need to be sustained, further steps need to be taken to combat this cycle of violence not just in Pakistan, but across the globe.
First, the weak judicial system must be reformed. Under the current legislation in Pakistan, perpetrators of acid attacks can face harsh fines and even life imprisonment. Unfortunately, however, the law is rarely enforced. In most situations, even when offenders are caught, they try to bribe their way out and end up receiving shorter sentences. It is hoped that the Acid Crime Bill 2012 – if passed- together with the Acid Control Act, will provide a more comprehensive legal framework and a proper implementation mechanism. Second, the sale and purchase of acid needs to be more strictly regulated. Acid is both cheap and widely available, making it so easy for perpetrators to conduct such acts and simply walk away. Third, women need to be made more aware of their socio-cultural, political and economic rights. This can be most effectively done through capacity development trainings and community involvement programs. No doubt, education is paramount and perhaps the only real means through which women can acquire true freedom. As women become more empowered, they will no longer accept domestic abuse as the “norm” and the stigma attached to speaking up will gradually be removed. A greater understanding of the legal system will also encourage more women to come forward and bring their assailants to justice.
Lastly, but most importantly, there needs to be a global condemnation of such acts. The media plays a significant role in this respect. Earlier last month, Malala Yousufzai, the 15-year old Pakistani children’s rights activist was critically injured in an assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen. The incident sparked a huge public outcry, prompting leaders and activists from across the world to come forward and voice their strong condemnation. Within days, Malala emerged as a “global icon” of courage and hope. While I agree that the reaction to this incident was very necessary and called for, I also believe that the media is not doing enough to report incidents which are occurring on a more frequent basis. This is precisely the reason why acid violence does not receive the political attention that it should. Perhaps what is most needed is for the men in these societies to come together and condemn such barbaric practices. I strongly agree with Naomi Lakritz, Herald columnist, when she writes, “What those cultures need are some enlightened men to start a movement within their societies, so that the paradigm begins to shift. Revolutions always begin at home and this one should have started long ago”. Certainly, not everything can be left to state officials, policymakers or women’s rights organizations for that matter. Men need to become more conscious of women’s rights too so that they no longer regard such behaviour as “normal” and acceptable. It is essential to recognize that the real problem lies in social practices and religious and cultural traditions. In order to remove the deep-rooted social and cultural inequalities, there is a need to transform the collective cultural mindset. A public awakening will be the real catalyst of change
Khaleeli, Homa. “Saving Faces in Pakistan”, The Guardian, February 12, 2012. Accessed November 21, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/feb/12/saving-faces-pakistan-acid-attacks
Lakritz, Naomi. “Lakritz: It will take a revolution to save women like Anusha”, Calgary Herald, November 6, 2012. Accessed November 22, 2012. http://www.calgaryherald.com/opinion/columnists/Lakritz+will+take+revolution+save+women+like+Anusha/7507526/story.html
Center for Cultural Diplomacy Studies Publication