Growing acid attacks in Pakistan

Throwing acid is considered worse than murder. However, unfortunately throwing acid is getting much common in Pakistan.

Recently, a woman in Lahore was attacked with acid because she refused a proposal of marriage.

According to an independent estimate, between 1994 and 2018 some 9,340 people fell victim to acid attacks in Pakistan. Such attacks in the country will continue unless the state takes stringent measures to finish the evil-doer.

The atrocious act of attacking human beings with acid is, tragically, a common threat that women face in Pakistan. According to the Acid Survivors Trust International, 80% of acid attack victims are women, making it part of gender-based violence. Although men are also targeted by attackers, the issue affects women disproportionately and is more likely to occur in societies with pronounced gender inequality. This practice perpetuates gender inequality and reflects the poor position of women in the Pakistani society, who are at serious risk of attacks at any moment, not only from strangers but often also from their own husbands and family members.

Acid attacks were outlawed in 2011 in the Pakistani criminal justice system and the punishment for such an attack was set to life imprisonment. The sale of acid and other corrosive substances was also made illegal, in the same attempt to eliminate this form of violence. Even though these measures were implemented by the government of Pakistan, they are not effectively enforced. The attacks continue and the ease with which the chemical is available in most parts of the country is surprising. An investigation carried out by Pakistani private news channel SAMAA TV revealed that bottles of acid were freely available at a local chemical shop for a mere 150 Rupees, even though the minimum fine for an acid attack is set to 1 million Rupees.

Frequent reasons that perpetrators cite for attacking a woman with acid include suspicions of cheating in a marriage, disputes over land ownership or general family disputes. Fathers will attack their daughters with acid for “looking at boys”,  and potential suitors will attack women for denying their marriage proposals. They are often an expression of the worst form of domestic violence, stemming from the patriarchal culture of the Pakistani society, in which women are seen as commodities and are continuously objectified. Not only that, but survivors of attacks live in fear of reporting to the police, since the rule of law in the country is weak and perpetrators often go unpunished. This may also be due to the fear of reprisal by the perpetrators.

Even if the estimated attacks that go unreported are still more than the ones that make it to a police station, the official numbers of reported acid attacks dropped after 2014. In 2017 Pakistan became the only country in the world in which violence against women decreased in any capacity, due to the decrease in the number of acid attacks reported after the year 2014. Between 2014 and 2016 a 52% reduction in the number of acid attacks was reported, which led many to believe that positive change in the advancement of minority rights was being recorded in Pakistan. However, the previously discussed issue of under-reporting of cases due to social stigma and gender inequality means that the decline in officially reported cases should be taken with a grain of salt, since they do not reflect the accurate numbers. To attest to this, the head of the burn unit at the largest hospital in Multan, Dr Naheed Ahmad, states that there has in fact not been a decrease in the attack victims coming into the hospital.

Some encouraging legal developments include the Acid and Burn Crime Bill passed in 2018. This bill mandates that free healthcare and rehabilitation services be given to victims of acid burns in order to help them cope with the physical and psychological disabilities that acid attacks entail. Even though the bill sets life imprisonment as the maximum penalty for a murder through acid attack, an amendment to the bill mentions that if someone intentionally causes harm but does not kill the victim the maximum imprisonment they can serve must not exceed 7 years. The bill was moved in parliament by an avid women’s rights proponent, Marvi Memon, who mentioned that its aim was to specifically criminalise acid attacks and expediate the legal proceedings to benefit the victims. Furthermore, in 2020 the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that “mercy petitions” filed by victims in which they legally state that they forgive the perpetrator of an acid attack will not be given any consideration in legal proceedings due to the gravity of the crime of an acid attack. This step taken by the Court is incredibly important in combatting the culture surrounding reporting crimes as a woman in Pakistan, which is usually marred with fear, shame and disappointment in the justice system.

However, conviction rates for acid attacks have dropped from 2016 to 2018, the last year in which the ASF Pakistan has collected data for acid attacks. This is not encouraging, since it means that less people actually get convicted of the crime after a trial. Furthermore, the advent of COVID-19 has pushed the topic of combatting acid attack violence back on the agenda of Pakistani officials, since combatting the virus has taken front-stage.

The rights of women, as a minority group, are frequently overlooked in an attempt to shield the ones responsible for the violation of their rights, something which must change! Women are frequently being denied their human rights in many different practices that are still occurring in the Pakistani society, like honour killings and forced marriages. Perpetrators are still rarely captured and women in poor families are especially vulnerable. More than 90% of the reported cases are not settled because of the perpetrators’ wealth. Rich individuals are more easily able to evade the legal system and the police charges. The police is reluctant to challenge their social status, which means that women suffering from the aftermath of an attack, especially the poor women who are most vulnerable, are not getting the justice they deserve!

Like most social change, reforms against acid attacks in Pakistan are still moving too slow for Pakistani women of today, who are still at a high risk of acid attacks. Women in Pakistan are a minority group, marginalised and discriminated against in the law and in society. ASF Pakistan speaks about how throwing acid in a woman’s face is a normalised act of anger and in the patriarchal Pakistani society. Women must not be objects to claim and to oppress, and revenge should not be sought from a “disobedient” woman by attacking her face and body with acid. The Pakistani government must start enforcing its laws against acid attacks in order to bring true change and respect for women’s rights in the country.

To conclude, i plea to the government to take strong steps to finish acid attacks as soon as possible.

Imran Sattar Nigwari


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