By Fariha Khan
Asian Human Rights Commission
Stop Acid Attacks on Women
خواتین پر تیزابی حملے بند کرو
महिलाओं पर एसिड अटैक रोकें
Growing acid attacks in Pakistan
Acid crimes, alongside “honor” killings, are the most violent forms of gender-based violence present in Pakistan today. A UN report defines acid violence as any act of assault which uses acid. It recommends defining the crime in legislation using the mode of assault rather than the motivations behind it. Acid attacks may result in the death of its victims. At the very least, they result in “severe pain, permanent disfigurement, subsequent infections, and often blindness in one or both eyes along with a great deal of psychological trauma and economic hardship.
Acid is a highly corrosive substance. It melts through skin and bone resulting in extreme physical and mental torture. The perpetrators usually deliberately target the face “in order to maim, disfigure and blind”. If acid is not washed away immediately, it continues penetrating and “may even cause skeletal damage and organ failure”. Superficial burns are caused by contact with acid in only 5 short seconds while full thickness burns take a mere 30 seconds. Superficial burns cause more agony than deeper burns because in deeper burns the acid destroys nerve cells. Immediately after the attack, victims are also at risk of breathing failure because of inhaled acid fumes or a swelling of the neck which can close off the airway. Those who survive the attack are severely scarred and, in the months to come, have to deal with the risk of infections, such as septicemia or gangrene. Infections prevent burns from healing and can spread to healthy parts of the body, increasing the chances of subsequent death.
After emergency treatment, those who survive require immediate surgery because if dead skin
is not removed in time, new skin has the potential to cause further deformity. Dead skin must
also be removed from around the neck and arm pits to aid movement after an attack. Burn
wounds can take anywhere from 3-12 months to heal. Staged surgeries and physical therapy
is essential to “ensure that scarred tissue remains elastic and does not harm other parts of the
body”. Surgery may also be needed to remove scar tissue from covering the nostrils and ear
canals. Physical therapy is required to reduce the “lack of movement from scarring”. In the
meantime, survivors face daily “discomforts such as skin tightening and severe itching”, and
may have difficulty eating and drinking. More surgeries are needed after the burns have healed
to restore the appearance of the survivor. These surgeries may need to be carried out over 2-3
years. Medical treatment can be very expensive, and is, often, unaffordable or unavailable.
The psychological effects of acid attacks can be traumatic and long-lasting; some victims may
live with their psychological symptoms their entire life because they are reminded of their trauma by their scars and disabilities. The psychological effects, it can be seen, are caused not
only by the attack on the victims, but also as a result of living with the consequences of that
Additionally, in many cases, permanent blindness, damage to hearing and loss of use of hands
makes day to day routine difficult, if not impossible. Survivors face discrimination in finding
employment. Physical deformities and disabilities also result in social ostracization and loss of
independence. Survivors are often unable to continue their education. Some survivors find it
hard to appear in public with their deformities and need to be rehabilitated. Many end up staying
with their attackers out of economic dependence (often greatly enhanced due to disabilities) or
fear of losing their children as in the following case:
“I have to stay with him because of the children. If I leave, he will take them”, said Shaminara, a mother of three whose abusive husband threw acid at her during a fight nearly 3 years ago. “He says I should be grateful that he is keeping me, when I’m so scarred and disfigured”, the 34-year old said. . . .Every afternoon . . . she returns to her husband, who still beats her regularly and who was never punished for his crime. “Before I was burnt, I used to fight back, now I don’t fight back at all”, she said.
Women who were single at the time of the attack are unable to marry. In a society where many
women depend on their husbands for their economic needs, this can mean a cycle of poverty
and deprivation. Moreover, survivors who decide to register cases against their attackers often
find the justice system inadequate with the police reluctant to register cases, high legal
expenses and a time-consuming path to conviction.
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.
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, 90% 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 few hundred 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.
Acid is a highly corrosive substance. It melts through skin and bone resulting in extreme
physical and mental torture. The perpetrators usually deliberately target the face “in order to
maim, disfigure and blind”. If acid is not washed away immediately, it continues penetrating
and “may even cause skeletal damage and organ failure”. Superficial burns are caused by
contact with acid in only 5 short seconds while full thickness burns take a mere 30 seconds.
Superficial burns cause more agony than deeper burns because in deeper burns the acid.
Manzoor’s attack followed a row over doing the dishes. “It was seven o’clock in the morning, and I had just finished making breakfast,” she says. “My daughter was crying so I picked her up, but her grandmother said: ‘Leave her and wash the dishes.’ I told her that I would wash them, and that we had the whole day ahead of us. After this, they started beating me. I was unconscious for four or five days. I woke up in hospital in Lahore.” While she lay unconscious, Manzoor was drenched in acid. It devoured her lower lip, neck and shoulders and left her chin fused to her chest. “My husband and I often had arguments in the house,” she said, in her hospital bed. “On that day before going to sleep he said ‘you take too much pride in your beauty’. Then in the middle of the night he threw acid on me, and ran away.
. . . violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women, and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men . . .
In some cases, gender bias may even be the personal motivating factor behind an attack rather
than just a part of the cultural background such as in the case of Najaf Sultana whose father burnt her when she was 5 because he did not want another daughter.
The tremendous emphasis on women’s appearance is also responsible for acid attacks . . . By destroying women’s appearance, attackers try to bolster the political power they feel was threatened when the women rejected their proposals. The men use women’s appearance and sexuality to mark the boundaries between themselves and the women. Therefore, appearance seems to be a map of power for men and