Acid Attacks on Women in Pakistan
Author: Fatima Orujova
Department: Pakistan Team
Acid attacks are among the most critical gender-related crimes in the world (Ghosal & Chattopadhyay, 2021). It has been found that 80 percent of acid attack victims in the world are females (Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI), 2021). Acid attacks are an extreme form of assault, predominantly against women and girls, in which acid or another similar corrosive substance is thrown or poured at a person with the purpose of torturing or murdering them (ActionAid, 2021). The number of acid attacks in the world rises every year (Ghosal & Chattopadhyay, 2021). Annually, there are around 1,500 cases of acid attacks in the world, whilst many of them are kept unreported by victims (ActionAid, 2021).
Most of the acid attacks on women across the world are known to be linked to the factors like the rejection of marriage proposals, including arranged and forced ones, or denial of intercourse (ActionAid, 2021; Ghosal & Chattopadhyay, 2021). In most cases, perpetrators intentionally throw acid into the faces of victims to make them feel shameful about themselves (ActionAid, 2021). In addition, these attacks adversely impact victims’ employment and their participation in social life and cause psychological trauma (ActionAid, 2021). Furthermore, they also lead to severe medical complications for victims who have to go through major surgeries that require a considerable amount of funding (ASTI, 2021).
So far, acid attacks have mostly been common in South Asian countries, including Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh (ActionAid, 2021). This article will focus exclusively on acid attacks in Pakistan and will look at the recent cases, addressing the responses made by the Pakistani government.
- What is happening?
It has been estimated that more than 9,000 people between 1994 and 2018 have been victims of acid attacks in Pakistan, the vast majority of them being females (Pakistan Today, 2021). Moreover, it is commonly believed that the number of unreported cases of acid attacks in Pakistan is higher than the official number of cases reported to local police since victims refrain from reporting their cases to local police due to their fear of reprisal (Chaudry, 2019; Pakistan Today, 2021).
Acid attacks in Pakistan have been prevalent in South Punjab, which is characterised by low socio-economic indicators and is known for its cotton industry (Ilahi, 2014). Acid can be found very easily in this region as it is widely used to clean cotton (Ilahi, 2014). In general, acid and other similar substances are sold in many stores for low prices, and they can be bought without an identification card or licence, which impedes procedures of tracing the perpetrators (Chaudry, 2019).
Women in Pakistan live with the fear of being a victim of acid attacks perpetrated not only by strangers but also by their husbands, family members or relatives (ASTI, 2021). In fact, the common motives behind the attacks are linked to the refusal of marriage proposals, suspicion of an affair with another person, requests for divorce or split-up, inadequate dowry, or disagreements over land ownership (Ilahi, 2014; Pakistan Today, 2021). Besides, many girls also become victims of acid attacks committed by their fathers in the name of honour (Pakistan Today, 2021).
Furthermore, most of the female victims of acid attacks in the country, particularly in the regions with low socio-economic indicators like South Punjab, are illiterate and live in poverty with no access to quality education, clean water or healthcare (Ilahi, 2014). Thus, many of these victims and their families do not have enough resources and knowledge to report their cases to local police and bring them to court. In addition, perpetrators often come from wealthy families who manage to avoid legal proceedings and prevent their sons from being imprisoned (Pakistan Today, 2021). Furthermore, local police refuse or are unwilling to detain or arrest perpetrators from influential families (Pakistan Today, 2021). It is thus believed that, for these reasons, more than 90 percent of the reported cases of acid attacks are not settled in Pakistan (Pakistan Today, 2021).
- Recent Cases
One of the significant cases reported in the past few months was the incident in which a man attacked his wife with acid, causing her to have burnt injuries, in Karachi on August 22, 2021 (Ali, 2021). The perpetrator was later arrested and said that he assaulted his wife as she did not accept his reconciliation proposal and still wanted to divorce him (Ali, 2021).
Another Pakistani female, a TikToker named Rimsha, also faced an acid attack by her husband in Karachi in August, 2021 (Lodhi, 2021). Rimsha frequently had disputes with her husband concerning her activity on TikTok. Rimsha died in September 2021, due to the injuries (Lodhi, 2021).
Moreover, on December 14, 2021, a former policeman, Zeeshan Umar, was charged with life imprisonment for burning his former fiancé, Raheela Raheem, as well as her nephew in 2015 due to some disputes with her family (Ahmed, 2021). Raheem lost one of her eyes because of the attack, and her nephew suffered from burnt injuries (Ahmed, 2021).
A further incident was the case in which a man poured acid on his wife in Multan, the province of Punjab (Express Tribune, 2022). The couple were married for eight months and often quarrelled (Express Tribune, 2022). After the attack, the perpetrator fled the scene and got arrested by local police during a raid (Express Tribune, 2022).
- Response by the Pakistani government
Just like any other significant societal challenge, especially experienced by women, in the country, reforms and actions by the Pakistani government have been weak and insufficient when it comes to acid attacks in the country (Pakistan Today, 2021). In general, gender-based violence, including acid attacks, has been out of the agenda of Pakistani policymakers, especially with the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic which has been the primary focus of Pakistan’s Parliament (Pakistan Today, 2021).
However, noteworthily, in 2011, acid attacks were outlawed in Pakistan by the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act, 2011 and the penalty was set for severe punishments, including life imprisonment (Chaudry, 2019; Pakistan Today, 2021). Furthermore, the sale of acid and other similar substances was prohibited in the same year (Pakistan Today, 2021). However, these measures have not alleviated the problem and have not been enforced effectively (Pakistan Today, 2021). Despite the measures, the number of cases has remained high, and the sale of acid in shops has been free without any restrictions (Pakistan Today, 2021).
Surprisingly, the Pakistani government took another step to combat the issue of acid attacks by passing the Acid and Burn Crime Bill in 2018 (Anis, 2018). The bill criminalises acid attacks, setting life imprisonment as the punishment for a murder committed through acid attack (Anis, 2018). The bill also declares that free healthcare and rehabilitation services will be provided to victims of acid burns to tackle physical and psychological damages caused by acid attacks (Gulf News, 2019). The law was presented in the Lower House by Marvi Memon, a former member of Pakistan’s Parliament, who stated that the aim of the bill was to outlaw acid attacks and increase the penalties for perpetrators to support victims (Business Standard, 2018).
Overall, acid attacks have become a type of gender-based violence in Pakistan and as well as in other parts of the world. Although males experience similar assaults by males as well, females make up the majority of the victims most of the victims of these assaults are females. Surprisingly, the Pakistani government has passed bills to address the issue, and yet, they have not been effective. There should be more bolstered laws and policies solely designed to focus on the experience of female victims, as measures with total full concentration on women can foster more fundamental positive changes in the society. Such policies can include workshops offered by the government to local people, especially those living in regions with low socio-economic indicators, on issues such as the subjects like the ways to deal with domestic violence and how to handle legal proceedings.
Moreover, the sale of acid and similar substances should be controlled more strictly or prohibited fully and effectively. In addition, it should be sold with proof of identification in order to trace potential perpetrators easily. Besides, there is a need for more fundamental actions, such as instructing local police to become more responsive to and supportive of women facing gender-based violence. However, the adoption and effective implementation of such policies seem unfeasible and unattainable in today’s Pakistan, where patriarchal values are strongly endorsed both at the societal and governmental levels. This issue of acid attacks on women and other related problems can be eliminated following the deinstitutionalisation of strong patriarchal values, the eradication of poverty and socio-economic inequality at the societal level, and the achievement of good governance at the governmental level in the country.
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