The acid attack phenomenon —Syed Mohammad Ali 1


Eradicating this phenomenon altogether clearly requires much better on-ground coordination to help victims, prosecute perpetrators, create awareness, and take preventive measures

The occurrence of acid attacks prevails across nations as diverse as Cambodia and Uganda, but a significant proportion of reported incidences are concentrated in South Asia, specifically in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

There are multiple aspects to this harrowing problem, including identification of evident enabling factors, the plight of victims and their rehabilitation needs, and the evident prevention-related issues that can help curb these acid burnings.

At the onset of trying to do research on this issue, it becomes quite evident that there is a dearth of data available, providing details of incidents concerning the perpetrators and the current status of victims. The lack of this data in turn not only makes it very difficult to provide help to survivors in time, but also contributes to the overall underestimation of the phenomenon.

Nonetheless, scant reports keep appearing annually, which make it hard to refute that this practice is a serious enough problem. In the case of Bangladesh for instance, the Acid Survivors Foundation documented 211 incidents in 2005, which was actually significantly less than the 487 people hurt by such attacks in 2002. NGOs working to help victims of acid attacks in Pakistan have claimed that up to 400 women fall victim to acid attacks perpetrated by their husbands or in-laws each year in Pakistan. Over the past 10 years, nearly 1,500 cases have been directly brought to their attention, many of them having occurred in the Seraiki belt.

Even though not all acid throwing cases are reported, an even lesser number of acid burn victims are provided any justice. Belonging to poor or marginalised fringes of the society, most acid survivors can hardly afford the cost of their own healing and are thus fated to continue suffering, lest the handful of relevant organisations succeed in reaching out to them.

Acid is considered a highly indiscriminate weapon and as such often harms not only the intended target, but also bystanders. Children in particular have become victims of acid violence by being in the vicinity of the intended target. There have also been incidents where the victim has been mistaken for someone else.

The commonly cited motives for acid attacks relate to intimate and familial relationships, where the suspicion of an extra-marital affair or other power tussles becomes motivations for the act. Some incidents have been known to take place because of land disputes, which also perpetuate other forms of gender violence such as honour killing. Although acid attacks can transcend gender lines, women are not only disproportionately represented among the survivors, but are also known to be perpetrators of acid attacks.

Perhaps one reason why this phenomenon is so common in our region seems to be the ready accessibility of cheap acid. Sulphuric, nitric and hydrochloric acids are widely available. Sulphuric acid is often used in car batteries. Jewellers commonly use nitric acid to polish precious metals. Dilute forms of acids are also used to treat cotton seeds, making it readily accessible even in rural areas.

Also, many people commonly use concentrated acid to sterilise their kitchens and bathrooms, so no eyebrows are raised when someone goes to a shop wanting to purchase it. Thus, with just a few rupees, anyone can buy a weapon that can ruin another person’s life in just a few seconds. For instance, there are numerous chemical shops on both sides of the famous GT Road in Lahore where acid is sold freely.

Acid attacks impact the physical, emotional, social and economic facets of survivors’ lives. These survivors often need to undergo a lengthy process of surgical treatment and psychological rehabilitation. The physical consequences of acid attacks can be severe, rendering survivors blind and/or disabled in other ways. Acid burn scars are not only painful but lead to physical distortions which lead many survivors to feel so ashamed that they become victims of social isolation.

There is also a social stigma attached to acid attacks which can further the sense of marginalisation of survivors, given the public perception of it being commonly used as a punishment for adultery. Moreover, acid burn survivors are often in vulnerable economic positions since they have very limited opportunities to work or pursue their studies if that is what they were doing before the incident took place.

A single woman who becomes a victim of this phenomenon would have little chance of ever finding a husband and she becomes an eternal burden on her family if she is the victim of such an attack. The life of a married woman can be even worse if it is her own husband who was the perpetrator, as she now has nowhere else to go but to continue living in the same household.

Though in August 2003, the Punjab provincial assembly did pass legislation under which an acid attack would rank as attempted murder, no national law has reinforced this provincial law. Thus far, there is little evidence of a decline in the rate of acid attacks since perpetrators are still able to escape punishment for this horrendous act.

Eradicating this phenomenon altogether clearly requires much better on-ground coordination to help victims, prosecute perpetrators, create awareness, and take preventive measures. Awareness campaigns in areas where this phenomenon is most common could focus especially on the need for communities to become more proactive in reporting such cases, as well as emphasising the need for damage control subsequent to an acid attack, which simply requires throwing water on the victim to dilute the acid and preventing it from penetrating the skin to damage tissues.

There is also an evident need to create several specialised notification units in areas where this type of violence occurs frequently, which may be located within the local governments, or else be run by NGOs, but they must be tasked with going beyond verifying the occurrence of acid attacks, to immediately reach out to the survivors and to further liaise between them and the required medical and police authorities.

The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at ali@policy.hu

Source: Daily Times, 23/9/2008

 

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