Mr. Teepu Rehman Abbasi is an Aitchisonian who graduated with an LL.B. degree from the University of London. He is a practicing lawyer and an enrolled member of the Islamabad Bar Council. His interests include, but are not limited to, international relations, the rising issues in Pakistan, and human rights laws.
Acid attacks are deliberate acts of violence in which perpetrators throw acid onto the victim’s face or body to cause severe burns. Carol Bellamy, who served as the executive director of UNICEF for 10 years, explains acid attacks as culturally accepted and often homicidal violence intended to either kill or cause severe disfigurement. She further states that acid violence is a horrific form of vengeance that “melts human flesh and even bones, causing excruciating pain and terror, leaving the person physically, socially and emotionally scarred for life.”
Although acid violence is a subset of broader violence and cruelty that exists, it mainly targets women and is typically treated as an isolatable violation of human rights. Like other forms of violence against women, acid violence is a structural phenomenon rooted in a region’s cultural, socio-economic, and political framework. Largely predominant in South Asia, it is often referred to as an “intimate form of terrorism,” “crime of passion,” or “terrorism that is personal.”
Acid Attacks in Pakistan
In Pakistan, more than 3,400 cases of acid burning were reported between 1999 and 2019. With about 200 acid attacks reported annually, Pakistan has a reputation for being one of the deadliest countries for acid attacks. The chemical burns induced by such attacks are among the most painful experiences known to man—like being charred over an open flame, except it goes deeper, eating away at not just flesh but bones.
Women find themselves victims of such acts mostly as a result of snubbed sexual advances or marriage proposals, demands for divorce, insufficient dowry, and so on. According to Section 336B of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), the offense warrants a minimum punishment of 14 years and a fine of Rs 1 million. However, due to lacunas in the law, many offenders manage to go scot-free. The intent behind such crimes is quite obviously a savage one: to mutilate permanently, subjecting one to lifelong disfigurement and mental trauma. Below are some examples where the perpetrators of acid attacks have been punished:
In one incident, Asmatullah threw acid on his ex-fiancée at her refusal to marry him. According to doctors, the attack disfigured the face of the 24-year-old and damaged her eyes. The court sentenced the accused to a total of 60 years imprisonment on multiple counts and a fine of Rs 3.9 million to be paid to the victim. Similarly, an anti-terrorism court sentenced a man to 14 years for attacking a flight attendant with acid and causing her critical injuries in July 2015 for turning down a marriage proposal. The court also directed the convict to pay diyat (compensation) of over Rs 800,000 to the victim and ordered that he remain in prison even after completing his sentence in case of non-payment.
Nevertheless, two cases recorded in the documentary Against All Odds: Acid Crimes and Dowry show that not every perpetrator is punished. In one case, Zainab Bibi, a 17 years old girl, slapped her neighbor for making inappropriate advances towards her and harassing her. Three nights later, while Zainab was asleep, her neighbor climbed over the wall into her family home and splashed two doses of acid on her. His motive was to ensure that no one else would marry her if he could not. Since the family could not afford a lawyer, a tribal panchayat was called where the neighbor swore upon the Holy Qur’an that he had not harmed her. Zainab and her family were forced to accept his word.
While most of the victims are women, men and children now constitute 40 percent of acid crime victims. According to the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), an NGO, men also face acid attacks that are typically incited by professional jealousy, as a response to domestic violence, property disputes, or religious discrimination. Children, on the other hand, find themselves victims of acid throwing as collateral damage when accompanying another family member who was meant to be the victim.
Acid attacks must be scrutinized under the lens of wider social, economic, and political aspects. A strong consideration, for example, is the survivor’s socioeconomic status. It should not come as a surprise that the majority of victims are illiterate and poor, mostly landless peasants living in poverty for whom quality education, access to justice, healthcare, and clean drinking water are all unachievable dreams. An agricultural area bearing the commonly used name of “cotton belt,” South Punjab is home to more than half of all acid crimes in Pakistan. Not to mention, acid here is readily available at markets as it is often used to clean cotton.
Countering Acid Attacks
To counter the rising insurgency of acid attacks in Pakistan, the government enacted the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill. This landmark development provided strict fines and life imprisonment for perpetrators of acid crimes. According to the ASF, the conviction rate has spiked by as much as thrice. Regardless, further improvement was needed.
Bangladesh, despite having one of the highest rates of acid crimes in the world, has managed to significantly reduce acts by 30 percent due to governmental response. Acid attacks are now punishable by death, imprisonment, and severe fines under the Acid Crime Control Act (ACCA) and the Acid Control Act (ACA). Further, laws are strictly enforced to restrict the sale and use of corrosive acid in addition to campaigns that are aimed to sensitize communities to acid-related violence.
According to Justice Nasira Iqbal, an expert on gender-based violence, the main problem lies in the fact that acid is extremely accessible to the public at large and that there is no prohibition on the sale of acid. The textile sector uses a lot of acid to grow cotton, which accounts for 10 percent of the GDP of the nation, and sales have proved hard to track. Because of its many applications, highly concentrated acid was also marketed to the general public without any restrictions. The chemical is also utilized as a multi-purpose disinfectant and cleaning agent.
Meanwhile, there continues to be significant but slow progress on laws pertaining to acid attack crimes. The National Assembly recognized the dangers of acid as a lethal weapon and in 2014 passed the Acid and Burn Crime Bill to regulate and restrict the sale of acid. The legislation had a positive impact, with acid attacks decreasing by 54.9 percent in 2015 as per the Acid Survivors Foundation. Another acid and burn crime bill was enacted in 2018 to offer free medical treatment and rehabilitation to acid attack survivors in Pakistan.
In a nutshell, although legislative progress has been made, much work needs to be done to properly protect possible victims from prospective acid attacks in the future. To effectively tackle acid crimes, one must comprehend the institutional, structural, and functional viewpoints that give rise to violence in the first place. The psychology of expanding fundamentalism, the institutionalization of patriarchy, and the psychology of feudalism all contribute to large-scale demographic imbalances and a general lack of interest in issues affecting marginalized communities.
If you want to submit your articles, research papers, and book reviews, please check the Submissions page.
The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.