By Aamir Saeed –
Sharmeen’s Saving Face may have put the issue in the spotlight but the society and legislators have done little to aid the victims
Even though tougher penalties were introduced in December last year for acid attack convictions, cases continue to rise in most areas. An Oscar-winning documentary may have put the crime under the spotlight, but little has changed on the
ground.It is estimated that more than 150 women become acid victims each year with majority of the cases occurring in South Punjab. However, only a few cases are prosecuted with victims getting justice — Naila Farhat is one of them. She also features fleetingly in the Saving Face, a 40-minute film on victims of acid attacks.
The cherub-faced 13-year-old was returning home from school on 14 August 2003, when she was intercepted by one of his school teachers and his friend. “I was shocked to see my teacher and his friend blocking my way so audaciously,” Naila recounts. She identifies his teacher as Mazhar Iqbal and his friend as Irshad Hussain. One of them was also carrying a 1.5 litre bottle in his hand but little Naila failed to understand their motive.
After a heated exchange, Irshad Hussain flung the sulphuric acid at Naila and fled. “It felt like someone had lobbed fire at me. My whole body was burning like a dry piece of wood and there was nobody around to help me.” Naila lost her left eye while her face, torso and legs seared away.
Elaborating the incident, she says Irshad Hussain wanted to marry her and he also sent some of his relatives to Naila’s home to seek her hand. However, Naila’s parents refused the match for Hussain, who hailed from a different caste. Naila’s family is Punjabi while Irshad comes from a Seraiki clan.
“My school teacher would harass me following the refusal and often coax me in the classroom to elope with his friend. I told my parents about the whole matter but they didn’t pay much attention thinking things would eventually settle down.”
Poverty may have been a factor in why Naila’s parents did not take on the perpetrators. The victim’s father runs a small hotel in Chabara, a small village in Layyah district, and earns little to make both ends meet. However, he was left with no option but to lodge an FIR against the culprits at Chabara police station after the incident.
“I am proud of my father for standing up to the culprits despite pressure from Chaudhrys and Maliks of the village. The courage of my father also gave me strength to start a new life.” There is no official department to record acid attacks, but the Acid Survivors Foundation, an advocacy group for victims, not only documents the cases but also provides free medical and legal aid to victims.
As many as 730 cases have been registered with the foundation from 2007 to 2011. The available statistics reveal that a total of 43 cases were reported in 2009, 55 in 2010 and 150 in 2011. “The sharp escalation in the number of cases doesn’t necessarily mean the crime rate has gone up. Rather, awareness about the crime has improved with the passage of time and the media has also played a vital role in highlighting the crime,” says Mohammad Khan, the foundation’s executive director.
Thanks to the foundation’s efforts, a law was enacted in December last year to curb the crime. Under the law, a criminal may be awarded anywhere between 14 years in jail to lifetime imprisonment, and a fine of up to one million rupees.
The law also declares the crime as non-compoundable and non-reconcilable once the FIR is registered. And yet every week, cases of acid attacks are reported in the media. “Ours is a patriarchal society where women are often treated like chattel. There is a need to change the mindset of men and introduce tougher laws to check the crime,” Khan says. “The justice system also has some loopholes and only a few perpetrators are convicted.”
After the passage of 18th constitutional amendment, the provinces are responsible for legislating on crime. The Acid Survivors Foundation is now pushing the provincial lawmakers to pass a comprehensive ‘Acid and Burn Crime Bill’ but it appears there is little will to legislate.
The foundation has handed over the draft bill to Punjab Assembly legislators for perusal and get it passed from the House. Shaikh Allauddin, an MPA from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, says the legislation will take time as it isn’t an easy task. “I have yet to arrange a meeting with the law secretary to discuss the draft and it may take months to table it in the assembly.”
The indifference of the legislators notwithstanding, Naila Farhat is an exception in that she did get justice. The Supreme Court of Pakistan awarded the criminal (Irshad Hussain) 12 years and three-month imprisonment with Rs1.2 million fine for the crime. Naila remains tenacious and after a lapse of more than eight years, she has undertaken her matriculation examination this year. “I want to be a lawyer. I’ll continue to fight to achieve my goals despite the odds.” Naila has also undergone a slew of facial surgeries with the help of ASF.
A plastic surgeon, Dr Hamid Hassan who has been treating Naila, says a team of surgeons is engaged with the victim and they are hopeful she would regain some of the old glow after a few more surgeries.
However, he was candid about the limitations. “Surgeries can’t match Allah’s creation, nor can surgeons reconstruct the original features. We put in our best to get the victims integrated in social life again and thank God, we have succeeded in our mission up to a great extent.”
Dr Hamid and his team have carried out more than 600 surgeries so far on hundreds of acid and burn victims. “It is a complicated and prolonged process as we have to carry out multiple surgeries on a single patient to get the smile back on one’s face.”
All the surgeries are carried out free of cost as these are funded by philanthropists and ASF. The doctor claims that his hospital has all the needed equipment and expertise for the purpose. “A delegation of surgeons from abroad also visits the hospital annually to carry out surgeries on acid survivors. The foreign surgeons appreciate our expertise and skills to deal with the acid and burn victims.”
The scars inflicted by acid have also won Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy an Oscar for the documentary Saving Face. However, the film has not been screened in Pakistan as some survivors fear reprisals if the film is broadcast.
The Acid Survivors Foundation has also filed a petition in the Supreme Court on behalf of six acid survivors pleading that the film should not be screened in the country. “My lawyer has barred me from talking to the media as the case of Saving Face issub judice. I’ll speak on the issue once the case is disposed,” says Obaid-Chinoy told Pique.
On the other hand, Marvi Memon, now a member of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, who was one of the main campaigners of the new law, says the crime can be checked effectively if the law is implemented in letter and spirit. “It is unfortunate that most of the acid attackers still get away with the crime thanks to political patronage. We will have to plug loopholes at different levels to ensure strict punishment to culprits and curb the despicable crime.
The writer is a crime reporter based in Islamabad