Acid Crimes: A Growing Crisis in Pakistan
October 1, 2014
Acid crimes have long been recognized as one of the most horrendous manifestations of gender-based violence, directed largely at women, who account for an overwhelming 80 percent of all cases globally. In a country like Pakistan, where conservative ideals and deeply rooted patriarchal structures have shaped its psyche and social fabric, acid crimes continue to have a predominantly female face.
A 2011 Thomson Reuters Foundation poll ranked Pakistan as the third most dangerous country in the world for women due to the abysmally high prevalence of violence, rape, and honor killings. Citing archaic tribal traditions and growing trends in religious extremism, the poll found that 90 percent of Pakistani women face domestic violence at some point in their lives. Clearly, there is no denying that Pakistan faces a problem of pervasive violence against women. However, a new trend – a disturbing rise in acid crimes against men and children – is changing the narrative about violence in Pakistan.
According to the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), a Pakistani non-profit organization working to eradicate acid violence, men and children now constitute up to 40 percent of all acid crimes in Pakistan. For women, these assaults are often retribution for spurned sexual advances and marriage proposals, insufficient dowry, demands for divorce, or any range of “dishonorable” offences. For perpetrators, the intent is particularly sadistic and malicious – to maim permanently, consequently leading to lifelong physical disabilities, ostracism, severe psychological distress, and economic dependency for survivors. On the other hand, according to ASF, acid attacks on men are usually linked with property disputes, professional jealousies, religious discrimination, or revenge for domestic violence by spouse or relatives. Targeted attacks on individual children usually stem from their rejection of sexual advances by those in a position of authority. In general, most attacks on children happen when other family members are being targeted and a child is present and also attacked.
Approximately 200 acid attacks occur in Pakistan annually, and the number of reported cases has increased since last year, according to ASF. It remains unclear whether this rise in reported acid crimes reflects greater prevalence of gender-based violence overall or improved community level awareness of reporting domestic violence. Although no longer considered exclusively a “crime of passion,” acid attacks must be viewed from wider social, economic, and political dimensions. A strong determining factor, for example, is the survivor’s socioeconomic status. A majority of sufferers are poor and illiterate, usually landless peasants, living in abject poverty, with no access to justice, quality education, clean drinking water, or basic healthcare. More than half of all acid crimes arise in South Punjab, an agricultural area commonly referred to as the “cotton belt,” historically marred by low socioeconomic indicators and where acid is readily available in local markets and often used to clean cotton.
It is within this context of poverty, poor governance, and inequality that many violent crimes, including acid attacks, continue. In 2011, the government of Pakistan passed the landmark Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill which provides harsh fines and life imprisonment for offenders. Since it came into effect, ASF reported that the conviction rate jumped threefold from 6 to 18 percent in 2012. However, much more needs to be done. Effectively combating acid crimes requires understanding the structural, institutional, and functional perspectives that lead to the violence in the first place. The psychology of feudalism, institutionalization of patriarchy, and religious distortion arising from growing fundamentalism produces wide disparities among populations and general indifference to issues concerning vulnerable groups. Gender-based violence and crimes against weaker populations have gained little political interest among powerful elites. Within a composite of ineffective legislation on domestic violence, absence of strict regulatory provisions to control acid sales, limited investments in the treatment and medical care of burn survivors, combined with lack of awareness of fundamental rights and weak political will to persecute perpetrators, acid crimes continue and a system of impunity goes on.
Bangladesh, which had one of the highest rates of acid crimes in the world, has reduced acid attacks by nearly 30 percent as a result of the government’s response to tackling acid crimes. Through the Acid Crime Control Act (ACCA) and the Acid Control Act (ACA), acid attacks are now punishable by death, imprisonment, and severe fines depending on the nature of the crime, while strict laws are enforced in curbing the sale and usage of corrosive acid. Mass awareness campaigns have been carried out at the local level to sensitize communities on acid-related violence.
In Pakistan, to stem the tide of acid crimes, what’s required is a more concerted, holistic approach which involves the review of gaps in existing legislation, promotion and protection of fundamental rights, prevention of gender-based violence through effective legislation, community mobilization, and accountability to ensure perpetrators are prosecuted.
Under the Gender Equity Program (GEP), The Asia Foundation and the Aurat Foundation support ASF in improving the quality of their services with respect to the physical, medical, psychological, legal and emotional needs of the survivors of acid violence seeking rehabilitation. ASF-Pak provides medical, psychosocial, and legal support to the survivors of acid attacks to ensure physical reconstruction and reintegration into mainstream society. GEP provided 50 acid violence survivors and accompanying children with free advanced medical care, boarding, lodging, legal and psycho-social counseling, and protection. Read more about ASF.
Ameena Ilahi is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Pakistan. She can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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