“I couldn’t look at myself, let alone let others look at me,” said Zainab. “I didn’t see my own face in the mirror for a long time. I thought that no-one would ever talk to me again.”
Now 19, she was just 12 when her neighbour snuck into her house at night and threw acid on her face. He was angry that his marriage proposal to Zainab’s sister had been rejected and wanted to punish her, but got the wrong girl. They lived in a small village in Bahawalpur, rural Pakistan, with little access to healthcare or justice. The attacker is still walking free.
Zainab is permanently blind in one eye, her face – operated on so many times she has lost count – a patchwork of skin grafts. “It’s changed my life and I deserve justice,” she told me, quietly furious. With the help of the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) in Islamabad, the only centre in the country dedicated to helping victims of acid violence, Zainab has been given the medical and psychological treatment needed to start rebuilding her life.
Acid attacks are a particularly brutal form of gender based violence. The Acid Survivors Trust International says that around 1,500 cases are recorded around the world every year – but that figure is likely to be a gross under representation given that many crimes go unreported. Attacks are prevalent in South Asia – Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Nepal – but also happen in Cambodia, Vietnam, Colombia, Peru, and elsewhere. Incidents have also been reported in the UK and the US
Of course, like any other form of gender-based or domestic violence, acid violence is largely about exerting control. In India and Pakistan, acid can be bought for as little at 30 cents, but can destroy a life in a matter of seconds.
In Pakistan, Valerie Khan, ASF's director, says around 150 incidents are reported every year. “It’s not the most prevalent form of gender-based violence, but it’s one of the most horrific.” Mohammad Jawad, a plastic surgeon who appeared in the Oscar winning documentary Saving Face which explored acid violence in Pakistan, suggests the crime is about deleting identity. "The attacker is saying: 'I don't want to kill her, I am going to do something to distort her.' It's a walking dead situation for the victim and often a grey area in the eyes of the law."
The crime is most common in countries where women are disenfranchised and where acid is available. Campaigners and victims agree that legal changes are the first step on the road to stamping out this brutal practice. In South Asia, Bangladesh has led the way, introducing a comprehensive bill in 2002 that carried strict penalties for acid attacks – ranging from 7 years imprisonment to death, depending on the severity of the attack. It also strictly controlled the sale, use, storage, and international trade of acids. These laws have been highly effective; the number of cases annually recorded in Bangladesh has dropped from 500 per year in 2002 to just 60.
In Pakistan, legislation specifically criminalising acid violence was introduced in 2010. Under the new laws, throwing a corrosive substance with the intent to disfigure carries a punishment of between 14 years and life imprisonment, as well as fines of up to 1 million rupees. But parliament stopped short of restricting the availability of acid. Shahnaz Wazir Ali, a parliamentarian who was involved in the reforms, said “The bill fell prey to the fact that acid is produced in chemical factories for multiple industrial purposes....That takes you into this whole world of chemical industrial production.” While this increasing awareness of the crime has meant that the number of reported attacks has gone up threefold, prosecution rates in Pakistan remain low. Conviction rates languished at just 18 per cent in 2011; even so, this was an improvement from 7 per cent in 2007.
India has dragged behind its neighbours in tackling acid violence, despite the fact that the crime happens far more frequently. No official data exists, but the campaign organisation Stop Acid Attacks says that at least two or three cases are reported in the media every week. It was only in March 2013 that the government passed a law that classified acid attacks as a separate crime; before it was classed within the category of aggravated assault.
The new law carries a sentence of between 10 years and life for acid attacks. It was partly triggered by the global furore over violence towards women in India that followed the gang rape and subsequent death of a student in Delhi in 2012. This July, India’s Supreme Court admonished the government for not doing enough to address acid violence, saying that “Girls are being attacked every day in different parts of the country.” The court was hearing a plea filed in 2006 by acid attack victim, Laxmi Aggarwal, who was seeking a new law as well as compensation.
The court ordered the government to restrict over-the-counter sales of acid, so that only over-18s who provide ID and a valid reason for purchase can buy acids like hydrochloric, sulfuric and nitric. It also ruled that the government should pay $6,000 to each survivor within 15 days of the attack, to put towards preliminary medical care.
Preliminary medical care can make a huge difference. At the ASF house in Islamabad, Saida described how her husband had thrown acid on her face five years earlier. She comes from a rural area in northern Pakistan, and endured a horrific ordeal at her local hospital, where doctors had not known how to treat her wounds. Saida said, “I was very swollen and I didn’t get the correct treatment because no-one realised what had happened. The wounds smelled because the skin was burning, so they kept moving my bed outside the ward.”
Effective early treatment – including pouring copious amounts of water on the wounds to flush out as much acid as possible – can make all the difference. Acid attack does not just cause disfigurement, but intense physical pain. It can also result in physical disability, as the acid can cause muscles to fuse painfully together. All the victims I spoke to in Islamabad spoke of the extremity of the physical suffering. Zainab said, “No-one could forget that pain. It stays with you all your life.”
What is striking about acid attacks, given the brutality of the crime, is how common the causes that lie behind the crime tend to be: jilted lovers or rejected suitors, petty quarrels, family disagreements, a husband deciding he doesn’t want his wife any more.
Acid survivors in India are only just coming into the limelight. Laxmi told the Wall Street Journal that lifting the veil she has hidden behind for eight years was a liberating moment: "I now realise that hiding my face is the same as staying silent."
When I met Zainab, she was riding high after a recent trip to Bangladesh where she had addressed a conference on acid violence, she told me “Initially, I used to cry and I used to scream, but now, truly in my heart, I don’t think I’m ugly, Now I feel that I’m beautiful and I don’t think I have anything to fear.”