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Acid throwing and crimes against women

By: Atle Hetland

I like to make films that are controversial,” Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy said at a large panel discussion organised by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) on Tuesday this week. She was honoured for her Oscar-winning film, Saving Face, by the research and intellectual community gathered in the elegant auditorium at HEC in Islamabad. The room was packed with hundreds of senior academics, students, NGO leaders, diplomats and others. HEC had also connected about 70 of the country’s universities through modern video conferencing. It was an important way for Pakistan’s intellectual community to say that acid throwing is unacceptable; it is madness and intolerable. HEC’s Chairman Dr Javaid Laghari, Executive Director Dr Sohail Naqvi, Deputy Director Dr Noor Amna, and others addressed the audience. HEC has again shown great leadership in organising such a conference. One of the fields HEC is encouraging universities to focus on is the building of better university-community linkages, and that is indeed important in the field of crimes against women.

The conference I attended this week was moderated by Dr Marilyn Wyatt from USAID. She did it very well. Generally, though, I do not like that foreigners’ take on such tasks, remembering, too, that she is the American Ambassador’s wife. When she – and I – express opinions on issues like acid throwing, we can easily be seen as ‘Besserwissers’, persons who think we know better, and have the right to point a finger. Yet, when it comes to acid throwing, maybe I will surrender my principle. I think anybody, foreigners and locals, men and women, should speak up about such a barbaric, un-Islamic, un-Christian and horrendous tradition.

The physical scars and the psychological trauma caused to the victims of acid throwing are horrendous. Normally, it takes at least two years to treat a patient after the tragedy, restoring her physical scars to the extent possible through numerous operations, and helping her psychologically to come back to life. A psychiatrist at the mentioned conference, who is a specialist in burns and acid medicine, explained that when she first began working in the field, she had to go for psychiatric treatment herself. The patient herself suffers much more, we should remember, than the doctor.

Although we need to change our mindset about acid throwing, the suffering of the victim, we should also give attention to the psychology of the perpetrator. In order to make society change, it is important to “name and shame”. Acid throwing is a cowardly act, overwhelmingly carried out by men against women. Once this terrible tradition is made socially unacceptable, then we will see a reduced prevalence and eventually an end to it.

Similarly, with the numerous forms of sexual crimes against women and children, society must make them unacceptable. We still allow many crimes to take place. We may simply say that it is “normal” that women and children are abused. Take, for example, wife battering, which is so widespread in all cultures, and rape within marriage. We may turn away, not wanting to see that these crimes are frequent. When sexual abuse of children takes place, and keeps going on, family members, neighbours, teachers and others in the local community, are usually aware of it, or suspecting it. But they let it pass quietly, almost as “normal”. But it isn’t. They are terrible crimes.

There is a need for applying “critical anthropology”. We should never condone such practices as acid throwing and other crimes against women. We must not excuse them, pretend that they are based on cultural traditions, and therefore it is all right only to be half-heartedly against them. The same goes for female circumcision, or female genital mutilation to use the correct term, which is practiced in many African countries until this very day. It is a cruel and terrible tradition. That, too, like acid throwing has to do with men’s dominance over women. It has to do with power. Hence, it is only somebody who feels superior who can do it to somebody he and society consider inferior. Or, in rare cases, a woman can throw acid on her father-in-law, if he has abused and maltreated her for years and decades. Then, in despair, it may be done against somebody who enjoys higher rank.

There are about 200 registered acid crime cases in Pakistan every year, with women constituting more than two-thirds, while the other cases are against men and boys, usually related to refusal of forced sexual favours or marriage arrangements. Almost all perpetrators of the crimes are men. Acid throwing is more common in southern Punjab and northern Sindh, but it also happens elsewhere in the country.

Once the registering of cases becomes better, we will discover the true number and locations of the crimes. At the same time, it is likely that the number of cases decreases with more information in society. In Bangladesh, a country with similar cultural and religious settings to Pakistan, the number first rose with better registration. But then as awareness rose, over a couple of decades, the government and activists could document success: the number of known cases has gone down from 500 to 100 per year.

Advocacy through civil society organisations is important to create awareness. NGOs do a good job in this field, as well as in providing advice and organising direct support programmes for victims. Over time, though, it is very important that NGOs realise that in the long run it is the government that must be in charge. It is actually only the government, through its presence at all levels, that the malady of acid throwing and other crimes against women can be eradicated.

The police are at all levels of a society, but there is a need to improve the training of policemen and women about gender-based violence in general, including acid throwing. The new Acid Prevention Act 2011 is an amendment to the existing laws, redefining the acid crime and increasing the punishment. The next steps would be to develop a more comprehensive legislation. Today, many cases are not pursued in the court, as it is costly for the victims, who also face huge medical expenses. The government and NGOs should find ways of assisting victims financially.

Many speakers in the interactive conference I attended this week about Sharmeen’s award-winning film were students, teachers and researchers. The students should be encouraged to follow up the issues because they would be the main persons to implement the future changes and developing a society without acid cases and other serious crimes against women. At the conference, which inspired me to write this article, one of the speakers suggested that students should ask for meetings with MNAs and MPAs to keep up the pressure on them and to create greater awareness among them and pass better laws. I think that was a good suggestion.

As always when we want change to take place, we turn to the media, especially radio and TV. Yet, since advertisements are necessary to make programmes, and give the owners of stations profit, serious and sad programmes about acid victims may not attract the required advertising. But I believe that simple call-in programmes on the radio could be popular, taking up acid throwing and other crimes against women, and incidentally, some men.

Educational and research institutions, from school level to university must be involved in improving the situation. At the recent conference, I was very pleased to hear that the Chair of the Vice Chancellors’ Committee, Prof Imtiaz Gilani, University of Engineering and Technology (UET), Peshawar, outright invited NGOs and other experts to contact the academics to develop educational courses and projects together.

Sharmeen’s Saving Face will soon be screened in Pakistan, with subtitles in Urdu and regional languages. Although the stories of acid throwing find their way into the media, we often fail to see the suffering of the victims who survive the attacks. Storytelling through film is a powerful tool to create awareness and help change attitudes. The most basic change is simply to realise that the victim was never responsible for what happened to her. Acid throwing is a crime against women, and it is also a crime against God, as we should protect and cherish his creation.

n The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.

The Nation