By Azam Khan
KARACHI: Sidrah Kanwal’s scars run deeper than her skin.
“I cry all the time. This tragedy has distanced me from my beloved son,” says the 20-year-old victim of a brutal acid attack. Unable to recognise her, Sidra’s three-year old son Ayan refused to live with her after he saw her disfigured face. “He ran away and refused to talk to me. He seemed afraid of even looking at me. I have been stripped of my identity,” she weeps as she recalls the events of the day she lost everything.
Sidrah was married to an addict at the age of 15. Three years and a son of the same age later, she opted for separation. Five months ago, a local vendor Arsalan, 22, proposed to her.
Early one morning, Sidrah was on her way to a garment factory in Rasheedabad area of Baldia Town, where she worked for Rs8,000 a month with her younger sister when Arsalan started following them. Sitting next to Sidrah, her mother Kaniza says this is not the first time Arsalan had approached her. “I told him politely that I cannot accept his marriage proposal because I cannot leave my family alone,” Sidra shares, adding she asked him to not block her way. Arsalan had, however, other plans. He showed her the bottle of acid he was carrying, threatening to commit suicide if he was jilted. But failing to convince Sidrah, he threw the acid on her face. “I felt severe pain. My heart stopped beating and I couldn’t breathe.” Following the attack, Sidrah and her sister started screaming for help. Locals then rushed to the spot and handed Arsalan over to the police. They also helped Sidrah’s sister in shifting her to a government-run hospital, where doctors cited a lengthy legal procedure to initiate treatment. Police, on the other hand, took two days to register an FIR, says Sidrah.
Doctors told Sidrah to stay in an air-conditioned room because her condition would deteriorate further in higher temperatures. They also referred her to a private hospital where doctors said they would need to operate on her face at least four times for reconstructive surgery. Each operation would cost Rs70,000. For Sidrah’s family of seven sisters and their mother, this sounded the death knell. After the demise of her father, Sidrah was the only breadwinner for the three sisters who lived with their mother in a small, two-room mud house in Baldia Town. And despite extensive media coverage of the incident, no one from the government approached them for help.Arsalan, meanwhile, faces a lengthy trial. His family is pursuing Sidrah for settlement outside the court. “Arsalan’s family members can target us as there is no man in our house to protect us,” fears Sidrah.
Many women like Sidrah have a similar tales to tell. In 2015, 40 cases of acid attacks were reported, leaving 61 people maimed. According to NGO Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) Pakistan, 501 cases of acid attacks with 653 victims have been reported during the last five years. An analysis conducted by ASF claims women between the ages of 17 and 30 are most at risk, although a significant number of men and children below the age of 17 have also fallen victim to acid attacks. Experts say legal lacunas in the existing acid crime legislation are the main reason for such incidents. In late 2011, the Senate passed the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill, in what was seen as a landmark decision to ensure greater social protection for women.However, the director of NGO Aurat Foundation’s Karachi chapter, Mahnaz Rehman, says there is no ban on the open sale and purchase of acid, which can be procured for just Rs60 per kilogramme.
Malka Khan, a human rights activist assisting Sidrah’s family, says the primary responsibility of authorities should be to provide protection to the victim and her family. “There is no official policy regarding such victims’ rehabilitation and free treatment,” she adds. The chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women, a government gender equality lobbying body, Khawar Mumtaz, says the commission has proposed a legislation draft, adding the government’s final approval of the bill is awaited. Yet, without effective implementation, there is little hope that new legislation will alter the fate of women like Sidrah who only have hope to hang on to.