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Acid Violence: Laws must meet action

Publication Date : 31-07-2014

 

Strong enforcement of legislation is vital to address the rising number of acid attacks on women in Pakistan

 

Last week, two teenage sisters suffered burn injuries on the face and neck when masked men sprayed acid on them in Mastung. The victims were randomly targeted while shopping for Eid. Police suspected militants to be behind those attacks.

Today, another six women were injured in an acid attack in Balochistan's Pishin region. However, the deputy commissioner Pishin termed this acid attack to be the result of an old enmity.

These attacks in Balochistan are highly disturbing given that women are being increasingly assaulted for a variety of reasons from personal enmity to random targeting; a harsh reminder of the deep-rooted misogyny in society.

In 2012, when Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy released her Oscar-winning documentary ‘Saving Face’ on acid survivors in Pakistan, there was a huge uproar and the nation seemed to have sprung into action.

“As a filmmaker, our job is to start difficult conversations and I think we succeeded in that,” she says, adding that stories on acid violence that used to be published in a couple of lines inside the paper started  being printed on the front page.

But the recent modus operandi used in Balochistan for attacking women with acid indicates that public and political conviction on the issue has dampened.

Still, the situation is not completely out-of-control.

There has undoubtedly been and continues to be undertaken commendable effort toward criminalising the inhuman act of burning another person's flesh, but clearly more needs to be done to prevent further incidents.

Chairperson for the Acid Survivors Foundation, Valerie Khan-Yusufzai says there are strong indications that the implementation of the 2011 law on acid attacks is gradually improving.

Using statistics to support her claim, Khan-Yusfuzai says: “In 2012, only one per cent of the first information reports were registered under this law. In 2013, that percentage rose to 71.”

This is indicative not just of the awareness of laws but also that more people are coming forth and reporting it, she says.

“In 2013, the level of prosecution for cases of acid attacks was 35 per cent, whereas to date in 2014, it stands at 55 per cent,” says Khan-Yusfuzai.

“We also need to look at the trend in terms of conviction — the average conviction was about six years of imprisonment in 2007 whereas now it is between 14 to 20 years. Very often they get 25 years of imprisonment.”

Laws useless if not implemented

Acid violence is by no definition a minor issue and it is one thing to criminalise the act and another to work towards its prevention.

The legal framework needs to be geared towards prevention in order to further improve its implementation.

Resident director for Aurat Foundation Mahnaz Rahman says, “At the time the law was being drafted we had brought up the issue of easy access to acid and this remains one of our core concerns.”

Tightening up acid sale

Rahman suggests a licensing mechanism be devised for the sale of acid restricting its purchase and for what purpose.

Vice chairperson for the Human Rights Commission Pakistan (HRCP) in Sindh, Asad Iqbal Butt, seconds Rahman’s demand.

“Acid is very easily available and therefore people have started using it very liberally in such attacks,” he says.

Speedier prosecution

The delay in the deliverance of justice is another area of concern Rahman points out. She recommends fast-tracking courts for all cases of violence against women.

According to her the speedy processing of cases will serve as a strong deterrent.

“Men just want to shut women into their homes and completely cut off their mobility. When the perpetrators know they will have to serve a stiff penalty and the judicial process will take weeks and months and not years and decades, it will help in deterring from acts of violence.”

Adding to this, HRCP’s Asad Iqbal Butt says that ownership needs to be taken from the lowest to the top most level, if Pakistan is serious about stopping acid violence.

A private bill submitted by Minister for Culture and Tourism Sharmila Faruqui in 2013 is yet to be presented in the Assembly.

Speaking to Dawn.com regarding it’s status she says, “The bill had to be cleared from several departments, including the Department of Finance as it contains facilitation and rehabilitation for the survivors. It also requires clearance from the Social Welfare Department. I hope that it will be tabled in the Assembly in the next session, which is in August.”

Tough law sees acid conviction rate triple in Pakistan

In June this year, Asma Bokhari submitted a similar bill in the Punjab Assembly. Prior to that, acid violence had been taken under the legal purview of the Anti-Terrorism courts, which helped in expediting deliverance of justice. Southern Punjab happens to have the highest incidence of acid attacks in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, work is in progress in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but the draft for the bill is yet to be finalised and Balochistan, where the latest acid attacks have created public terror, have nothing to show in this regard.

Provincial laws are not always required when federal ones are present, as in the case of the acid violence law, which was a criminal amendment in 2011. However, Supreme Court lawyer Hina Jelani explains how in this instance, provincial legal support for the federal amendment will prove beneficial.

“When a federal law is present and the provinces pass their own laws they are more like ‘rules’. This is essentially useful for implementation that involves different mechanisms or special instructions e.g. for investigations.

"The enforcement of the law is not dependent on the ‘rules’ but it does make the implementation more effective.”

 

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