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Acid attacks: “I couldn’t look at myself, let alone let others look at me”

Throwing acid, along with other forms of gender-based violence, is endemic in Pakistan and elsewhere. Often, the victims are already disenfranchised, poor, and from conservative backgrounds - they have nowhere else to turn.

Acid attack victim Asiya Bibe, 35, poses with a portrait before disfigurement
Acid attack victim Asiya Bibe, 35, poses with a portrait before her disfigurement. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Zainab was 12 when it happened. She was at home in her village in Bahawalpur, Pakistan, asleep in bed. Her neighbour’s son climbed over the low walls separating the houses, came into her room, and threw acid on her face.

“It felt like someone had put fire on me,” she says. “No-one could forget that pain. It stays all your life.”

Weeks earlier, the neighbour’s son had proposed to Zainab’s sister and been rejected. He was seeking revenge, but attacked the wrong sister.

Zainab, who is now 19, comes from a poor family, with little money or influence. Rather than go to the police, the family sought the help of their tribal elders, who brought the young man in question before them and demanded to know whether he had committed the crime. He swore on the Qur’an that he hadn’t, and given the potency of the religious book, was released.

“I was scared and I wanted to move,” says Zainab. “I didn’t want to stay there in case it happened again, but all the elders said ‘such things don’t happen all the time’. After exactly one year, he threw it again.”

After the first attack, Zainab had been blinded for two weeks, but eventually recovered, with her face mostly intact. The second time, she was not so lucky. Today, after multiple surgeries (she has lost count of how many operations she has had), her grafted skin is shiny and uneven in colour, in places crinkled like crepe paper. One eye, in which she is permanently blind, is frozen open. Just the corner of her face around the right eye has been left untouched. Her eyelashes are long, her cheekbone prominent; an image of a former self. For several years after the attack, she would only leave the house with a headscarf that covered her whole face except for that section.

“I couldn’t look at myself, let alone let others look at me,” she says. “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.”

What happened to Zainab was not unique. The Acid Survivors Network estimates that in Pakistan, around 150 women have acid thrown on them every year. The real number is likely to be higher as many cases still go unreported. The crime is made easy by the ready availability of acid, which is used in the cotton industry to treat the seeds, clean the fibres, and enhance germination. It is also used as a cheap cleaning fluid for machinery, or even in the house. In Pakistan, crimes are most prevalent in northern Sindh and southern Punjab, where the cotton is the dominant industry.

The Acid Survivor’s Foundation (ASF) is located in a large house in an up and coming area of Islamabad. The streets nearby are dotted with building sites as apartment buildings are erected. From the outside, there is little to distinguish it from other houses on the street, but as you enter, you must cover your shoes with plastic pouches, to prevent dirt from getting in. The centre provides accommodation for victims while they are having medical, legal, and psychological support.

“Acid violence is unfortunately an endemic phenomenon, as gender-based violence is,” says Valerie Khan, director of ASF, sitting in her office, in the downstairs portion of the house. “It’s not the most prevalent form of gender-based violence, but it’s one of the most horrific. The consequences of acid crimes are very specific, and very long-term. There is physical disfigurement, handicaps, social stigma, social ostracism, depression, and socio-economic disempowerment. And we are already talking about vulnerable people and communities.”

Acid attacks are not an exclusively Pakistani problem. Statistics for this underreported crime are difficult to collate, but attacks happen all over the world, from nearby India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, to Cambodia, Vietnam, and Colombia and Peru. Incidents have been recorded in the UK and the US, but they are predominantly found in countries where women are disenfranchised and where acid is easily available. Attention has focused on the Pakistani situation after Saving Face, a documentary on the topic, won an Oscar in 2012.

After tireless lobbying by ASF, other civil society organisations, and female parliamentarians, legislation was passed in 2010 that criminalised acid violence for the first time. Under these new laws, throwing a corrosive substance with the intent to disfigure carries a punishment of between 14 years and life, with fines of up to 1 million rupees. However, the battle is far from over.

“What we were not able to do was pass the substantive bill on acid control and acid throwing,” explains Shahnaz Wazir Ali, a parliamentarian who was active on the acid bill. “The bill fell prey to the fact that acid is produced in chemical factories for multiple industrial purposes. So any very rigorous control mechanism was objected to by the industrial sector. From our perspective, if acid is thrown on a woman, we want to trace it back: how did the person get the acid? But that takes you into this whole world of chemical industrial production. I hope that next parliament we’ll be able to do something.”

When a similarly comprehensive bill was introduced in Bangladesh, the number of acid crimes dropped from 500 per year to just 60. While campaigners continue to work for this further legislation, there have been some positive changes already. Reported incidents have gone up three fold, from 55 in 2010 to 150 in 2011. But prosecutions rates remain low, partly due to poor enforcement and weak governance across the board, but also because of misogynistic attitudes among police and judges, and poor access to justice. While convictions have tripled from 7 per cent in 2007 to 18 per cent in 2011, the rate remains very low.

The majority of women who are victims of acid attacks are already disenfranchised, poor, and from conservative backgrounds. With limited education and few resources in the face of rampant police corruption, they are left with nowhere to turn.  

Saida, 20, comes from a village in Aturk, a region in the far north of the country. She was married off very young, but although she says she loved her husband very much, it was not an easy marriage. “He used to leave me at my mother’s house or with other relatives and disappear for days,” she says, sitting in one of the room’s at ASF’s refuge. “My mother was angry I was going through this, she said it’s not how couples live.” In 2008, Saida’s family began to think about divorce. During a stay with her parents, the family went out to a wedding. Saida, knowing her husband was due back, decided to wait at home, excited to see him. “I was all dressed up, wearing make up and my good wedding clothes. He came back after 3am and with no explanation, he threw acid on me.”

The damage to her face was devastating. Even now, after multiple surgeries, her nose, partially dissolved in the attack, has lost its shape. Like other acid victims, her skin is burnt and uneven. Yet there is a lightness about Saida’s demeanour. She speaks quickly and energetically, and holds her head high.

Like Zainab, Saida’s first step was to go to her village elders, who did nothing. Her initial attempts to fight the case were hindered by her lack of education. “I am illiterate, I don’t know anything,” she says, smiling. “It was very, very hard to get through the process because people would make me sign things and I wouldn’t know what it said. I nearly signed a form saying I was dropping the case, when ASF’s field officer found me and told me what it said.”

After that, ASF’s lawyers took up the case. Saida’s husband was arrested and sentenced to 21 years in jail. Soon afterwards, the sentence was reduced to 14 years, and then to seven. Now, three and a half years later, he is free. He was also ordered to give Saida 22 lakhs of rupees (around £14,600) which was then reduced to 15 lakhs (around £10,000). He has yet to give her a penny.

“Initially I didn’t want to fight the case as I was scared that he would kill me,” she says, her feet nervously squirming. “But now I just have hatred for him. He is roaming around out of jail like a crazy fellow and he keeps threatening that he’ll do it again or do it to my family. I am too angry to be scared. I want him to realise he’s ruined my life. I am angry that nothing scares him. Jail didn’t affect him. He doesn’t realise he’s done something so extremely wrong.”

Zainab’s attempts at seeking justice were even less successful. After the second attack, Zainab’s family went to the police. “Nothing happened because the other family had big people on their side and they paid off the police,” she says, her voice a monotone. When she pursued the case, the neighbours kidnapped her younger brother and kept him for two days, so the family withdrew the charges. “Everyone knows it’s changed my life and I deserve justice. Something like this should happen to him or his children. It hurts a lot to see your child go through this. I’m someone’s child too.”

Of course, the legal battle is only part of the journey. Acid attacks leave women psychologically traumatised, disfigured, and frequently partially disabled, as the acid can cause muscles to fuse together painfully. The process of rehabilitation is slow, harrowing, and not readily available. Currently ASF is the only facility in the country catering specifically for victims of acid crimes.

“Acid attack doesn’t mean the end of your life,” says Khan. “Provided you receive those rehabilitation services, to psychologically and physically repair you, mentally rebuild your self-confidence, and empower you economically so that you can acquire new skills, start your education again, or find a job – despite the new you, which is not necessarily an easy one to be accepted with.”

Khan notes that as awareness of acid violence has increased, the level of basic first aid care provided at hospitals has improved, with doctors pouring a lot of water on the wounds to remove the acid and prevent infection and dehydration.

Saida, who was attacked back in 2008, did not benefit from this. At her local hospital in Aturk, the doctors had no idea what was wrong with her. “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,” she says. It was only when she was referred to ASF that she received proper treatment.

While medical and legal assistance are a crucial part of recovery, the psychological difficulty of coming to terms with such an attack can be practically insurmountable. Fauzia is the head nurse at ASF, who is tasked with the welfare of survivors. “When they come initially, they are depressed and crying all the time, they don’t want to talk to anyone, and they’d prefer to die,” she says, sitting next to a mini foosball table, recently bought to entertain patients. “The most important thing when an attack happens is how the person looks. So we take the patient to the doctor, which is beneficial because it gives the patients hope – you’re not going to look like this forever, we’ll keep working on you, and things will get better. They have psychological treatment alongside this. It’s a continuous process.”

There are many success stories, but also some women who cannot be rehabilitated and commit suicide. A high profile example of this was Fakhra Yunus, who killed herself in Rome last year after undergoing cosmetic surgery. The vast majority of victims have been attacked by someone within their family, and many continue to live with the perpetrator. For many, this is preferable to adding the stigma of divorce.

It has been four years since Zainab first received treatment at ASF. She speaks articulately and confidently, and glows with pride when she talks about travelling to Bangladesh to address a conference about acid crimes. Until the first attack, she attended school, but dropped out after it happened. Now, she says she has the confidence to return to studies.

“Whatever God has decided for me, whatever opportunities I get, I will take,” she says. “I want to go out there and step into the world and experience life like I deserve to, but it can be hard.”

She describes a recent incident, when she went to register for her ID card after turning 18. “The lady there kept asking what had happened to my face. I didn’t want to tell her about the acid because when I talk about it, the memories come back and it’s the pain all over again. I told her I got boiling water on it and she asked if I had done it myself.” As she is speaking, she starts to weep. After so much effort to put her life back together, the small humiliations are still hard to bear. “I got really depressed that people are so inconsiderate,” she says. “They should let me live my life normally.”

Zainab is full of hope for her future, and relieved that she still has the vision in one eye. Saida feels it is too late to get an education, but has done some training as a seamstress and wants to start a tailoring business from her house. In other ways, too, the process of recovery has left her empowered. Not only is she pursuing the legal case against her husband, but after receiving proper treatment, she went back to the hospital that had mistreated her and told them they should learn to do their jobs properly. For a woman from a background so conservative that she did not leave the house alone even before the attack, this is quite an achievement.

“Initially, I used to cry and I used to scream, but now, truly in my heart, I don’t think I’m ugly,” says Saida. “I feel that I’m beautiful and I don’t think I have anything to fear.”