Pakistan: Acid attacks are on the rise

Women Without Borders

Last week, three Pakistani sisters, age 20, 16, and 14, had their lives irrevocably changed. As they walked from Kalat city to Pandarani village in the Baluchistan province, two motorcyclists threw acid on them, causing severe burns over their faces and bodies. Two weeks earlier, two sisters in the same province suffered the same attack—and they are only 11 and 13 years old. Their crimes? Not wearing hijabs and traveling unaccompanied by men. The Baloch Ghaeratmand Group, which was until recently unknown in the province, circulated a pamphlet in April that warned, “Acid will be thrown on the faces of women and girls who step out of their houses without covering their faces… People who fail to comply with these orders will themselves be responsible for the consequences.” 

Five victims in three weeks in one province of Pakistan: you could consider these attacks commonplace. Their attackers will probably not face punishment for their actions. And what can the victims’ families do? What steps can the townspeople in this region take to prevent further attacks? The police claim not to know who is in the Baloch Ghaeratmand Group, and they do not know if the attackers were affiliated with the group. These five young women and girls will suffer from the physical and psychological effects of these attacks for the rest of their lives, and the towns and villages in this area will be subdued by the threat of violence, knowing that there is no way to prevent or deter these attacks from happening again. 

This is violent extremism at its most insidious: controlling communities and individuals in the name of a radical ideology through the threat of violence. And as with all extremist groups, ideology is just an excuse to seize power through inhuman actions—to commit acts that defy even the most basic urges towards fellow feeling, and to do so in the name of an abstract principle that cannot be held accountable. 

If the victim survives, the effects of acid attacks are life-changing. Acid burns through eyes, skin tissue, and bone. Usually, the victims are left blind and with permanent scar tissue. Their bones are often fused together—jawbones sealed tight, chins locked to chests, hands left permanently contorted in the position they held as they tried to deflect the splash. The psychological scars are even worse. Depression, anxiety, shame—these would be part of the emotional aftermath of any scarring injury, but victims of acid attacks are also often ostracized by their communities and even held responsible for incurring the attack they suffered. When the victims are married, their children are forced to assume their mother’s caretaker roles, and if the husband leaves, they have to shoulder the heavy burden of caring for the family as well. If the victims are not married, they face a lifetime of dependency on the charity of their parents and community and continued vulnerability to further attacks. Women who are lucky enough to have money may be able to afford a series of operations that would incrementally replace skin on their face, restore partial sight in an eye, or realign bones fused together. Women without money can hope to make the most of what the acid does not burn. With or without surgery, the victim of an acid attack will never look the way she did the day before the attack—that woman is gone forever. 

The five women attacked in Baluchistan are only a small sample of a problem that is widespread throughout South Asia and growing. Pakistan’s acid attacks are mirrored by similar attacks in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and India, and in recent years even in areas where acid attacks have not been seen before, including Hong Kong, China, and the United Kingdom. The attackers often cite political or religious grounds for their actions—defying sharia or tribal law, attending school, not wearing a headscarf, leaving the house unaccompanied by a man, suspicion of adultery or immorality—but the attacks are just as often grounded in petty vengeance. 22 year old Manzoor Attiqa, also from Pakistan, was attacked by her in-laws when she did not wash the dishes. 13 year old Naila Farhat had acid thrown in her face by a rejected suitor and his friend, her science teacher at school. Haseena Husain, from India, had two liters of acid dumped over her body by her boss when she refused his marriage proposal. 

Acid attacks are devastating for individuals, but their effects on communities and societies are crippling for all women. How can women start businesses when walking unaccompanied down a road can warrant a random attack by a stranger? How can they advocate for suffrage, equal rights, or protection from domestic violence when any dissenter can silence them through violence? How can women care for their families when access to education or medical care is limited by fear of reprisal? What will happen to the next generation, when all they see is lawlessness, violence, fear? What kind of adults will they grow up to be? 

The prevalence of acid attacks is a danger to the whole world. In societies where violence rules, violence will increase and spread beyond those boundaries. If countries cannot offer the next generation any hope for a future in which education or industry can lead to a job, a home, and a family, even the best minds will be transformed by frustration and anger. Only extremist groups will be able to offer security or upward mobility, and women will continue to suffer the consequences. 

04. May 2010