Pakistan: Women Intensify Push to Pass Law Against Acid Attacks


Almost seven years after Naila Farhat, 20, became another victim of an acid throwing attack by a spurned suitor, she is finally seeing more vigorous efforts toward the passage of a law seeking to amend existing legislation to reinforce protection of women against violent assaults. Farhat is the first to admit, though, that beneath her physical scars is a smoldering anger that refuses to be pacified until she has exacted vengeance against her violators. 

I want him to be doused in acid so he can feel not just the searing pain but live with disfigurement day after day, for the rest of his life," she said of her main assailant over telephone from Layyah, a town in the southern part of Punjab province. 

Yasmeen Rehman, advisor to the prime minister on women’s development and a legislator, told IPS that the Ministry of Women Development (MoWD) was doing further research on a draft law against acid attacks. 

"It is seeking help from the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) and the United Nations Development Fund for Women, she said. 

The ASF, in turn, is getting assistance from its parent organisation in Britain and Cornell Law School in the United States, said Sana Masood, a lawyer working with the Foundation, which provides medical, psychosocial, socioeconomic and legal aid to acid survivors. "We are currently involved in extensive research to help the MoWD in coming up with another bill," she revealed 

"Realistically speaking, I should say we will be able to present it in the (legislative) assembly by July," said Rehman 

In November 2009, six years after Farhat filed a case against her perpetrators – a tailor and her elementary science teacher, who acted as an accomplice – Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhary urged the government to pass a new law that would restrict the sale of industrial strength acid and increase the punishment for acid attacks. 

This came with his landmark verdict upholding the original lower court ruling sentencing Farhat’s violators to 12 years in prison and ordering them to pay 1.25 million rupees (about 14,775 dollars) in damages. 

Chaudhary also announced that the government would shoulder the cost of her healthcare and educational needs. 

Farhat said she decided to bring her case to the Supreme Court late last year after the lower courts released one of her assailants, her former teacher, and lowered the prime perpetrator’s sentence to four years and his fine to 110,000 rupees (1,300 dollars). 

"The teacher bribed the judge and got himself released the very same day," she said. 

Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, three women parliamentarians filed a "hurriedly drafted" bill, as Masood described it, seeking to amend existing laws on violence against women. 

"It does not seem to be a priority within the legislative assembly and has yet to be taken up for discussion," said Marvi Memon, one of the bill’s principal authors. 

Masood said the bill in its present form is inadequate, because it "is discriminatory and caters only to women and children when our findings show that 39 percent of victims are males." Men are also in danger of acid attack, she said, usually as a result of issues like property disputes, financial problems and professional jealousies. 

Furthermore, she said, the bill does not clearly define the "role of the law enforcement agencies or mechanisms for regulating and monitoring acid trade," said Masood. 

Some female legislators, on the other hand, have dismissed the need for a new law protecting women against violent assaults such as acid throwing. 

"I think we’re already over-legislated," said member of Parliament Nafisa Shah. "The laws are there. What is needed is strict enforcement of the existing ones," she said. 

But Rehman said "special and specific laws are needed in a country where violence against women is on the rise." In an earlier interview with Agence France-Presse, ASF’s Masood said they recorded 48 cases of acid attacks in 2009, up from 30 in 207. 

Shahnaz Bokhari, president of the Islamabad-based Progressive Women’s Association, which assists victims of domestic violence, said she has supported 8,886 acid attack female survivors since 1994. 

The incidence of acid attacks is particularly high in the southern part of Punjab, the south Asian country’s cotton belt and second largest province, said Khan. 

"Lack of a regulating and monitoring framework regarding acid, cheap price, low level of socio-economic development" are some of the factors underlying these crimes, said Khan. 

A bottle of concentrated sulphuric acid generally costs only 20 Pakistani rupees per litre (about 23 U.S. cents), said Bokhari. 

"Acid is used for textile industry and cleaning cotton seeds before being replanted," explained Khan, whose organisation has provided medical, psychosocial, socioeconomic and legal aid to about 300 acid survivors in Punjab since 2006 when it was formed. 

While Farhat has been unrelenting in her quest for justice, some victims are afraid of taking action against their perpetrators. 

Forty-something Naeema Begum, whose husband threw acid in her face when he divorced her in 2004, said, "I don’t want to take him to court; I’m scared he may take my kids away from me as revenge," she said. 

"Most have been threatened into silence," said Bokhari. Their scars are not just physical, she said. "They go much deeper." 

Farhat sees beyond her disfigured body, her spirit resolute as ever to find justice, which has not been so elusive, after all. A new law is in the offing and her perpetrator is in jail. At the moment, though, six months since the CJP’s directive, she has yet to receive the promised financial assistance. 


By Zofeen Ebrahim

May 31, 2010