(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Acid burn victims smile again

[Pakistan] Acid burn victim. [Date picture taken: 04/20/2006]
Kamila Hyat/IRIN

Huma, 22, now smiles many times a day. As she does so, she often stares almost in wonder into a mirror, much like a child encountering her reflection for the first time. For two years she had been unable to look at her own image: like dozens of other young women, most based in Pakistan’s southern Punjab, Huma had suffered a disfiguring attack with acid.

The corrosive substance was thrown in her face as she slept outdoors in the courtyard of her home in a village near Multan, a city 350 km south of the capital, Islamabad.

"I just remember feeling something hot on my face, and then the searing pain that followed," Huma told IRIN. She is still reluctant to talk about those most terrible moments in her life.

A year ago, a local philanthropist based in Multan (who prefers not to be identified) hearing Huma's story, paid for her to undergo treatment and cosmetic surgery in Islamabad. After several operations spread over many months, her face is beautiful again.

The attack on her involved a matrimonial dispute. Huma's family had refused her hand in marriage to Rizwan, 26, who they claim was an intravenous drug user. In rage over the perceived slight, he extracted his terrible revenge.

While precise figures of the number of women who suffer from these crimes are not available due to lack of research, hundreds of cases of acid burns have been recorded annually over the past three or four years in Pakistan. The New York-based rights body, Human Rights Watch (HRW), estimates at least 280 women died and 750 suffered injuries in 2002 alone as a result of acid attacks.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan documented 46 attacks in 2004 in the southern Punjab alone.

Sameena Afzal, the chief coordinator of the 'Depilex Smile Again' organisation, set up in 2003 to offer medical help to female burn victims, said: "It is very difficult to find definite statistics. But we know the number is high. I have 150 acid and stove burn victims registered with me at the moment for treatment."

The marked increase in reports of acid burns since 2000 has been attributed to two major factors: copycat attacks triggered by several high-profile cases of acid attacks, and an increase in families going public about these incidents as awareness spreads.

Afzal also points out: "There is a need for tougher legislation. At the many meetings I've attended people don't even take acid burns as a serious crime. It should be treated like murder, because the victims are like the living dead."

The increase in awareness of the debilitating crime has led to some significant gains. In August 2003, the Punjab provincial assembly passed legislation under which an acid attack would rank as attempted murder. The bill was moved by member of parliament, Humaira Awais Shahid, who has consistently raised issues concerning women in the house.

However, no national law exists – and despite a ban on the open sale of corrosive substances, acid of all kinds can be easily purchased throughout Pakistan for less than US $1.

The 'Smile Again' programme notes that women disfigured due to acid attacks are often suicidal, lack trust in anyone and often lose all desire to continue with their lives.

One of the cases that brought the issue into the limelight internationally was that of Fakhra Younis. Fakhra was married to Bilal Khar, the son of an influential feudal politician, Mustafa Khar. In 2000, after Fakhra chose to leave her abusive husband, he poured a canister of acid on her.

Fakhra sought help at the doorstep of Tehmina Durrani, a woman who had once been married to Khar’s father. The story of her violent marriage, in her 1994 book, 'My Feudal Lord', made the international best-seller lists, and created a storm within the Pakistani society.

Tehmina took up Fakhra's case and helped her escape the country with her young son and received treatment in Italy.

The case acted to bring acid burning into focus and in 2003, help for acid burn victims came from an unusual source.

Depilex, one of the premier beauty salons in Pakistan, teamed up with Italian charity 'Smile Again' to set up the 'Depilex Smile Again' programme in the country. The charity had already worked with acid-burn victims in Bangladesh, where such crimes are also common.

Since 2003, dozens of women have been operated upon under the programme. Doctors from Italy and France fly in to carry out surgery at hospitals in Lahore and Islamabad, and when required, victims are flown to Italy for the treatment they need.

"We want every woman to look beautiful, to be confident and to smile again," Mussarat Misbah, the owner of the Depilex beauty business, said.

But even after surgery, many victims remain vulnerable from those who originally perpetrated the crime.

Often the women have no choice but to remain in the circumstances that led to the original abuse. Depilex tries to meet this need by offering vocational training to acid victims, while Sameena has called for "many more shelter houses to be set up for victims."

So far, there is little evidence of a decline in the rate of acid attacks on women. Due to inefficiencies in the police system, perpetrators are often able to escape, which encourages others to carry out acts of violence using acid. Across the country, hundreds of victims of such attacks still nurse their scars – both physical and mental.

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