Saving Face – Acid Attacks

15 Apr

The only films that make a difference are films that make people uncomfortable.

– Sharmeen O. Chinoy, Director of Saving Face

Saving Face

Earlier this year, the Oscar-winning documentary Saving Face was aired on British television.  Tackling the subject of acid attacks in Pakistan, it shows the lives of women who have been the victims of acid attacks and their journey to recovery, helped by plastic surgeon Dr Mohammed Jawad.  He is the same surgeon who operated on Katie Piper, perhaps the most well-known case of an acid attack in the UK.

Sadly, this horrific crime is not limited to Pakistan.

On 30th December 2012, a young woman was walking home when she had acid thrown on her face.  It has left her partially blind in one eye and scarred for life and happened round the corner from where I live in East London.  Naomi Oni was walking home one evening when she had acid flung at her by a woman wearing a niqab – the Islamic veil.  She has no idea why she was targeted and her assailant remains at large.

Naomi Oni before and after the attack

Naomi Oni before and after the attack

On 17th January 2013, Sergei Filin, the director of the Bolshoi ballet had acid thrown in his face by a masked attacker.  He suffered third degree burns to his face, eyes and neck and is currently undergoing operations which hope to restore his eyesight.  Filin says the attack was an attempt to remove him from his post as director.

Last November, a woman in India was walking home when she had acid thrown at her by a construction worker who had started stalking her.  In 2007, a Colombian model was the victim of an acid attack which she believes was perpetrated by her husband.  They had broken up but he wanted to get back together.

In India, an organisation called Jharkhand Mukti Sangh put up posters warning women they would be attacked with acid if they wore jeans or didn’t wear a head scarf).  In Kashmir’s Shopian district, notices were put up in mosques telling women they would be attacked if they didn’t wear a veil covering their faces.

The list goes on and the attacks all have one thing in common.  Their purpose is not to kill, but to cause pain and leave the victim with lifelong disfigurement and psychological scarring.   They are carried out to create fear and to control.  The overwhelming majority of victims are women and over half of these are less than eighteen years old.

Victims of Acid Attacks

Victims of Acid Attacks

Spurning a man’s romantic advances, turning down a marriage proposal, bringing dishonour onto her husband or how a woman dresses are all seen by attackers as legitimate reasons for using acid.  Sadly, most perpetrators see women as a commodity and therefore take it as their right that they can do what they wish with them.

Given the nature of the crime, statistics are hard to find.  According to Reuters, 1500 acid attacks are reported each year with 80% of these against women.  However, the Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI) puts the figure at 2,500.  42 acid attacks were reported in Colombia in 2011 and 84 in Bangladesh, while in Pakistan, it is estimated that 150 women are victims of acid attacks every year.

Speak to the victims or organisations which support acid attack victims and they will all tell you that the real numbers are much higher, with many cases going unreported.

It is widely reported that the highest number of acid attacks happen in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.  However, ASTI argues they are equally common in the West Indies, Sub Saharan Africa and the Middle East.  When you consider the type of acid used, this is not surprising.

Sulphuric acid is used in lead acid batteries, oil refinement, fertilizer, rubber and cotton manufacturing and is therefore more easily available in these countries.  There is no regulation around storage, selling or purchasing so it can be bought easily and cheaply.  It is highly corrosive and one of the characteristics of acid burns is they continue to burn and damage the skin long after the acid is neutralised, for example with water.

The law is often severe with life sentences in Pakistan and the death sentence in Bangladesh for anyone found guilty of an acid attack.  However, these laws are rarely enforced especially in poorer, rural areas.  Moreover, these areas provide very little access to medical care for victims.  In Saving Face, Dr Jawad is incredulous when he learns that one victim had her face bandaged up without any form of treatment or simple cleaning of the skin.

Dr Jawad at work

Dr Jawad at work

The aftermath of such attacks is as frightening as the attacks themselves.  Nurbanu from Bangladesh was attacked after divorcing her husband of 18 years.  She was left blinded by the attack but was convinced by her sons to return to her husband.  Rukhsana, one of the key figures in Saving Face is attacked by her husband and her in laws.  Left with no way to support herself, she is forced to return to live with them where she is kept separate from her daughter.  These women were trapped in a societal and poverty cycle from which they could not escape, however heinous the attack against them.

Rukhsana

Rukhsana

In these countries, many women are reliant on their husbands for income.  Attacking young women with acid means their chances of getting married are virtually non-existent, while women who choose to leave their husbands are left with no means to support themselves.  Either way, they are condemned to a life of poverty.  On top of this, many victims are ostracised by society and are left isolated.

It is a harrowing insight into the mentality of those who choose to carry out acid attacks.  They are motivated by a desire to destroy someone’s life –to damage them physically, socially and psychologically.

As heart breaking as these stories are, it is hope and a positive future that is the key to recovery.  Saving Face played a fundamental role in communicating this.  It was an inspirational look at how women survive acid attacks and find a way to rebuild their lives.

Sharmeen Chinoy - Director of Saving Face

Chinoy – Director of Saving Face

So how do we support these and future victims in the fight against acid attacks?

The law is fundamental and many countries are moving in the right direction, but these laws also need to be enforced.  Attackers need to know that punishment will be swift and severe.

Effective legislation is also needed around the sale of acid.  Bangladesh introduced laws in 2002 to control the storage, transport and sale of acids and according to various reports, it has succeeded in reducing the number of acid attacks.

Perhaps most importantly, there needs to be practical help for victims to ensure they can heal and live independent lives.

Pakistani organisation Smile Again offers surgery for victims but also trains and employs them at a chain of local beauty salons owned by Masarrat Misbeh, the founder of Smile Again.

ASTI provides funding and training to ensure medical intervention is available. It also offers social and psychological support to victims along with teaching them practical skills they can use to find employment.

ASTI

Acid Survivors Foundation

The Acid Survivors Foundation gives medical, legal and psychological support to victims and also raises awareness of what to do after an acid attack to minimise damage through their Use Water –Save Life campaign.  The Foundation also works to reintegrate victims into society through joint working with private companies, civil organisations and income generating schemes.

Awareness is needed and education, as always, is central to any change.  Men need to understand that women are not commodities and have the same basic rights as they do.  It will be a challenge in countries where gender inequality and gender based violence is rife but without this change in attitude, there can be no long lasting change in any kind of violence towards women.

As harrowing as acid attacks are, the organisations and people working on the ground to support the victims are just as determined to bring about change.

But it is the victims themselves who are truly awe- inspiring as embodied by Zakia, one of the central characters in Saving Face.  Attacked with acid by her husband when she filed for divorce, she is severely scarred and her daughter is left traumatised.  Her determination to bring her husband to justice is unwavering and with the help of a lawyer who took on her case free of charge, she begins the long legal battle.  In a country where corruption is rife, she wins the case and sees her husband jailed, but it is the happiness when she sees her new face after corrective surgery which is most moving.

Zakia after the attack

Zakia after the attack

Zakia after surgery

Zakia after surgery

Saving Face awakened a nation.  Pakistani policy makers, society and women began working together for policy change and to strength the law punishing acid attacks.  It was not only women but Pakistani men who began speaking out against such attacks.

United in their cause, they showed what can be achieved when everyone works together towards a common goal.  They were fighting for acid attack victims but they were also fighting to show that hope, determination and courage can overcome the most hopeless of situations.

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