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Saturday January 28, 2023

Acid violence

November 20, 2022

Acid violence is an extreme form of gender-based violence (GBV). It affects women and girls disproportionally. According to the Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI), 1,500 cases of acid violence are recorded across the globe every year. Eighty per cent of these attacks are committed against women and girls.

The Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) reveals that 1,108 acid attacks took place in Pakistan between 2007 and 2016, which targeted 1,375 people. In 2018 alone, there were 57 notifications of corrosive attacks resulting in 80 victims.

The gendered dimension of acid attacks cannot be ignored in the patriarchal society of Pakistan. The perpetrators of acid violence are largely men, and the attacks are based on the notion of ownership of women’s bodies and control over women’s actions. They often arise as a result of an escalation in domestic violence, to exclude women from inheritance of land and property, suspicions of adultery, and family and tribal ‘honour’ disputes.

Acid violence causes devastating and lifelong consequences for victims/survivors. The attacks cause immediate disfigurement, pain and long-lasting medical complications for them. They also cause psychological trauma and economic and victims/survivors and their families suffer social ostracism.

In order to punish the perpetrators of acid crimes, the Pakistani parliament passed the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act 2011 (Criminal Law Second Amendment Act 2011) on December 28, 2011. The law made amendments to the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) and the Code of Criminal Procedure (Cr.Pc), and amended Section 322 of the PPC by adding the words ‘disfigures’ and ‘defaces’ along with the explanation of the word ‘disfigure’.

Two new sections – Section 336A titled ‘hurt caused by corrosive substances’ and Section 336B titled ‘punishment for hurt caused by corrosive substances’ – were added to the PPC. The punishment for the crime is life imprisonment or imprisonment of either description (not less than fourteen years) and a minimum fine of one million rupees.

Additionally, Schedule II of the CrPC was also amended, which made Section 336B a non-compoundable and non-bailable offence. However, the reality is that the 2011 Act is rarely enforced, particularly in rural areas, and many cases go unreported. The conviction rate is abysmally low and stands at 17.3 per cent, as per the ASF.

It is difficult to collect data when the cases are not reported. However, Nuzhat Shireen, the chairperson of the Sindh Commission on the Status of Women (SCSW) recalls that in one instance she “travelled from Karachi to Nawabshah, but the victim did not show up in the court. Later, the police said that the victim had resolved the matter without involving the judicial authorities. In one case, a victim married her attacker.”

While the enactment of the 2011 Act was a significant step towards punishing the perpetrators of acid crimes, much more needs to be done to address the challenges of reporting the crime to the criminal justice system (CJS). This includes research-based standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the investigation process (for example, the Investigating officer (IO) needs to ensure that the clothes and jewellery of the victims/survivors are properly sealed during the investigation), medico-legal examination, the step-by-step trial process (along with stipulating maximum time within which the case should be concluded and provision of survivor-centric mechanisms), a plan for rehabilitation of victims/survivors, free legal aid, funding and monitoring mechanisms.

Also, it is essential that the sale and purchase of acid is also restricted. In this regard, a significant step has been taken by the Sindh government. To regulate the storage, sale and purchase of acid, the home department of the provincial government has notified the Sindh Regulation for Storage, Sale and Purchase of Acid Rules 2022 (2022 Rules). The Rules were made by the government in compliance with Section 8 read with Section 2 of the Poisons Act 1919.

Under Rule 3, selling or supplying acid to any person without a licence is prohibited. Moreover, under Rule 4, only pharmaceutical chemists, medical practitioners, and educational institutes are given the explicit authority to sell, store or purchase acid for the purposes specified in the Rules. According to Rule 4 (iv), other categories of persons, such as shopkeepers (wholesalers or retailers) can be notified by the licensing authority to sell, store or purchase acid after being satisfied that the provisions of the 2022 Rules have been complied with.

The process for an application for the grant of a licence is stated under Rule 5, which includes payment of Rs5,000. The licences can be revoked under Rule 9 if the licensee contravenes the 2022 Rules.

The Sindh Acid Control Committee, consisting of the special secretary home department (as the chairperson of the committee), a representative from the environment department, and a representative of the inspector general of police is granted appellate authority against the decision of the licensing authority. Missing from the committee members are representatives from the Women Development Department and Human Rights Department, etc. The committee has been given limited powers and authority under the 2022 Rules.

Rule 16 prohibits sellers from selling acid to any person who is below the age of 18. The punishments are provided under Rule 17 and include imprisonment of up to one year and a fine which may extend up to Rs5,000. These punishments are not adequately stringent to deter the breach of the 2022 Rules. Although the 2022 Rules are a good step towards regulating the sale, purchase and storage of acid, they do not adequately address the regulation of the sale and purchase of acid to curb acid violence.

The Acid and Burn Crime Bill 2022 (which will apply to the Islamabad Capital Territory) and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Acid and Burn Crime Bill 2021 are comprehensive pieces of proposed legislation. They extensively mirror each other, for example, both provide for the establishment of a ‘rehabilitation centre for acid and burn victims’ under Section 25 and ‘legal aid for acid and burn victims’ under Section 26.

However, what is unfortunate about both bills is that they have been waiting to be enacted for several years. The state is failing to adequately address acid violence and must take steps to eliminate it.

The writer is a barrister. She tweets @RidaT95 and can be reached at: ridaatahir@gmail.com

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