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Pakistan offers little justice for victims of acid attacks

One little girl whose face was seared away wishes to die or turn back time. Her attackers are fined a few thousand dollars and left to walk free.

May 29, 2012|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
  • Zaib Aslam, left, with sister Rabia, is seen a few years before men threw acid at her in November in Faisalabad, Pakistan. The attack severely burned her face, sealed her eyelids shut and scarred her throat, making it difficult to eat. Zaib was 10 years old.
Zaib Aslam, left, with sister Rabia, is seen a few years before men threw… (Handout )

FAISALABAD, Pakistan — The cherub-faced 10-year-old girl was standing at a bus stop, saying goodbye to visiting relatives, when her mother noticed two motorcycles approaching, one coming down the street and the other from a graveyard behind them.

She recognized someone on one of the motorcycles: her older daughter's former fiance. He was clutching two liter-sized metal jugs.

As two men armed with a pistol on the second motorcycle kept the cluster of relatives from running away, the ex-fiance handed one of the jugs to a fourth man riding with him. Without saying anything, they flung the contents at Parveen Akhtar and her little girl, Zaib Aslam.

The jugs contained sulfuric acid bought at a local market for 88 cents.

"It felt like someone had flung fire on me," Akhtar said. "When I turned to look at Zaib, her face didn't look like a face."

In that terrible instant, much of Zaib's face was seared away and her eyelids sealed shut. The acid splashed into her mouth, severely scarring her throat.

Six months later, Zaib always keeps a pink shawl draped over her head. She doesn't want anyone — not even her family — to see her face.

She can't see. Her throat remains badly swollen, so she eats only soup or bread dipped in milk or tea to soften it. There are days when she tells her family she no longer wants to live. And there are days when she sobs and begs for someone to turn back time.

"She'll tell us, 'I want my old face back!' " said Akhtar, whose right arm, neck and torso were burned in the attack. " 'All of you have normal faces! Why can't I look like you?' "

***

When Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won an Oscar this year for "Saving Face," her documentary on victims of acid attacks, Pakistan's struggle to eradicate the crime drew worldwide attention, and horror.

A law enacted in December has established tougher penalties for acid attack convictions: from 14 years in jail to lifetime imprisonment, and a fine of up to $11,000 — a large sum for most Pakistanis. And yet every week, victims show up in emergency rooms nationwide, their faces and bodies horribly scarred.

No database exists that catalogs acid attacks in Pakistan, but the Acid Survivors Foundation, a Pakistani advocacy group for victims, estimates that 150 occur each year. The majority of the victims are women, and attacks are often an escalation of domestic violence.

"And at some point, the level of violence rises to a point where the husband wants to punish the wife by throwing acid at her to teach her a lesson and disfigure her for life," said Valerie Khan, the group's chairwoman.

Awareness about the crime has improved, Khan said, but Pakistan remains a patriarchal society where, particularly in rural areas, women's rights are routinely ignored. Many attacks go unreported, and even when victims lodge complaints, police and judges often halfheartedly pursue the cases.

"The main trend in the Pakistani justice system remains that too few perpetrators are being convicted," Khan said. "With local police and judges, the level of sensitivity and attention that they give to this issue is clearly insufficient."

Here in Punjab province, women are often treated like chattel. Cases persist of teenage girls forced to marry men in rival families to settle blood feuds. Women who marry against their families' wishes often become victims of honor killings. In a part of the country where local economies are driven by sprawling textile factories and sugar mills, women rarely own property or run their own businesses.

Victimization of women is especially prevalent within the underclass here, where education is lacking and large, extended families scrape by on a few hundred dollars a month. Zaib's father is retired, and the eight children who still live at home rely on about $200 a month earned by Zaib's 12- and 15-year-old brothers, who work as mini-bus attendants, and an 18-year-old brother who works at a bakery.

In the legislation passed in December, a loophole that once allowed acid attack defendants to avoid jail by reaching out-of-court settlements with victims was closed. That doesn't give Zaib any solace, however. The attack that ended her life as she knew it occurred Nov. 25, just 17 days before it passed. A settlement reached in March between Zaib's family and Ghulam Dastagir, the man who engineered the attack, is not affected by the new law.

The price that settlement put on Zaib's face and misery was 350,000 rupees, about $3,800. Akhtar received 500,000 rupees, roughly $5,500. Leaning against a doorway at their two-room house in a cramped Faisalabad neighborhood, Akhtar glanced over at Zaib sitting motionless on a bed and acknowledged that settling was a mistake.

"I'm not happy with this agreement," Akhtar said. "He's free, and he could come and attack me again, or he could attack someone else in my family. That fear gnaws at me."

***

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