Pakistani women's lives destroyed by acid attacks
- 19 April 2012
- From the section Asia
Campaigners in Pakistan say cases of acid attacks are increasing in most areas, even though tougher penalties were introduced last year. An Oscar-winning Pakistani documentary has put the crime under the spotlight, but it is estimated that more than 150 women have acid thrown on them every year - usually by husbands or in-laws - and many never get justice. The BBC's Orla Guerin reports.
Her name is Shama, meaning "candle", and she says her husband burnt her flesh as if it was a candlewick.
The young mother of four has just joined the ranks of Pakistani women doused in acid. She is scarred for life, with burns on 15% of her body. Her crime was her beauty.
"My husband and I often had arguments in the house," she said, in her hospital bed. "On that day before going to sleep he said 'you take too much pride in your beauty'. Then in the middle of the night he threw acid on me, and ran away."
When her husband fled, he took her mobile phone with him, so she could not call for help.
Shama shows me a picture taken at a children's party four months ago. It is a snapshot of an attractive young woman, with immaculate make-up, wearing an orange outfit flecked with gold.
Her hair is swept back to reveal dangling earrings. But acid has erased that confident, composed Shama.
"I feel pain at what I was, and what I have become," she said, with tears coursing down her scorched cheeks.
"All the colours have gone from my life. I feel like I'm a living corpse, even worse than a living corpse. I think I have no right to live."
Shama now lies in Ward 10a of the burns unit in Nishtar Hospital in Multan in Pakistan's Punjab province.
It is a monument to neglect. The plaster is peeling off the walls and there is a leaking pipe hanging from the ceiling. When patients need transfusions, their relatives are despatched to buy pints of blood.
But the doctors here are expert at treating women disfigured by acid - they see one or two new victims every week.
At morning rounds they gather at Shama's bed, asking if she is eating, and is keeping her burns covered with cream. They try to relieve her pain, but cannot ease her despair.
"I can't say anything about the future," she says, "maybe I won't be alive. I will try - for my kids - to get back to how I was. I have to work to build a future for them.
"If I can't I'll do what one or two other girls have done.
"They killed themselves."
Fakhra Younis, a former dancing girl in Karachi, was one such woman, who ended her life to escape suffering.
It has been said of Fakhra that she died twice - once when she was drenched in acid 13 years ago, and again when she committed suicide in Italy last month.
Before taking her own life, she had endured almost 40 rounds of surgery.
Supporters say Fakhra had given up hope of getting justice. Her former husband, who comes from a powerful political family, was acquitted of the attack.
He continues to protest his innocence.
Fakhra's death made the headlines here, but activists say many victims are shunned and silenced.
"Only about 10% of cases are getting to court," said Zohra Yusuf, the chair of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission.
"Even in high-profile cases like Fakhra's there are poor prosecutions. Most of the time, victims can't get a case registered by police."
Offenders now face a tougher sentence - between 14 years and life imprisonment - under a law passed last year. But most attackers still get off scott free, according to Marvi Memon, the former MP who sponsored the new law.
"Even if he [the attacker] gets caught, he'll pay police off and he'll get away with it in most parts of Pakistan," she said.
"It's the easiest way to punish a woman. You can just throw acid and destroy her entire life in one second."
'Multiple surgical procedures'
Marvi Memon blames a lack of political will to implement the law.
"It's very difficult to get the police to co-operate with the women," she said, "because they are under no pressure to do so."
The government admits it needs to do more for acid victims, and says implementing the new law is a major challenge.
"Passing the legislation was a first step," said Shahnaz Wazir Ali, a goverment adviser, "but how do cases get to trial speedily? That's the part we still need to work on. We need to sensitise the police, the lower courts and even the legal community."
Back in Ward 10a, there's a new arrival. A woman named Maqsood is wheeled in, still wearing clothing eaten away by the acid.
Beneath her cream shawl the skin on her face is singed and mottled, and her right eye is sealed shut.
"My son-in-law came in the night, and threw acid on me," Maqsood said "after a small family dispute. He broke in through the roof. There was no power in our area, so we could not catch him."
But he was caught later, and he at least is now in custody.
A plastic surgeon, Dr Bilal Saeed, rushes to assess the new patient. He has treated hundreds of women like Maqsood in recent years. He admits to being depressed by his work.
"On average we do multiple surgical and cosmetic procedures on these patients," he said. "But whatever we do, we are not getting their smile back."
Many commit suicide, according to Dr Saeed, in spite of his best efforts.
He says others are forced to return to the in-laws or husbands who attacked them because of social pressure or money problems.
A few beds away, Shama's children come to visit, crowding around her bed.
She reaches out a burnt arm to stroke their anxious faces, and asks for her youngest, Noor, to be placed on her chest.
"Do pray for Mummy," she tells them, "ask God to make me get better quickly."
Shama's husband remains at large. If he is ever caught she wants acid thrown on his face.
"I want the severest punishment for him," she said. "That would make anyone think a thousand times before committing such a crime."
As the children prepare to leave, Shama cannot hold back her tears. For their sake, she says she will try to keep going.
But like Fakhra Younis before her, she is not expecting justice.