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Last Updated: Monday, 28 July, 2003, 23:56 GMT 00:56 UK
Acid attack victim demands justice
By Sahar Ali
In Islamabad

"It was like burning in hell," says Zarina Ramzan, recalling how acid burned through her upper body, melting away the skin and flesh on her face, neck and chest.

Zarina Ramzan
Zarina says her youth has been destroyed
Just over a year ago, in the early hours of 7 July, a man sneaked into her home and poured the acid over her face.

Her neighbour, Nazar Hussain, is now on trial for attempted murder. Prosecutors say he wanted revenge because Zarina had rejected his advances.

On that hot July night, Zarina had drifted off to sleep around 0300, only to awake with a burning sensation on her face and upper body.

"I'm on fire!" wailed the 18-year-old girl, a wife and mother of a four-month-old baby, as her face began to dissolve.

'Alarming increase'

Dozens of women are burnt by acid every year in Pakistan, a form of violence that is on the rise.

It's hard to believe that even in the 21st century such shameful acts are still carried out
Sepand S, Canada/Iran

Last year a report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said: "Particularly alarming was the soaring rate of cases of mutilation by the pouring of acid over women, in a crime that acted to scar them permanently, both physically and emotionally."

There were 46 cases of acid attacks on women reported in Pakistan's largest province, Punjab, in 2002.

Violence against women is common among the poor and uneducated, many of whom live in feudal societies.

Although acid attacks only account for a fraction of the overall incidents of violence against women, they are probably the most monstrous.

Acid mutilates and maims the victim, condemning her to lifelong isolation and emotional anguish.

Zarina Ramzan before the acid attack
Zarina before the attack
This form of violence is most common in Punjab, Pakistan's agricultural heartland.

It is most likely to occur in the summer, as happened to Zarina, when acid is used for agricultural purposes.

Women's activist Shahnaz Bukhari was curious as to why most attacks occur in the summer. She found that certain seeds sown during summer are first soaked in acid.

Ms Bukhari runs the Progressive Women's Association in Islamabad which, since 1988, has helped burn victims and highlighted the issue nationally and internationally.

'Worse than death'

The rise in cases of acid burns is mainly because it is easy to get.

A bottle for domestic use can be bought for just 20 rupees, less than half a US dollar.

Zarina Ramzan's husband
Zarina's husband with a reminder of their earlier life

And the attack has devastating long-term consequences.

"A woman burnt by acid is like a living corpse," says Uzma Saeed, a lawyer working with a women's non-government organisation in Lahore.

"Those who commit such vengeful acts seek to sentence their victims to a plight worse than death." Zarina Ramzan has already undergone 11 plastic surgery operations.

Her eyelids have melted together. The acid burned out her right eye.

But she can see light through her left one, raising hopes that she may be able to see again.

Her nose is dissolved but surgery allows her to breathe through two slits where her nostrils once were.

Her lower lip melted down to her chin in the attack.

It has been detached surgically to allow her to eat.

"We are poor, ignorant people," laments Zarina.

"We didn't know that washing away the acid would have meant less damage."

It is the abject poverty of acid burn victims, and indeed women victims of other kinds of violence, that has kept the issue off the main political agenda.

"This is an issue only of the poor, that's why nothing has been done," comments Shahnaz Bukhari.

"For the policy makers, these people do not exist."

'No improvement'

Pakistan's current parliament has an unprecedented number of women legislators.

A woman burnt by acid is like a living corpse
Uzma Saeed

Prior to the general election last October, women were also given 33% representation in local government as part of President General Pervez Musharraf's devolution plan.

But campaigners say this unprecedented increase in female representation in parliament and local government has not translated into any improvement in women's status.

"I have brought to light 39 cases of violence against women since the elections," protests Ms Bukhari.

"What have the women legislators done in the last eight months?"

As for Zarina, she held her own demonstration outside parliament under intense sun hoping for justice.

"Other than coming nearer to get a closer look, everyone just walked away," she complains.

She eventually got help from the Crisis Centre for Women in Distress in Islamabad.

It is one of three such centres set up by the Ministry of Women's Development to help female victims of domestic violence and is financing her treatment at an Islamabad hospital.

"Tell her doctor to operate on her eye first so she can see," says Zarina's grandmother.

But as well as medical treatment, Zarina also wants justice. "He has destroyed my youth," she says, referring to her alleged attacker.

"I do not want him to be released from jail."

Bangladesh acid attacks soar
30 Jan 02  |  South Asia
Patrols against Kashmir acid attacks
12 Aug 01  |  South Asia

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