Across the world this International Women’s Day, campaigners raised their voices in unison to protest against gender violence. Unfortunately, if the huge support for this initiative is indicative of anything, it’s the fact that in almost every society, at every level, misogyny remains a structural and social reality.
In too many regions, the reality is that perpetrators of violence against women will see little recourse for their actions. Victims are forced to live with the consequences of the attack every day of their lives. Although a global issue, the manifestation of gender violence can vary from region to region. One of the most poignant localised examples of such violence is the spectre of acid attacks.
Endemic in mainly rural cotton farming areas, where the substance is in plentiful supply, acid attacks occur in places as diverse as Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Uganda. Attacks tend to be concentrated in rural, agrarian societies with low levels of education, where gender inequalities are starkly denominated, and as a result, the levels of violence against women are exponentially greater.
Although acid is sometimes simply the nearest and most damaging weapon to hand, the phenomenon of acid violence nonetheless requires an element of premeditation. Whilst fists and knives are often the weapons in crimes of passion, an acid attack requires both the element of surprise and the retrieval of the substance. Most attacks occur at night, when women are sleeping. Because of this, many children who sleep with their mothers become collateral victims of acid violence.
Smiles Better, a project run by Islamic Help, is aiming to change life for victims of acid violence, and in doing so, bring about wider political change. In the aftermath of attacks, the charity works on the immediate needs of the patients- ranging from lifesaving care, to corrective and reconstructive surgery. After this comes extensive rehabilitation, both psychological and social. Victims are given counseling to deal with concomitant self-esteem issues associated with the attack and their injuries, and support to rebuild shattered lives.
A representative for Smiles Better explains to me that the legacy of acid attacks can be tantamount to exile. Victims face unbearable, relentless pain, and have little access to trained specialists to deal with their injuries. Along with the physical toll of their injuries, many women are unable to support their households. Social isolation, either from shame or active shunning by the local community, is also common. Many employers will discriminate against scarred victims, especially for forms of labour such as domestic service or other public roles. Most worryingly, in some regions, acid violence is on the rise.
Islamic Help, working with Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI), will look at the victims on an individual case basis. As part of their Livelihood Projects, they help women establish a self-sustaining plan which will enable them to take control of their lives and support themselves in the long-term future. Such assistance can range from business start up help to provision of livestock or farming equipment. Operating in areas such as Cambodia, Nepal, Bangladesh, Uganda, and Pakistan, the charities work ceaselessly to give victims a renewed sense of purpose and independence. Another invaluable source these agencies tap into is peer group support, mobilizing fellow victims of acid violence to work together and aid each other in their recoveries.
Through lobbying for changes in local legislature and political reform, the Smiles Better team has seen attitudes towards acid violence transform. In Bangladesh, a change in legislature which will ensure perpetrators of this crime are brought to justice has prompted a fall in reported levels of the crime. However, this is dependent on local political circumstances.
In more violent countries, reform is far more difficult to enact. Action is, however, possible at a grass-roots level; by utilizing local community voices of authority, whether that be church figureheads in Uganda or temple leaders Nepal, the Smiles Better team work to impart the message that gender violence is unacceptable. Raising awareness about acid attacks not only reduces the levels of crime though, it can also serve to increase levels of support for victims, and helps bring communities together in demonstrating that they will not tolerate this form of brutality.
It’s understandable that the charity regularly utilises images of the victims it helps, relying on the raw, sickening nature of the damage acid inflects on human faces to provoke emotive responses from onlookers. However, compassion does not necessarily translate into funding for the remarkable work that the Smiles Better team and ASTI do. Surgery, rehabilitation, and long-term support of victims of acid violence can be hugely costly.
Unlike ‘miracle’ projects, such as well building or immunisations, donors will not see an instant, widespread effect from this particular form of NGO funding, prompting many charity sponsors act expediently and deposit their donations elsewhere. However, as an Islamic Help representative explains, victims of acid violence are often heads of households. By supporting their recovery, donors are helping entire families, and it is this message they seek to emphasise.
Working with both illiterate and literate community groups, the Smiles Better team seek not to expand their work, but to improve the quality of care and support they provide, and widening access to information is one of the biggest challenges they aim to overcome. They are also committed to structural change. Through the work the charity does to educate and inform local communities, they are helping to transform attitudes towards this form of violence, as well as wider gender issues, ensuring a safer future for women in many rural communities.
Even though acid violence has been a focus for UK charities for many years (Princess Anne is the patron of ASTI, Acid Survivors Trust International), it wasn’t until a horrific incident happened right on the doorstep of British media that the phenomenon really came into public consciousness.
When model Katie Piper’s psychotic ex-boyfriend arranged for acid to be thrown at her, stripping away most of her face and a good deal of vision in an instant, the sheer horror of the attack, and Katy’s subsequent transformation from victim to proud survivor, captivated international media. But in Katie’s eyes, there was only one hero in this story- Dr Mohammad Ali Jawad, the surgeon who literally remade her face.
It was Dr Jawad who encouraged Katy to participate in a project which documented her recovery, believing it would prove a useful catalyst for psychological healing. Since then, his work has been featured in another documentary; ‘Saving Face,’ an Oscar winning work focusing on his work with acid victims in his native Pakistan. Whilst the international acclaim for his fight to help these women is relatively recent, in reality he has been making regular trips to the country of his birth for over a decade, working to provide expert care for cleft palette patients and burns victims.
The Walking Dead
When we meet, Dr Jawad is in the final stages of preparing to head out to Multan- a place he refers to as the ‘epicentre’ of acid violence in Pakistan. In this rural cotton growing area, acid violence is a fact of life. Here, when a woman is attacked, the consequences go much far deeper than the physical damage.
Victims can expect to be treated as instigators of their own tragedy, facing a lifetime of ostracism and isolation. They are, as he puts it, the “Walking dead.” Victims in this region tend to be pretty girls of marriageable age, usually between 18 and 25. With his team, Dr Jawad and Islamic Help work not only to heal their wounds and provide as much rehabilitation as possible, but also to reintegrate them into their communities, literally bringing them back to life. The team’s success stories themselves are studies in courage, as the women overcome their pain and fear to become walking symbols of defiance to the barbarism within their own community.
Barriers to Change
Whilst Dr Jawad has seen ongoing changes in local approaches to acid crime convictions, he is frustrated by the structures at work in Pakistan which slow down the progress of his efforts. Saving Face, which features both victims, and perpetrators of attacks- one of whom is ultimately convicted and sentenced in an epoch making case- was originally intended as an educational work to be widely screened in the country. The intention was to raise awareness of the plight of victims, and the fact that acid crimes now carry heavy penalties. However, the documentary makers were blocked from showing the film, and ultimately left with no choice but to step away from the project. As a result, whilst awareness of acid violence has grown exponentially in the rest of the world, sea change in the regions that need it most is still an ongoing battle.
Breaking the Monotony of Cliché
As Dr Jawad points out, the documentary’s Oscar represents the first time that the work of plastic surgeons has been acknowledged on such an international level. Their work demonstrates that anyone can be philanthropic working with their own resources at hand, and he hopes many more will be inspired to look at how they could use their own talents for good. His pride in the Smiles Better team is palpable. He is adamant that with the growing momentum behind the campaign to wipe out acid violence, ultimately they will break the ‘monotony of cliché,’ and revoke centuries of misogynistic oppression which continue into the twenty-first century. In doing so, he hopes to not only save the faces young women, but also that of Pakistan at large.
This article is an extract from a piece originally published in AGI Magazine. Click here to subscribe.