This International Women's Day, the U.S. cable network HBO and its Canadian counterpart are airing an Oscar-winning documentary that aims to raise awareness about a barbaric form of domestic violence that affects women in many parts of the world but doesn't get enough attention: acid attacks.
The annual celebration of women that is marked each March 8 around the world is meant to highlight women's achievements but also to reflect on the current status of women around the world and their ongoing efforts to achieve economic equality and freedom from the many human rights abuses they still face.
Saving Face, a film directed by Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and Daniel Junge that won the Academy Award for best documentary short last month, examines the practice of acid violence — the deliberate use of acid to harm and disfigure another human being, in most cases, women. It depicts stories of the many women in Pakistan who have become victims of this kind of abuse, mostly at the hands of their husbands and other relatives.
Surgeon repairs acid disfigurement
Obaid Chinoy, a Pakistani-born journalist who became a Canadian citizen after moving to Toronto in 2004, explained what drove her to make the film in a February 2012 interview with Rick MacInnes-Rae of CBC Radio's Dispatches.
"I was born and raised in Pakistan," she said. "I had quite an emancipated childhood, and to find that women in Pakistan still have to go through a brutal act such as acid violence really shook me."
The documentary follows Mohammad Jawad, a Karachi-born, London-based plastic surgeon with the Acid Survivor Foundation, which assists women who have been injured in acid attacks.
"Dr. Jawad has worked miracles on women who have had acid attacks," Obaid Chinoy said. "In London, he fixed the face of Katie Piper, a very famous model whose boyfriend threw acid on her on the streets of London, and that's when he became interested in victims of acid violence.
"And when he heard that in his home country of Pakistan, there were such attacks, he started travelling back to Pakistan."
For the many of victims of acid violence, it is the coming to terms with their new and very different circumstances after the attack that is the most painful and difficult aspect of their experience to adjust to.
"Ruksana and Zakia, my two main characters in the film, spoke of how they didn't want to leave their home for months after," Obaid Chinoy told MacInnes-Rae. "They felt that they needed to be ashamed. They felt that, somehow, they had caused this, and that's what was evident in almost all the survivors that we spoke to."
Women, children targeted
It's not surprising that the overwhelming number of victims of acid violence are women and children, and their attackers often target the head and face in order to disfigure and blind them.
Acid attacks are carried out for various reasons, but most commonly, they are committed by the victim's own relatives as as a form of revenge for such things as refusal of sexual advances, marriage proposals or threats of leaving the family. The effects are always horrific: damaged skin tissue, exposure and dissolving of bones, permanent scarring and blindness.
Cases of acid violence happen all over the world and have been documented in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the West Indies and the Middle East.
In Pakistan, about 150 women are reported to have been victims of acid violence.
"Those are documented numbers," Obaid Chinoy said. "But, of course, there are undocumented numbers, because acid violence is usually carried out by members from one's own family, and given the culture that exists in Pakistan, many are hesitant to press charges against the perpetrators. So, we believe there are dozens more that go undocumented."
Justice for victims rare
In Saving Face, viewers meet 39-year-old Zakia, whose husband threw acid on her face because she wanted a divorce, leaving the left side of her face completely melted away.
Jawad explained her condition in an interview with CBC Radio's The Current on March 2, 2012.
"Not only [her]
eye … eye socket, eyebrows, lid, everything was gone, and she had a severe distortion on the left side of her face," he said.
'It's so rare for women to get justice in Pakistan.' — Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, filmmaker
Typically, assailants who carry out acid attacks receive minimal punishment, but Zakia's case proved unique, and it became a catalyst for legal and political change in Pakistan.
"I'll never forget the look on Zakia's face when she heard her husband would be given two life sentences," Obaid Chinoy told Dispatches. "It's so rare for women to get justice in Pakistan. She felt that, finally, someone had done something to say that this was her husband's fault."
Last year, two pieces of legislation that aim to address violence against women were passed unanimously by Pakistan's parliament: the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill and the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill.
The former recommends sentences of 14 years to life in prison and fines of up to one million rupees (around $20,000) for the perpetrators of acid attacks.
Step in the right direction
Obaid Chinoy notes that she can see Pakistanis' views on domestic violence changing.
"You are finding more women who are vocal, who are speaking out against it," she said. "You're finding women in parliament who are empowered to draft these laws and bring them forward."
Obaid Chinoy said she applauds Pakistan's current government for addressing women's rights and is hopeful for the future, but she also understands that change will not happen overnight.
"Legislation is one thing, but there needs to be widespread education about what happens to a woman when acid is thrown on her," she said.
The film was released in the U.S. in November 2011, but with Thursday's premiere on North American television, a larger audience will now be able to view Saving Face and see firsthand the extreme version of domestic violence that many women in Pakistan face.
Obaid Chinoy remains positive and is confident that the practice of acid attacks will eventually be eradicated, though it will likely take a long time for that to happen.
"But if more women were educated, then we are one step closer to putting the country back on its right foot," she said.
Obaid Chinoy's film is one part of that education and awareness-raising effort that could help ease the suffering of women not just in Pakistan but in other countries where acid attacks happen.
The film airs March 8 on HBO Canada at 9 p.m. ET.