Interview with Valerie Khan Yusufzai, Chairperson of Acid Survivors Foundation-Pakistan

Posted on March 13, 2012 in Interviews, Society

At this year’s Academy Awards held in Los Angeles, there were many surprise winners that took the golden statue home, but among them was one film that stood out for its bravery, commitment to bring change and instilling hope in countless, Saving Face. Directed by Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the movie won the Oscar in the Best Documentary Short category, and with this win, got Pakistan its first Academy recognition. Saving Face, focuses on the brutal crime of acid violence that is hugely prevalent in many countries, Pakistan being one of them. This film follows the lives of two acid violence survivors, Zakia and Rukhsana, and their efforts to bring their assailants to justice. Saving Face also features the work of plastic surgeon Dr.Mohammad Jawad, who works to restore their facial looks; and the support of non-governmental organisations, to eradicate this horrific problem in Pakistan.

In this interview, Mariyam Raza Haider talks to Valerie Khan Yusufzai, chairperson of the Acid Survivors Foundation- Pakistan, one of the film’s main NGO partners, who highlights upon the need of the hour and the solutions to this vicious crime in Pakistan as well as other nations.

Mariyam: Firstly, congratulations over the success and win of Saving Face at the Oscars.

Valerie: Thank you.

Mariyam: You’ve been working with acid survivors since 2006, what brought you to work with them particularly?

Valerie: I met one acid survivor, one day in a beauty parlour, saw her and decided to do something about it after some time. Basically, I initially started working for the cause of acid survivors through a local NGO for 3 months. But then later on I realised that the organisation was not honest and I quit. Meanwhile, Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI) had met me. When they learnt I had quit, they came to see me and proposed that we established Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) locally. They said, Val if you want to really do something to eradicate acid violence from Pakistan, we are here. And the adventure started: we created ASF with Franco-Pakistani nationals and established the first Nursing care and Rehabilitation Unit in Pakistan, in Islamabad in 2007.

I never regretted this decision.

Mariyam: ASF provides medical, psychosocial and legal support to the victims. What is that the victims need the most?

Valerie: Socio economic support also but everything is as important as any other thing, acid survivors demand and request a holistic approach. I suppose the medical one is the key support though, as all future evolutions also depend on that.

Mariyam– The main aim being rendering back into the mainstream society?

Valerie: Yes, join back the mainstream of society, be “normal: again and more than anything, be safe.” The whole challenge is to empower these survivors and ensure that they can go back to their community without being victimised again; the goal is to shift from victimhood, to survival and change agency and turn them into proactive democratic citizens who will be part of generating positive systemic change.

Mariyam: Does the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill that was passed in the Senate in Pakistan last year, ensures that?

Valerie: No, the Criminal Law Amendment 2011 related to HURT sets a social norm as it officially makes acid throwing a crime against the state. Hence making this anon compoundable and non-bailable offence; in short the accused cannot be bailed out and the crime cannot be settled out of court. It is a path ahead towards protection and better access to justice but as far as empowerment is concerned, you need a full fledge mechanism: Acid and Burn Crime bill 2012.

Mariyam: Has the Acid and Burn Crime bill 2012 been proposed in the Parliament yet?

Valerie: Not yet we are working on it: the final draft is currently lying with Ministry of human rights in ICT and we hope that a provincial assembly will show the way: ideally, it should be Punjab tabling acid and Burn Crime Bill 2012 first as this is where most of those crimes come from.

Mariyam: How far is the legislation aspect highlighted in the movie- Saving Face?

Valerie: The movie talks about the acid and burn legislation as a whole and the amendment of HURT. Acid and Burn Crime Bill 2012 is step 2 of the advocacy and lobbying program related to acid and burn violence; which is going to be our focus now.

Mariyam: Talking about the movie, could you tell more on ASF-Pak’s contribution towards making Saving Face?

Valerie: Saving Face is a pilot creative project: a partnership between civil society organisations and film-makers to raise awareness about not only an issue but rather to raise awareness about the potential solutions to a problem. It answers the following question- Can a movie bring positive systemic change and I believe the answer is yes, film-makers such as Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy or Samar Minallah have proven it: films are excellent tools to gather stakeholders and policy makers together to build a better society. ASF has signed an official MOU with Daniel and Sharmeen (the directors) in this regard.

ASF organised the surgical camp depicted in the movie, in collaboration with Islamic Help and ASTI. ASF has also agents of change to accept, to show what was the rehabilitation, advocacy and lobbying process all about. In short, ASF has ensured that Pakistani progress would be featured in this documentary; it is about showing how Pakistan takes care of its monsters and works to “kill” them.

Mariyam: In terms of Saving Face’s global recognition, how big has been its effect in promoting the cause?

Valerie: The Oscar winning effect has definitely been important: it does show the credibility of ASF’s work at a global level. It has depicted acid violence as a global issue now. But it also offers a new perspective on Pakistan: not the source of the problem anymore but rather a source of inspiration for the solution. That is a big change especially in terms of human rights. We can show the way ahead, others can learn from us, that is what it means.

Mariyam: Acid violence is prominent in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Liberia. Do you a sense a pattern here? What according to you are the underlying causes common to all nations?

Valerie: Frankly speaking we need to be careful when we state that as till date, acid crime is a under reported crime. There is no scientifically relevant data so we do not know if it is more prevalent there, we can just say the majority of cases are so far reported from there (also not sufficient data is available in these regions). But more and more notifications are now coming from other countries since the film was launched, so let us see. Acid violence as gender based violence is endemic and the pattern are always the same: availability of weapon (acid), low level of law implementation, patriarchal mindset, etc. I suppose lack of education and socio economic challenges also play a role. But acid violence is certainly not an Asian specific crime at all! Asians have been prompter to recognise and work on it; that is different.

Mariyam: Quoting Sharmeen Obaid here, she mentioned in one of her interviews-” Saving Face fosters a feeling of hope and seizing responsibility,” in context to that, how can fellow citizens contribute to the eradication to this ill practice?

Valerie: First by reporting crimes but also by teaching their children that it is horrible and non human. Furthermore if they do not stigmatise the victims but rather try to help, things will also change. Change yourself first and the world will change.  Donate, report to the police, volunteer, etc.  Share the good practice with others, vote for people who promote and protect human rights, do not vote for the ones who don’t, support the move for step 2 and 3 of the new laws. That’s the way. Parliamentarians can pass the law, civil society can advocate ad lobby!

Mariyam: Lastly, in what ways can acid violence be immediately addressed by governments?

Valerie: Develop a strong holistic approach to this problem and articulate it as per your context. And learn from best practices, show global solidarity against a global issue.

With Saving Face having made a global impact with its message of putting an end to this horrendous crime, it sure gives hope to all the victims and nations alike. Acid violence is a part of the many evils that still corrode our society, and we all need to stop that through joint efforts.