REPORTING FROM ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Every year, scores of Pakistani women are disfigured in acid attacks, usually at the hands of husbands or relatives. The attacks, often brought on by fits of jealousy or rage, go largely ignored and rarely prosecuted.
On Sunday, activists working to raise awareness of the plight of acid attack victims received a major boost with Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's acceptance of the Oscar for short subject documentary.
Obaid-Chinoy's film, "Saving Face," chronicles the struggles of acid-attack survivors as well as the efforts of a British Pakistani doctor who performs reconstructive surgery on women disfigured in such attacks.
"We're so very proud," said Valerie Khan, chairwoman of the Islamabad-based Acid Survivors Foundation, a non-government organization that works to improve the prospects for justice and rehabilitation for victims of acid attacks. "This is an achievement by a Pakistani woman who is fighting for Pakistani women. So it's highly symbolic."
Khan estimates that as many as 200 acid attacks occur in Pakistan each year. In more than 70% of the attacks, the victims are women or girls. Recently, activists have made strides in fighting for the rights of the victims. Last fall, Pakistan passed a law that established tougher penalties for an acid-attack conviction -- 14 years to life behind bars and a fine of up to $11,000.
However, further strengthening of laws relating to acid attacks is needed, Khan says, and Obaid-Chinoy's Oscar is the kind of achievement that can fuel momentum for tougher legislation. New legislation in the works would establish witness protection mechanisms to ensure testimony in court, and set aside government funding for victims' rehabilitation expenses.
Obaid-Chinoy spent a year and a half filming in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and rural areas in Punjab province. In accepting the Oscar, she paid tribute to "all the women in Pakistan working for change. Don't give up on your dreams. This is for you."
Born in 1978 in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, Obaid-Chinoy has crafted a career as a skilled documentary filmmaker, winning an Emmy in 2010 for her film "Pakistan's Taliban Generation." Her win Sunday marks the first time a Pakistani director has won an Oscar.
In Karachi, Obaid-Chinoy's mother, Saba Obaid, said her daughter will be greeted "with garlands at the airport" when she returns. "God willing, this film will bring positive change in the future and changes in policymaking," Obaid told Pakistani media at a televised news conference. "And God willing, such crimes against women in Pakistan will end."
-- Alex Rodriguez
Photo: Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Daniel Junge with their Oscars for short-subject documentary. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times