We’ve read the reports, we’ve seen the faces with horrified fascination, we’ve tut-tutted, and spoken about how over-the-counter sale of acid should be banned, and how India needs to bring in harsher punishments.
We know the names and the stories – Vidya who was attacked by her lover after his parents wanted to postpone the wedding, Vinodhini who was attacked by a man who wanted to marry her after he lent money to her father, Sonali Mukherjee who begged to be euthanised and later won Rs 25 lakh on Kaun Banega Crorepati Season 6, Shirin Juwaley who founded the Palash Foundation to facilitate the psychosocial rehabilitation of survivors, Hasina Hussain, who was attacked by her former boss for refusing to marry him, Swapnika whose attackers were later killed in an encounter.
And there are the unnamed victims we read about everyday, like the Kashmiri schoolteacher who was attacked by a stalker, Reyaz Ahmad Nath.
These women aren’t even part of a statistic, because there are no figures available on acid attacks against women with the National Crime Records Bureau, as cases are booked under different sections of the Indian Penal Code, ranging from 307 (attempt to murder) to 320 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons).
NGOs such as the Bangalore-based Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women (CSAAAW) and Kolkata-based Acid Survivors Foundation India (ASFI) have initiated work such as the collection of statistics. The former has compiled a list of 68 victims in Karnataka alone, over a 10-year period, while ASFI says the number of acid attack victims could be anywhere between 100 and 1,000 a year.
ASFI also says, based on a study, that the most prominent causes of acid attacks in India are domestic violence, dowry demands, marital rejections and suspicion of infidelity.
Activists are pushing for legislation with provisions such as:
- Inclusion of a section in the IPC dealing specifically with acid attacks
- Acid attack becoming a non-bailable offence
- Enhancement of jail term to 10 years
- Compensation of Rs 10,00,000 to the victim
- Regulation of sale of acid
In most cases, the perpetrators of this crime walk free after spending only months in jail, while their victims bear the effects of the acid for the rest of their lives.
Not only is the judicial process long and lenient on the perpetrators, but the victims must face probing questions both from the lawyers and from the media. In several interviews, Sushma Varma, founder of CSAAAW, has spoken about how the focus is always on the “moral character” of the victim, and what her relationship with the perpetrator was. Can an acid attack be justified if a woman was cheating on her husband? Can it be justified if she had ditched a lover?
Acid attack victims speak of the practical difficulties of living with their injuries. It is not simply about losing their looks. They’re almost always blinded, their limbs are severely damaged, and even daily tasks become impossible without extensive reconstructive surgery.
Surgery is exorbitant, and even the demanded compensation of Rs 10 lakh will not cover the cost of treatment and care.
Finding a job isn’t easy for acid attack victims either. Schoolteachers have been forced to quit because their students found their appearance frightening. Private offices rarely employ these women. And the impairments they suffer from the attack may not allow them to go back to regular jobs, even if there were no stigma against them.
In this context, is there a solution at all?
The Week conducted an experiment, sending one of their photographers to purchase acid over the counter at a hardware store. In a report, the magazine mentions that he asked the salesman whether the acid could burn a person, and he was told it could. The sale wasn’t refused.
It would be impractical to stop the sale of acid. Not only are they used as cleaning agents, but schools and colleges use them in laboratories. Even if the sale of acid were to be regulated, and inspections were to be conducted by authorities, it wouldn’t take long for a racket to start, and for acid to become available in the black market.
Perhaps it would be a better idea to regulate the containers acids are sold in, and ensure that: (a) They are unbreakable (b) Only small quantities can be dispensed at a time. This may not entirely stop acid attacks, but it would help curb them.
Of course, enhancement of prison term may be something of a deterrent, but this doesn’t always work. In Iran, the law permits an eye-for-an-eye, and an acid attack victim Ameneh Bahrami, asked that her attacker, Majid Movahedi, be blinded.
A doctor was all set to pour five drops of acid in each of Movahedi’s eyes, but Bahrami chose to forgive him at the last minute. She had arrived at the decision after an outpouring of horror from human rights organisations, including Amnesty.
However, her magnanimity was rewarded with the denial of compensation to her, from Movahedi – apparently, by forgiving him, she had renounced her right to monetary recompense.
Another problem is that attackers rarely show remorse, and are willing to go to jail for the satisfaction of seeing their victims maimed. For instance, Vijay Bhaskar, the man who killed Vidya was also reported to have been carrying a knife with him. When he missed his mark with his first attempt, he pushed her down and rubbed her face in the acid, which had fallen on the floor. According to reports, he shouted out that this would serve as “a warning to women who plan to cheat innocent men”, even as he was being arrested.
In August last year, posters appeared in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, warning that women who wore jeans would be attacked with acid. A group calling itself Jharkhand Mukti Sangh signed off on the handwritten posters. Local police dismissed it as “mischief”, though they did say they were making attempts to find the people who wrote it.
One of the reasons that acid attacks are so common, aside from the easy availability of acid and the lax laws, is that the attacker knows his – or her – victim must live with the trauma for the rest of her life. The attack is physically, psychologically, socially, and economically crippling.
We need a law that will prevent discrimination against acid attack victims. Their appearance cannot be a valid reason for refusing them jobs. And government bodies need to take the initiative in employing these victims.
This is a crime that no one can take precautions against – women are attacked in their homes, in their workplaces, on roads, in buses. While it is important to look at preventive measures, we also need to examine what we can do to make the lives of acid attack survivors easier.
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The author is a writer based in Chennai.
She blogs at http://disbursedmeditations.blogspot.com