Acid attacks have been defined as a form of violence, in which acid or another corrosive substance is thrown at a person – usually, a woman or a girl – with the intention of maiming, torturing, or killing them(Action Aid, 2020). Women make up 80% of acid attack victims making these types of attacks highly gendered and deeply rooted in misogyny. Acid attacks are prevalent all around the world, however, research has shown that occurrences are most notably in South Asia. The Human Rights Law Network estimates that there were 1000 acid attack cases per year in India, however, only around 250 cases are reported. This article tries to analyze why the law and order of the country failed to tackle acid attacks on women in India.
Acid attacks on women: Common Reasons
A study examining Indian news reports, which depict the motivation of attacks, suggests that 35% of these occurrences were a result of revenge on women for rejecting romantic, sexual, or marriage proposals. There could be many ways to explain and examine why these attacks happen, therefore we must look at wider explanations including cultural, situational, and personal reasons.
Cultural occurrences perhaps stem from deeply rooted sexism and misogyny within society. For example, women experience a subjugated position in society and receive less respect than their male counterparts. Gender inequality not only plays a role in cultural attacks but also class inequality can be significant.
Situational attacks may be influenced by the cost of acid, family education, or as demonstrated above family or land conflicts. Family-related attacks may lie within revenge, jealousy, or suspicion of infidelity.
Personal attacks may be due to the perpetrators’ history for example childhood trauma or poor anger management. However, it can also relate to male shame and the feeling of powerlessness regarding masculinity.
Acid attacks on women are most often committed by a person they already know. Many perpetrators responsible for harming victims, do not have the purpose to kill the victim but to disfigure them- aiming for the victim’s face. The aim to disfigure the women’s face is because a woman’s face is seen as sacred in many societies due to beauty being a large part of social acceptance in communities. The disfigurement of a woman’s face, therefore, has a catastrophic effect on her social life within communities.
The effects of acid attacks are devastating for the victims. They experience permanent physical damage, disfiguration, blindness, and even death. However, the effects can stretch much further than just physical and cause extreme psychological issues such as withdrawal, isolation, and depression. The visible scars and physical disfiguration reduce the chances for the victims to be accepted by society and family, be employed, or lead a normal life. The cost of immediate and long-term treatments and reconstructive surgeries add an additional, lifelong burden to the family of victims.
Acid Attacks on Women in India: What The Country Has Done So Far
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted by the United Nations on the 3rd of September 1981. The convention aims to protect women from “any act of gender-based violence that results in or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life” (United Nations). This convention was ratified by India in 1993. However, India is still failing to protect women from this very violent form of discrimination against women.
The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013
It is really unfortunate that until 2013, India didn’t have any specific legislation for dealing with the horrific crime of acid attacks. In the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act. 2013, sections 326A and 326B were included specifically for dealing with acid attacks and sections 357B and 357C were inserted in the Section 357A of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) –
Regulation on acid Sales
In the same year, the Indian Central Government under the direction of the Supreme Court directed all states and union territories to regulate the selling of acid. The retailers are required to maintain a record of the buyers and declare the amount of acid being stocked to the police and any case of failure in doing so would lead to undeclared stock being confiscated and a fine, It has also barred anyone under the age of 18 from purchasing acids.
The Prevention of Acid Attacks and Rehabilitation of Acid Attack Victims Acts, 2017
In 2017, India revised its Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act and recognized acid attack victims as disabled. This would mean that acid attack victims could have more access and help with finding jobs. However, this law has not been implemented consistently in many states. Not only this, but many human rights activists have argued that the revised law is problematic. Acid attack victims have a unique trauma, this law does not individually consider acid attack victims’ experiences and therefore does not offer adequate support.
The Reality Faced By The Survivors
Acid attack survivors face life-long ordeals and more often than not don’t receive justice.
Many cases are not reported, especially when the perpetrators are from influential backgrounds or related to the victims. Sometimes perpetrators of acid attacks do not disappear after the crime, they stalk and intimidate their victims long after the attack.
Victims from marginalized communities or living in rural or remote areas are often not aware of their rights. They don’t have access to the proper medical and legal support and are often denied legal and medical justice. Government health centers or hospitals in remote areas are not equipped to deal with severe burn injuries of acid-attack victims. As a result, they do not receive immediate medical attention and suffer irreversible physical damage, disfiguration, blindness, or death. Expensive reconstructive surgeries and lifelong treatment needed by many survivors are not covered by the Government.
The legal process is very slow in India. The average time for legal action to be completed is around 5-10 years. High levels of corruption within law enforcement and justice systems make it really challenging to receive justice.
Moreover, social stigma leads to alienating the survivors from society. The government doesn’t ensure the employment, education, or rehabilitation of the survivors. Thus, prioritizing medical care, and dealing with law enforcement and the judicial system becomes a lifelong struggle for the victims and families. Victim-survivors of acid attacks struggle with severe psychological trauma, health complication, poverty, unemployment, and social stigma; while their predators are often set free or receive minimal punishment!
Why Acid Attacks Are On The Rise?
Despite having laws to punish the offenders and putting regulations on acid selling, India fails to tackle acid attacks on women.
Lack of severe punishment, loopholes in the existing laws, corrupt law enforcement, and legal justice system, persisting misogyny and sexism, and toxic culture enforcing male masculinity are some of the main reasons why India has not been successful to prevent acid attacks.
Acid is still easily available and used as an everyday cleaning agent ignoring the regulations and restrictions imposed by the government. The price of acid is also considerably low, often incredibly easy to get a hold of. Many retailers and small business owners have no knowledge of the rules of regulation on the sale and purchase of acid. The government clearly doesn’t care to take sufficient steps to control or track acid sales.
India’s failure to control acid attacks is a classic example of how mere implementation of laws without addressing the root causes can be ineffective in addressing a problem. It is important to consider how we can prevent acid attacks from happening in the first place. There are many factors that can be examined to prevent these violent attacks on women. Research reports underlying causes are essential for providing governments with evidence in order to implement change that will provide the right support and eliminate the inequalities that may be causing these violent attacks.
India needs to begin to dismantle and change ideas at a cultural level. Many of these attacks have demonstrated that misogyny and sexism are at the core of this violent crime. Therefore prevention lies in changing ideas at a young age. Education is a crucial tool for changing ideas over time, it teaches both boys and girls to respect each other as equals. It also encourages girls to be able to achieve the same as boys can. The normalization of women in high positions such as leadership can help shift ideas at a cultural level and provide a safer future for women. Changing toxic male masculinity and misogyny needs a shift of culture and mindset.
As discussed earlier, an acid attack does not just harm a victim physically but also heavily affects the survivor’s well-being. It is absolutely imperative that survivors are supported by mental health counselors who put the victim’s needs as a priority. Rebuilding victims’ lives is a long and complex process. Therefore, the right support must be provided.
NGOs supporting the acid attack survivors
Chhanv Foundation is a Non-Profit Organisation in India working for the rehabilitation of acid attack survivors followed by providing medical assistance, legal assistance, education help, and employment.
Meer Foundation: Aside from providing holistic rehabilitation to the survivors, the Meer Foundation builds partnerships with other organizations to support the survivors, creates targeted awareness campaigns against acid attacks, and conducts research.
Make Love Not Scars : Along with providing medical and legal aid, supports acid attack survivors to recover both psychologically and socially. Make Love Not Scars runs several campaigns and awareness programs. They ran a campaign named #EndAcidSale, which called for a universal ban on acid sales. The campaign won numerous awards such as the Kyoorius Awards, a couple of Effies, and multiple Cannes Film Festivals awards including a glass lion! In 2017, Founder, Ria Sharma won the United Nations Bill and Melinda Gates Goalkeepers Global Goals Award, becoming the first Indian to receive the honor.