In South Asia we come up with novel ways to maim and murder our women. We kill them in the womb, we kill them when they are newborns and, if they’re lucky to survive into adulthood, we douse them with kerosene and set them alight. We pull them into SUVs, rape them and then casually toss them out on the sidewalk as we would a can of Coke.
We also throw acid on their faces – perhaps the worst form of torture. This way you don’t just kill a woman and put her out of her suffering (after all there is peace in death) but condemn her to something much worse – a living death, a lifetime in hell on earth. The victim becomes a pariah – she is shunned by society, employers, sometimes even by her own family.
The Supreme Court recently pulled up the Centre for failing to take adequate measures to stop acid attacks. According to activists, India records more than 1000 cases every year. There are several more which do not figure in police records. The problem is not limited to India. In June this year, 18-year-old Bushra Waiz, a Pashto-language singer and actor who has been entertaining audiences since the age of 13, was splashed with acid by one of her Pakistani colleagues. The reason he gave for doing so is the reason given by most attackers – she had rejected his marriage proposal. Throughout South Asia, these ‘spurned lovers’ are seldom punished, and even if they go to prison, they are soon out on bail. The message they seem to be sending out is this: ‘If I can’t have her, then no one else can.’
It is a myth that these attacks happen only in moffusil towns or rural areas. It’s wrong to assume that urban English-speaking women are somehow immune to this. Every single woman is vulnerable. In one widely reported incident, a Mysore landlord attacked a young doctor who was living alone with her 4-year-old son. She had rejected his advances and even managed to get a restraining order issued. In 2006, actress Kangana Ranaut’s sister had acid thrown on her by a young man in Dehradun’s Karanpur locality. This was done in broad daylight in a crowded neighbourhood.
There have been other cases. Husbands have been known to do it to their wives, just because the wife complained of the husband’s chronic drinking and gambling. In-laws have done it for dowry. Property disputes are another cause, though not so much in India where it’s mostly jilted lovers sulking and skulking around with bottles of sulphuric acid.
The painful consequences of acid burns are well known. Skin tissue melts, bones dissolve and one’s eyes are reduced to hollow sockets. Multiple and very expensive surgeries are required, which are beyond the reach of most.
How can this be stopped? By putting curbs on the sale of acid. In South Asia, acid – sulphuric, nitric or hydrochloric – is cheaply and easily available at every neighbourhood grocer’s. We still use acid to clean our toilets and unblock kitchen drains. It’s a mystery why we continue with this, because there are now several safer and more effective alternatives available.
We can take a leaf out of Bangladesh’s example where acid attacks have come down significantly after stringent laws were enacted and enforced. The Acid Offences Prevention Act 2002 and the Acid Control Act banned the open sale of acids, and imposed stringent punishment (including the death penalty) and a fine on offenders. Investigations have to be completed within 30 days and the trial within 90 days. Dedicated Prevention Tribunals have been set up with the sole objective of looking into these crimes.
In India, acid offences were included in the Sexual Assault Bill 2012. But a proposal to make perpetrators compensate victims and foot their medical expenses was inexplicably dropped. This proposal needs to be immediately revived. The government has agreed to pay a compensation of 2 lakhs, which is not adequate. This needs to be raised. Acid victims are people with severe disabilities and as such they deserve the same benefits that are offered to the physically challenged: a monthly pension, concessions on public transport and reservations in higher education and jobs.
The indiscriminate retail sale of acid ought to be brought under the Explosives Act. This simple measure will restrict its storage and distribution, and make sure that transactions are recorded accurately, particularly at the point of sale.
This will help the state keep a record of those buying the deadly liquid, thus preventing its misuse. A maximum of 10 years behind bars is not punishment enough for destroying someone’s life in a matter of seconds. The government should look into extending the period of incarceration to life imprisonment. Throwing acid is a capital offence even in Iran.
The Centre has dragged its feet on the issue for years. Time is running out. We need to make sure that such incidents do not happen in the future, and those who are affected are provided with money, medical help and counselling. Even the feistiest of victims do not find it easy to live their lives. Fakhra Younous was 22 (and drop dead gorgeous) when her husband, who comes from an elite political family in Pakistan, poured acid on her. Her crime – she dared ask him for a divorce. Younous relocated to Italy where she underwent 38 painful reconstructive surgeries over a period of 13 years. She relentlessly campaigned for victims of acid attacks. Last year she jumped to her death from her 6th floor apartment.