This article has been written by Diya Banerjee, Symbiosis Law School, NOIDA. This article talks about the reasons why acid attacks continue to be the most grievous assault, especially in the South Asian Countries.
According to statistics, it was estimated that the percentage of acid attacks in India which were disposed of by the courts was 6.6 in 2016 and 9.9 in 2017 while the number of acid attack cases are nearly 300 per year although survivor advocates say that the actual number of cases, reported and unreported, add up to an average of 1000.
India is the land where goddesses are worshipped through huge and elaborate rituals and celebrations and on the other hand, females in a household are subjected to humiliation, abuse and violence. More so, to add salt to the wound, the women who come forward to raise the curtain to the wrong being done to them, they are counter-questioned ‘what’s the proof?’ by their near and dear ones. Such questions are accusatory in nature because in most cases, there is no solid proof to back the allegations by the aggrieved party and they get labelled as ‘liars’ or worse, get ‘punished’ for actually doing the right thing. And the punishment refers to teaching them a lesson via more forms of abuse, ranging from severe degrees of harassment to fatal cases of acid attacks. Some women are fortunate enough to survive the attacks and most succumb to their burns but are the ones who survive really ‘fortunate’? What happens to the ones who did this? And the most important question, why are the statistics of such violent acts so high in India?
Violence against women : history and now
If you have watched any historical drama or movie, you might have seen how women were always kept behind the purdah and only involved in household chores. During such times, the females of the household were taught to treat their husbands and sons as their lord, protector and superior. All this coupled with a severe lack of education among women gave the recipe of ‘women’s oppression’. Young girls were taught to put their male counterparts above them and young boys were taught how to keep their female counterparts confined to their four household walls.
This kind of education was practically drilled into the young minds and soon took the form of a societal norm and any deviance from them was seen as an act of protest. The treatment after such acts of protest was different for both the genders, men would be scolded and accepted because ‘men are men’ whereas a woman who asked a mere question of why are females subjected to such discrimination would be ostracised from the family or worse, left behind by her husband. This mentality gradually led to what we know as ‘toxic masculinity and mentality’ and the shift toward growing physical and mental violence against women.
Don’t get it wrong, violence against women has existed since time immemorial but in the contemporary society, we can finally track the ups and downs in the number of cases which are reported annually and study the reasons. There are few statistics by the World Health Organization which will help us rule out the most common reasons behind various forms of violence against women.
- Violence and abuse in the hands of sexual partners is the major problem in public health (globally) and a violation of women’s rights.
- 35% of women worldwide have experienced sexual violence/abuse in the hands of their intimate partners or a form of non-partner sexual violence. 30% makes up for violence by intimate partners.
- Globally, 38% of women are murdered by their male partners.
- Sadly, the contribution of the South Asian countries to the global estimate of violence against women is the highest with 37.7%.
- Intimate partner and sexual violence or abuse are mostly crimes perpetrated by men against women.
In 2019, an online poster released by the Womenstats Project showed that in countries like Russia, South Africa, Mexico, South America and Pakistan the violence against women is highly likely to end with their murder with comparatively lesser chances to actually get prosecuted for it.
The forms of violence and abuse can range from abduction to murders but acid attacks still remain the most heinous of the crimes because not only it makes the woman suffer more but also because there are not many specific and stricter laws on this particular issue in many countries.
Reasons for prevalence of acid attacks in Society
In the above stats, it was found that most of the cases of violence against women are perpetrated by their male partners which is also the same for cases of acid violence against women. Most of the reasons why acid attacks are still prevalent in the world are because-
- The internalization of the ‘fact’ that women are lower to men and the ‘property’ of men has led to the degradation of women when it comes to respecting their right to personal choices and opinions. 18% of the acid violence survivors admitted that they were punished for voicing out their opinions regarding property disputes and division by their husbands or in-laws because women are ‘supposed’ to make it through whatever is given to them or pre-decided for them.
- The Deepika Padukone movie ‘Chhapak’ made headlines because it brought to light how most of the acid attacks are results of ‘rejections’ men faced. 6 out of 10 cases of acid attacks are a result of a woman rebuffing romantic and sexual advances made by a man whom she knows as either a relative or acquaintance. Younger women are more likely to fall victim to such attacks, ages ranging from as young as 10 to 19 years.
- Even after the Supreme Court passed an order regarding the regulation of the sale of acid, it can still be bought over-the-counter because most of the acids which are used to disfigure the victims are used for the household purpose of cleaning. Most of the retailers who sell acids slack off from their duty to register the names and address of the buyer after checking for a valid photo identity if they see that the one purchasing is a regular buyer from their shop. A social experiment by Deepika Padukone after the release of her movie ‘Chhapak’ proved that unregulated and over-the-counter sale of acids continues even after legal regulations.
- The sick mindset of society is also one of the reasons why such attacks continue to occur. Recently, a TikTok artist with the name Faizal Siddique was suspended from the platform after his video was shown to be ‘glorifying’ acid attack. More sad is the fact that there are women who collaborate on such videos for the sole reason to get more likes and fame.
- Another reason for such forms of violence to exist is the lack of education of both men and women regarding mutual respect and human rights, exposure of men to violence since their childhood, exposure to seeing the females in their household getting such treatments from the elder men of the house and unequal gender social norms making it acceptable for men to harm and violate women and that men have entitlement over women.
- Acid attacks are mostly ‘crimes of passion’ out of jealousy of a man. It is a crime greatly associated with marriage and relationships, most of them being about a man’s ‘honour’ being demeaned by a woman who refused to marry or settle with him.
Suffering of the victims and survivors
Describing the physical damage acid causes to a person is not an easy task but everyone knows how it is. Acid can burn through two layers of the skin, into the fat and muscle underneath and if the burns are of higher degree, it can go down to the bone and dissolve the bone itself. And it is not a matter to be taken lightly if bones can be dissolved. Surgeries can only restore the basic ability to hear, see, feel and smell but that is also a maybe. In many cases, the nose and eyes which are rebuilt only act for appearance sake.
The psychological effect can be even more painful to bear, not only for the victim but also for the family. The victim lives with the mental image as a disfigured and unacceptable part of the society and the family lives with the regret of being helpless and unable to help improve the situation. The victim develops various mental conditions like depression, insomnia and has nightmares of the attack. Furthermore, she is treated as an ‘alien’ because even in the so-called modern era, physical beauty is way more desired than inner beauty. These psychological and mental disturbances have claimed many innocent lives of young women who had done nothing wrong other than distancing themselves from stalkers and creeps. And those who somehow continue to survive have little to nothing left of their self-respect, self-dignity, self-love, self-acceptance and empowerment.
Social and Economic consequences
- The victims who are unmarried are unlikely to ever get married because society is not broad-minded enough to accept a permanently disfigured woman in their family. We refuse to look at their faces because they are not ‘pleasing’ to the eyes.
- They are refused jobs because they do not have the personality the employer is looking for and their presence might negatively affect the profit of a business.
What has been done and what more is needed
In Southeast Asia, the three countries where acid attacks have been on the rise are Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Some legislations were brought in order to curb the growing trend of acid attack and punishing those who promote such activities. But even these legislations have not really been fruitful to reduce the numbers. However, they are a positive step forward to a future where acid attacks would no more be a common and unsurprising offence. Nevertheless, this is not the end of the efforts to stop acid violence, a lot more is yet to be done and it has to be seen that laws and rules which are enforced in the future produce results.
The Supreme Court in 2013 gave the ruling that the sale of acid should be regulated and anyone who wants to buy acid has to provide a valid photo identity card to the retailer and the retailer has to register the name and address of the buyer before handing over the product. Section 326A of the Indian Penal Code lays down the punishment for an acid attack. It involves a minimum of 10 years as punishment which can extend up to life imprisonment along with fine. Section 326B of the Indian Penal Code lays down a minimum of 5 years of imprisonment extending to 7 years with fine in cases of attempted acid throwing.
In Pakistan, Section 336B of Pakistan Penal Code lays down anyone who causes harm by acid attack shall either be imprisoned for not less than 14 years which can extend to life imprisonment along with a fine of one million rupees.
According to the Qisas law under Section 299, the perpetrator could suffer the same fate as the victim, only if the victim or the victim’s guardians choose to go for it. It is more of a tit-for-tat approach to the problem to act as a deterrent by instilling a sense of fear in anyone who thinks to do such a terrible act.
The Acid Crime Control Act lays down a division of the sentences one is to be awarded with respect to the injuries caused to the victim. If the victim suffers any kind of loss of hearing or sight or damage to her face, breasts or sex organs, the perpetrator will either be imprisoned for life or awarded the death penalty. If any other body part or organ is damaged then imprisonment from 7 to 14 years along with a fine of USD $700. If it was an attempt with no physical or mental harm then imprisonment for 3-7 years with USD $700 as fine. The accomplices to the act will be treated as if they themselves carried out the crime.
The Acid Control Act regulates the sale, storage, trade, misuse and disposal of acid along with carrying out awareness programs and drives to sensitize the society of any new development in the respective law and treatment and rehabilitation of acid attack victims.
Even to this day, the ones who advocate for the equal rights and treatment of women and for the proper punishment for the ones who commit such horrendous crimes against women get called ‘misandrist’. The ones who survived through the horrors of having their bodies disfigured are still told to cover themselves in veils so that others do not get ‘scared’ by the results of a hateful crime. As if the bodily scars which these women will carry for the rest of their lives is not enough, the people who choose to turn a blind eye to their plight scar them with low-self esteem and self-loathing. The legal system of India has also failed the acid attack victims due to their frustratingly slow procedure. In the very beginning of the article, it was mentioned that the percentage of cases disposed of by the courts rose from 6.6. In 2016 to a mere 9.9 in 2017. This does not really inspire confidence and hope now, does it?
The only way to really do something about acid violence is to deal with toxic masculinity and changing the mentality of the society from ‘women are under men’ or ‘not meant for equal treatment to women’ to ‘women are self-sufficient’ and ‘women are equal to their counterparts’. Tackling the issue of toxic masculinity cannot start until and unless victim blaming stops. No one ever asks to be destroyed and abused, so why should we blame them? It is not the job of the judiciary or those in power to teach us what respecting each other means, their job is to give justice and rules we are supposed to follow so that such acts never happen. It is our duty to actually maintain the peace and harmony, law and order at the grassroots because only then right and correct measures can be taken and enforced at the macro level with positive results.
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- National Research Council. (1996). Understanding violence against women. National Academies Press.
- Patel, Mamta. (2014). A Desire to Disfigure: Acid Attack in India. International Journal of Criminology and Sociological Theory, Vol. 7, No. 2. 1-11.
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