by Hanan Chemlali*
Acid attack is a heinous form of violence, one that has instantaneous and lifelong consequences for victims and survivors. Acid violence constitutes a perennial rights violation issue for women in several Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Cambodia.
Even though acid violence occurs against men and boys, it is categorized as gender-based violence due to its disproportionate impact on women. The perpetrators usually aim for a woman’s face in an attempt to disfigure what is considered by many in the society as key for a woman – her beauty. Thus, such attacks are aimed at causing irreversible damage, i.e. tremendous physical and mental suffering to victims and survivors for life.
The substances used in these attacks are usually hydrochloric, sulfuric, or nitric acid, which rapidly burn through flesh and bone. Such acids are cheap and easily available in the market. Acids are often sold as toilet cleaners across South Asia. A bottle of sulfuric acid sells in Dhaka, Bangladesh for as little as Tk. 15 ($0.15 USD).A liter of the same in Phnom Penh, Cambodia sells for approx. 3,000 Riels ($0.72 USD), and battery acid costs only 500 Riels ($0.12 USD). In India and Pakistan, a liter of hydrochloric acid costs between Rs. 16 and Rs. 25 ($0.37 to $0.57 USD).
Gender inequality and discrimination prevalent in society, the easy accessibility and cost of acid, and impunity for acid attack perpetrators, are factors related to this form of violence prevailing in the aforementioned countries. These attacks are well-known for spreading fear amongst women. The message is: if women disobey hegemonic gender norms and roles, which discriminate against them and keep them subordinated, they will fall victim to this cruel practice.
Like other forms of violence against women, acid violence is not an arbitrary phenomenon. Rather, this form of violence is a social phenomenon entrenched in a gender order that has traditionally privileged patriarchal control over women, where the use of violence is justified to maintain this order.
Though this form of violence has been in the news for a long time, attention to criminalise it is recent. The Bangladeshi Government introduced acid specific legislation in 2002. The Pakistani Government addressed it in the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2011. The Cambodian Government passed related legislation in 2012. Through a criminal amendment Act, acid attacks were criminalised in 2013 in India as well. Additionally, in July 2013, India’s Supreme Court’s ruled that authorities must regulate the sale of acid and that in every case of acid attack, the victim must be paid 300,000 Rupees, of which 100,000 should be released within 15 days of the incident.
However, despite these legal developments, women continue to be targeted. AHRC recently received information from Women in Governance (WinG-Assam); a network of women activists in Assam, India, regarding an acid attack on two young girls on November 6, 2013, in the state of Assam. One woman, and her family members, were attacked by a group of men when she rejected one of the attackers’ indecent proposal. The victim assistance scheme framed in India took a long time to come into effect in this case. After a long battle, on March 13, 2014, the district legal service authority sanctioned compensation for the acid survivor and the family members partially injured during the attack. This was achieved only after an extensive lobbying with the Guwahati High Court and State Legal Service Authority.
It must be mentioned that the survivor and her family addressed the authorities in the State multiple times since the day of the vicious assault to pray for justice and assistance with treatment.
The Indian police as a whole is yet to stop victim blaming. This case fared no different. The survivor and her family repeatedly visited the local police station. There, the survivor was accused of inciting the attack. A senior police officer commented upon the character of the victim, saying that the incident took place because she “was a girl with immoral character”.
In this incident, it took the district legal service authority over three months to compensate the victim what is rightfully guaranteed by jurisdiction as state sponsored relief. This delay endangered medical rehabilitation; acid violence survivors often need to undergo numerous complicated surgical procedures.
There are multiple barriers to justice for victims, which include effects of permanent physical damage and extensive psychological, social, and economic difficulties.
The case of the recent acid attack in Assam, India, is unfortunately not unique – it paints a picture of the manifold dimensions of the issue that manifest themselves repeatedly.
Statements, like the one made by the senior police official in Assam, demonstrate the insensitivity and social stigma the victims are forced to weather. Due to several unpleasant encounters in the process of reporting acid attacks, where victims have been harassed and ridiculed by police officers, victims have become reluctant to report even such severe assaults. This has led to a large number of unreported incidents, making statistics unrepresentative and adding to impunity and police inaction. Consequently, the cruel practice continues unpunished.
Such social stigma is widespread in Asian societies, where victims eventually become outcasts, isolated from public space. The attack itself is often justified by perpetrators as a necessity to restore their honour, whereas the victim is forced to live with the psychological scar of shame for the rest of their life.
As seen generally in violence against women, another factor that increases the risk of an acid attack is the socioeconomic status of the victim. Research has shown clear correlation between poverty and gender-based violence. The three countries with the most noted incidence of acid attacks are India, Cambodia, and Bangladesh, with respective ranks of 114th, 104th, and 93rd out of 136 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index, published by World Economic Forum (WEF), which measures levels of equality between women and men.
Acid attack victims often have weak socioeconomic status, and medical procedures following such attacks are costly. What this eventually does is contribute to the already tremendous psychological trauma, adding on to what the perpetrator wanted in the first place: to permanently disfigure, damage, and scar the victim and her entire life.
Another concern is the lack of adequate education of medical personnel to treat acid attack survivors. The acidic substances do irreversible and unalterable damage to the human body if not treated promptly and correctly. Immediate treatment and care is of outmost importance.
There is a vital need for more legal attention across Asian countries. The question that arises in the face of recent legal initiatives is whether special laws have been able to restrain and reduce crimes of violence against women?
Despite the legally binding amendments in certain Asian countries, incidents like the recent attack in Assam, India, illustrate that the law is neither respected nor correctly implemented. It is a State’s obligation to provide redress to victims for the human rights violations they have suffered. To ensure justice for acid attack survivors, states need to guarantee coordination between legal and medical authorities.
International Human Rights committees and tribunals regularly emphasize the significance of the right to health, and the right to be free from inhuman, cruel, or degrading treatment. Even though acid violence has become common relatively recently, it is considered as a Harmful Traditional Practice referred to in the Convention on the Rights of the Child Article 24(3), the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) Articles 2, 5, and 16, and several regional instruments.
As signatories to CEDAW, governments are obligated to take appropriate legislative measures prohibiting all discrimination against women. Article 5a states that State Parties shall take all appropriate measures to […] “modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women”. Commitments to these legal standards is often found missing in Asia.
Acid violence against women in Asia must not be seen in isolation, but as a part of a much broader anti-social gender demeaning behavioural pattern, which illustrates deep rooted inequalities in society – political and economic – in which these demoralizing assaults occur.
Acid attacks rarely kill, but do they not take lives? Acid attacks causes severe physical, psychological, and social scarring and victims are often left with no legal recourse and inadequate (financial) access to medical or psychological assistance. They constitute violations of human rights as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Prosecution, punishment, and compensation to victims are only small parts of the solution.
As stated by Kofi Annan on Women’s International Day March 8, 1999: “Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation, and it is perhaps the most pervasive.” The real challenge we face is in finding remedies to treat the severely infected gender insensitive wound hiding behind legal/governmental band-aid initiatives.
* Hanan Chemlali is an intern at Asian Human Rights Commission