In 2013, the Supreme Court made acid attacks a non-bailable offence. The same year, the Centre also directed states across the country to ban over-the-counter sales of acid to prevent attacks. We’re at the very end of 2018, and clearly, despite the laws and bans, the situation has worsened.

On Thursday night, a 35-year-old female security guard was attacked by two men on her way back from work in Meerut’s Shatabdi Nagar. According to reports, the attackers were allegedly hired by the owner of a school, where the woman was earlier working as an employee. She had in the past ignored the owner’s sexual advances, which apparently miffed the latter.

This case associates with several others, where acid attack survivors bear the brunt because of everything that is wrong in the society – from men who can’t take a “no” to perpetrators believing they can get away with anything.

Why do these attacks happen? Let’s go beneath the surface and take deep a look at the statistics and reasons as to why, as a country, we’re failing in addressing acid attack issues.

Statistics

If we look at figures from 2014, around 225 acid attack cases were recorded in that year, clearly doubling from 2013, which saw 116 reported. In 2012, there were 106 cases. In 2015, 249 such cases were recorded. As per NCRB data, about 300 acid attacks happened in 2016. In Delhi alone, there were 19 attacks and 23 attempts, while Punjab witnessed six acid attacks and 13 attempts.

The NCRB has estimated that there are up to 1,000 attacks a year, with the past two years having seen severe cases.

Yes, the non-comprehensive figures, which may not be exact, disguise the true scale of the problem, but there certainly is no reason to believe that there has been a decrease in this type of crime. Research shows that the majority of survivors are young girls and women and these attacks often occur in public places such as roads, schools and colleges.

The survivors are usually between the ages 14 and 35 years, with attacks often occurring as revenge for rejecting sexual advances or marriage proposals.

Although the government has taken steps to address the problem, the implementation of these stringent steps varies in consistency across states. Acid Survivors Trust International research shows that the total time taken for litigation around a case to end is between five and ten years on an average. In about 76 to 80 per cent of the attacks, the perpetrator is a person who is known to the survivor

Why do these attacks happen?

These attacks can be termed as grave examples of the patriarchal system that runs in the country. Spurned lovers often can’t accept the rejection and hence engineer such attacks.

These cases bring to light not only the flaws of the Indian society, but also of the system that promises to protect women, but fails time and again.

While the majority of acid attack survivors are women, there have also been cases of men being attacked. This is pure gender violence which not only results in physical mutilation, but also leads to psychological and social trauma.

The law

  • It was only in 2013 – after the Nirbhaya gangrape – that the justice system acknowledged the seriousness of attacks on women. Separate sections were introduced in the Indian Penal Code – 326A and 326B – to deal with acid attackers. The offence was made non-bailable with a specification of a minimum of 10 years to life imprisonment on proven guilty.
  • As per law, acid in India can only be sold by licensed shops. The law requires shopkeepers to maintain records of the quantity sold and to whom. Also, the sellers are required to submit all these details to the local police within three days of the transaction. This, however, is rarely followed.
  • The SC in 2013, while ruling on the case of acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal, called for regulation on acid sale. It directed state governments to frame a policy for the welfare of victims. The SC also ruled that state governments should hand over Rs 3 lakh as compensation for survivors and ensure free treatment at any hospital.
  • In 2016, The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act was revised so as to include acid attack survivors as physically disabled. This aimed to provide access to education and employment, with 3 per cent of government jobs reserved for such survivors. However, there’s not much done below the surface with several survivors still unemployed and dejected.

Where is the system going wrong?

Despite a ban, the easy availability of acid in the country is leading the perpetrators to act without the fear of the law.

  • Also, many enterprises that use acid belong to the unorganised sector. Acid, which is used right from toilet cleaning, to jewellery making and in battery shops, car and auto service garages, continues to be easily available thereby.
  • As per law, a shopkeeper can be fined Rs. 50,000 if one doesn’t submit acid purchase records within three days to the police. However, this is hardly ever enforced.

There’s a also a significant need for a change in the patriarchal mindset prevailing in the country

  • Apart from the judicial and legislative transitions, the Indian society has to undergo a huge change when it comes to addressing patriarchy – the root cause of male entitlement and power. The sexist, chauvinist, uneducated practices need to be dismantled if we want to make this society safer for women.
  • Rehabilitation efforts towards survivors may be improving, but we need to solve this issue at its very core.

Finding solutions and how we can learn from Bangladesh

Earlier this year, the National Commission for Women prepared a national digital database of acid attacks in order to exert pressure on state police heads to ensure there’s a speedy redressal and compensation in place.

There’s a thing or two we can learn from our neighbour Bangladesh, as the country has made a remarkable progress in reducing the number of acid attacks.

An acid attack case in Bangladesh is now tracked speedily, so much so that investigations are required to be completed within 30 days. If the investigating officer needs more time, the court has to be informed. Further, the case has to be decided within 90 days. Another factor is that unlicensed production, import, transportation, storage, sale and use of acid can offer a jail term from three to ten years in the region. This law is not only practised without fail, but has also led to a reduction of this crime over the years.

Another country we can learn from is Colombia. The country, after a brutal attack on Natalia Ponce De Leon in 2014, had within two years passed a law named after her, making penalty for acid attacks comparable to that for homicide.

What more we need to do for survivors

The SC has ruled that all public and private hospitals must provide first aid treatment free of cost to the survivors. There’s much more than this that needs to be done now. Acid attack survivors face a plethora of challenges and it breaks them in more ways than one. As per evidences, a woman who has had acid thrown on her face may need about 40 to 50 reconstructive surgeries, or more, depending on the burns. States not only need to set up mechanisms but also fund for all these surgeries and cover all concerned costs. 

There are times when girls are forced to drop out of school and women are compelled to leave their workplaces because of loss of sight, among other reasons. The government needs to make sure these women are trained for suitable jobs through which they can support their livelihood.

There’s much more we as citizens can do, too, to aid them

These acid attacks also happen at large because the country does not treat the perpetrators more severely. The survivors, on the other hand, are not treated generously by the society, adding to their troubles.

When it comes to safety of women, India has a long way to go and multiple measures to take. Acid attacks, however, have been shocking the conscience of the nation time and again. With several efforts already lined up, several more need to be put in place to completely eradicate the country of this barbaric crime.

Also Read: An Acid Attack Survivor’s Suffering Goes Beyond The Physical “Damage”

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