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Acid attacks: A scar on India

Acids found easily and cheaply across the country are increasingly being used as a weapon against women.

Last updated: 24 Jan 2014 08:46
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Acid attacks continue to be reported in absence of proper enforcement of laws [Stop Acid Attacks]

Shabana Khatun, 21, from the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, was in love with a boy and wanted to marry him. She had known him for four years, and one Saturday evening in June last year, she was invited to meet his family and seek permission for their marriage.

Soon after Shabana arrived at her boyfriend's house, his family started assaulting her.

In the course of her long ordeal, she was force-fed one bottle of acid, resulting in severe internal injuries. Since then she has been unable to eat anything solid, and survives on a liquid diet. Her assailants, meanwhile, remain free, and are not yet facing criminal charges.

Shabana was yet another victim of what has now come to be known in the country as "acid attacks". With acids - something as ubiquitous as toilet-cleaning liquids readily available at the corner store and as cheap as 30 cents a litre, these assaults have emerged as a preferred weapon of violence against women.

Acid attacks have few parallels in their gruesomeness, and victims, such as Shabana would vouch for their viciousness.

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More than a year later, she is still in pain and the scars on her body are far from being healed.

"One of them pinned me down while another held my hands and legs. The father of my boyfriend then forced acid down my throat," she says, shuddering while recounting her ordeal.

As she slipped into unconsciousness, her assailants grew bolder. They stripped off her clothes and had the remaining acid thrown at her private body parts. While she was conscious, her boyfriend silently watched.

Following the widely reported, deadly gang rape of a medical student in New Dehli in December 2012,  Indian lawmakers are waking up to the issue of violence against women and to the plight of the likes of Shabana. Indian society is now raising its collective voice against the scourge.

Senseless crime

"It's a senseless crime that has no place in this country. Acid attacks are a blot on India," says Subrata Ghosh, a Kolkata-based activist who has been trying to raise funds for the reconstructive surgery that another acid attack victim needs to undergo to fix her disfigured face.

Indians such as Ghosh are shamed by the assaults, but their perpetrators see them as means to restore their own honour and pride.

In Shabana's case, the boyfriend's parents felt that she had sullied the family reputation by having an affair with their son. For them and millions of others in this conservative country, match-making arranged by family elders is the preferred mode of marriage.

Strangely, the reasons behind such attacks are often trivial.

Sonali Mukherjee, living in Dhanbad in eastern India, had one evening objected to the pranks of some neighbourhood boys. Under normal circumstances, it should have ended just as a street argument. But then the boys - their pride hurt at being challenged by a dimunitive girl - chose to take the acid route. They threw acid at Sonali through the window while she slept in the night.

From petty quarrels to being jilted in love affairs, reasons provoking acid attacks are varied.

There is no official data available on acid attacks, but majority of the reported cases indicate the primary targets are young women. [Stop Acid Attacks]

No official figures exist on the number of attacks in the country, but going by the increasing frequency of such incidents reported in the local media, there is unanimity that it is growing.

A helpline for women in distress set up in the national capital, New Delhi, received 56 complaints of acid attacks in the first quarter of 2013.

Even the normally slothful federal government has been forced to take notice of the trend: in the wake of the notorious December gang rape, it set up a committee headed by a retired chief justice to audit existing laws and suggest measures to make them more stringent.

The Justice JS Verma report has recommended that separate laws be made to deal with acid attacks.

But as voices grow stronger for harsher laws and severe punishment to deal with acid attacks, victims continue to suffer in silence.

Growing numbers

Every few days, there are reports of acids being thrown at some girl in some part of this vast country. Two sisters had acid thrown on them by a landlord for their inability to pay rent on time. Another girl was attacked similarly by her teacher whose amorous overtures she had rejected.

The spate of attacks have, however, spurred action. Some victims, such as Sonali of Dhanbad, went on live television to raise money for her treatment and awareness about acid victims.

One person who has fought relentlessly for stricter laws and better compensation is Laxmi from New Delhi. The 23-year-old was herself an acid attack victim, when a man and a woman threw acid on her seven years ago near a shopping mall.

After eight reconstructive surgeries, she still struggles to perform basic physical needs.

India tightens rules to curb acid attacks

Physically disabled, she nevertheless had enough mental strength. She petitioned the top court against the Indian government, questioning why acids - some of which are used for industrial purporses - were readily available across the country.

She also demanded better compensation and free medical treatment for victims.

Her legal action prompted the apex court to order the Law Commission to submit a report on the acid attacks.

One of the observations of the Law Commission was: "Acid violence is a premeditated act of violence as the perpetrator of the crime carries out the attack by first obtaining the acid, carrying it on him and then stalking the victim before executing the act.

"The acid is usually thrown at victim's face, the perpetrator wants to disfigure the victim and turn them into monster."

The Law Commission report was followed by a Supreme Court ruling to regulate the sale of acids. Acid attacks also now carry lengthier jail sentences.

But activists say laws would not necessarily change mindsets and reverse the grisly trend.

“Mere writing a law will not change things on the ground, all agencies will have to come together to implement it in its true spirit. The fear of law and punishment within a stipulated time is necessary to save girls like Shabana," says Pious Ahuja, a law student from Washington College of Law, who is helping Shabana to fight her legal battle against her attackers. 

Pious along with StopAcidAttacks.org has set up a crowd-funding account on the Internet to help Shabana with her medical expenses and rehabilitation. More people are expected to come forward to protect and help girls such as Shabana.

"Legislation can be the first step in saving India's vulnerable women population," says Alok Dixit from StopAcidattacks.org. "But societal change is what is needed, in addition to having better laws."

Sitting at her home, Shabana is left to tend to her scars and await such changes. "The change shall only come if rights of women as equal citizens are recognised and enforced," she says.

Follow Kamal Kumar on Twitter: @kamalpkumar

This feature is a part of our ongoing special India coverage. To read more stories click here.

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Al Jazeera
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