As Mao Tzedong said, “Women hold up half the sky”, but until recently violence against women and girls has lacked reliable statistics and surveillance systems. Acid throwing, also known as acid attack, has emerged as a new brutal form of violence against women that involves the throwing of sulphuric, nitric or hydrochloric acid onto another person, with the intention to physically, mentally and socially scar another person’s life. Although acid attacks occur worldwide (including Europe, Middle East, North America, North Africa) such violence has become an epidemic in South Asia, especially in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.
There are no fix rules of acid violence. Acid attack victims are girls, women and men, and perpetrated by both women and men who kill or seriously injure family and community members. In some cases the victims and perpetuators are also women, who commit the crime for jealously. Yet, global statistics suggest that attacks are predominantly perpetrated by men as a result of shame, dishonour, traditional perception of women and influences from the media. According to the Acid Survivors Foundation(ASF) total of 3510 individuals were burned in Bangladesh by acid between 1999 and 2013, out of which 2408 (69%) are female. The organization has a vision to free Bangladesh from acid violence and ensure that acid survivors live with dignity. Experts claim that most of the acid violence occurring in very remote areas among women and girls remain unreported, increasing the female population from 69% to 75-80% of the total victims.
The majority of acid attacks victims are usually young women aged from thirteen to thirty five and are attacked by men whose sexual desires are rejected or men taking revenge for rejecting marriage proposals. It is an extension of the idea that “If I can’t have her, then no one can have her,” thereby ruining any chances of having an ‘ideal’ marriage life, house and children. More than 43% of total females acid attack survivors are under the age of 18.
As the Pan America Health Organization (PAHO) suggests 10%-50% of women globally have experienced some sort of physical violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. ASF also reported that half of the acid violence are by the man closest to the victims- married men who get bored by their wives or who want to get dowry from a new wife or who wants to have a son to keep the family tradition. This is because of the embedded patriarchal society where females lack basic rights and are at high risk of violence
Reasons behind Attacks
Reasons for attack vary from rejection of sex and marriage proposal, dowry, family dispute, female infanticide, extramarital affairs, revenge, land or business disputes, sexual jealousy and robbery. The Annual report from ASF statistics emphasizes that dowry, family related dispute and marital dispute consist 21% of reason for acid attack, whereas land or business disputes comprise 39% of total violence. Most disputes related to land, business, property and money occurs between men but perpetrators attack mothers/wives/daughters/sisters of those that they have the disputes as beautiful female members are often considered as ‘pride’ and ‘assets’ of the family.
|Acid Attack Reasons (1999-2013). Source: ASF “Annual Report 2013.”|
The motives of acid throw often differs by country.
In Bangladesh, the highest world-wide reported cases of acid attack, men are the predominant acid throwers whose motivations are over land and business disputes followed by refusal of marriage or sexual proposal, ASF suggests.
The number of reported acid attacks in India has surged. There were 309 reported acid attack cases in 2014 compared to 66 cases in 2013, India home minister reported. In India, acid is poured against women predominantly for hate or revenge. Reshma Qureshi (age 18) and Lalita Ben Bansi (age 21) were attacked for revenge in India. In May 2014, Reshma was visiting her sister in Allahabad when her brother-in-law tried to attack both of them. Reshma tried to escape, when some of the sulphric acid fell on her sister. But her brother-in-law’s friends chased her down a street where she was pinned down and her face doused with acid. She lost her left eye; her right eye is still infected. Her face was severely disfigured. Lalita, meanwhile, was on her way to a fair in October 2012 when an elaborate ordeal emptied the beer bottle filled with acid over her head. She was attacked five months after she yelled at a younger cousin brother during an indoor game. It took three hours for her mother and aunt to get her to a hospital. By then she was blinded, her elbows were stuck at an angle and her nose, ears and eyelids had melted.
In Pakistan, men more commonly throw acid on women over rejection of marriage/sex proposal or women wearing modern or westernized dress. At least 280 women died and 750 suffered injuries in 2002 alone as a result of acid attacks, ASF Pakistan listed. The Oscar-winning documentary about acid attacks in Pakistan, Saving Face, highlighted the stories of two women, Zakia and Rukhsana, where Zakia was attacked by her husband when she made the decision to divorce her addictive husband. In the case of Rukhsana, her husband threw the acid on her then her sister-in-law threw gasoline, and her mother-in-law lit a match and set her on fire. The reason of attack on Rukhsana is unknown and her husband denied the accusation.
In Cambodia, it is more common that women attack other women over sexual jealousy or ‘triangle of loving/relationship affairs’ so that the husbands will not stay with another woman or next wife.
Recently there have been notable acid attacks among Iranian women for not dressing modestly and covering hair. Acid is also commonly used for female genital mutilation (FGM) and preserving girls’ chastity.
There are few factors that contribute to escalate the level of acid attack. First, acid has become a favoured weapon of choice for both men and women because it is cheaper than other forms of weapons and are readily available at stores. In Asian countries, sulphuric acid is as cheap as 30 cents a litre and can be found at any automobile shops.. Second, the legal system are weak and police officers especially in Asian countries are corrupts which often allows perpetrators to avoid justice.
Measures to protect Acid victims
In 2015, the Supreme Court of India ordered private hospitals to bear the entire cost of medical treatment of acid attack survivors, including costly plastic and corrective surgeries. In July 2013, the court ordered the state government to pay the compensation of accumulated 300,000 rupees (€4,500) in installments to the victims. The victims are entitled 100,000 rupees within 15 days of an assault and rest over the subsequents months but lack proper implementation and poor awareness among law enforcers as well as victims. The two Mumbai acid attack survivors Reshma Qureshi and Lalita Ben lack the information about the type of compensation the government offered to acid victims and where to claim. They are not even sure if they can receive the compensation.
For Reshma, it has almost been a year since her family have received a letter from a senior police inspector promising them 100,000 rupees within 15 days and 200,000 rupees over the subsequent two months. But she and her family have yet to receive the state’s compensation. In the case of Lalita, she was provided free medical treatment but was not aware about the compensation. Although Lalita was attacked before the Supreme Court verdict, the court stated in March that every acid victims are eligibility for assistance under the scheme would be implemented, which means Lalita too could approach the government for aid.
In the Indian case, the 300,000 rupees compensation by the state government to the survivors is not enough for the multiple round of plastic surgeries. Aside from the various efforts by state forces, there is a need to wake up to the issue and raise a collective voice against it. Acid violence seldom kills but results in a permanent scar, both physical and mental.
There have been several efforts such as free treatments, compensation from the government and, ‘donate a face’ campaign, to support the victims and raise awareness among people about the experiences of the survivors, but they are not sufficient. There is a need for a national, international and regional working group to share information, raise awareness, improve interventions and prevent acid attack violence.
 Dowry is given by bride’s family in form of money or goods and the wife brings to her husband at marriage.
(This piece was written for 'Words In The Bucket' that published on April 29, 2015.)