Eight years after suffering a violent acid attack, Laxmi (22) can finally celebrate. On Thursday 18 July, seven years after filing a public interest litigation (PIL) against the sale of acids (mostly hydrochloric or sulphuric acids, which are usually used as cleaning solutions) and with help from the supreme court, the government passed an order to regulate the sale of corrosive substances which have permanently scarred thousands of women in India.
Previously it has been incredibly easy for perpetrators to get their hands on acids as they are sold in almost every general store in the country. An article by the Hindustan Times reported that the new legislation requires stores to have a licence to sell acids and that the purchaser will have to submit a photo identity card to buy it. A reason why he or she is purchasing the acid is also required. In addendum, if an attack takes place the accused can not be granted bail, which previously was the case. However, a proposal which would require the perpetrators to compensate victims (including covering medical expenses) was unfortunately dropped.
Acid attacks on women have become frighteningly common in India with at least three cases reported on average per week. Women around the country, who have had their lives irreparably damaged, have been left to suffer the ostracising effects and bear the crippling medical expenses. Fortunately, the response from many victims has been quite positive and young activists like Laxmi have been the catalyst for change. In 2005 Laxmi was attacked while waiting for a bus in central Delhi. A man, who had his advances previously spurned, attacked her with an accomplice and splashed acid on her face. She suffered facial burns and divided her time between visiting numerous doctors and staying indoors. If she had to leave her home, she only did so with her face covered. Despite her injuries and the resulting trauma, a year after the attack she filed her PIL requesting the ban of acids, citing the increasing number of attacks on women. Furthermore, with the help of her lawyer she pursued her aggressors and the man accused was sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2009.
While there are no accurate statistics on acid attacks and how frequently they happen, there is enough evidence to suggest that it is a widespread problem. Between January 2002 to October 2010, 153 incidences were reported upon by Indian print media and 174 judicial cases were reported during the year 2000. However, some believe that this is an underestimation as most attacks are not reported in the news and not all the victims report the crimes to the police. Even when attacks were reported to the police, they were often listed as grievous harm or attempted murder and not as acid attacks. A recent report by the Avon Global Centre for Women and Justice suggested that there are around 1000 acid attacks annually in India.
Like Laxmi, the reasoning behind most attacks is usually because of spurned advances or a rejected marriage proposal. In other cases the victim may have requested a divorce from the attacker or there was a disagreement over a dowry. In certain circumstances the attacker has take offence to the victim because of her looks and usually claims that the victim takes too much pride in her appearance. In most cases in India it is indeed almost always a woman being attacked even though there are occasional reports of acid attacks on men.
The damage caused by the acid can be physically and psychologically devastating: skin melts and merges; ears (which are mostly cartilage) are completely corroded away and can be damaged beyond repair; blindness in one or both eyes and sometimes internal injuries can ensue. The attacks can even lead to death. In May, Preeti Singh Rathi (25) died after she was attacked in Mumbai. She passed away after suffering from liver and kidney infections which were caused by the attack. So far the attacker has not been identified.
The Government finally began to introduce legislation to tackle the attacks this year. In April 2013, following the horrific gang rape and murder of a 23 woman on a bus in Delhi last December, a new law was introduced. This law defines an acid attack as a separate India Penal Code offence and proposes punishment of not less than 10 years to a maximum of life imprisonment for perpetrators and a fine that could go up to Rs 10 lakh (12,000 EUR). However, at the time there was no discussion on restricting the availability of acids.
That's why the work done by Laxmi is seen as such an important step. It has been shown that restricting access to the substances can help prevent attacks. Reports indicate that in neighbouring Bangladesh, the introduction of more stringent measures to monitor the sale of corrosive substances and increasing the prison sentence, has led to a decrease from 367 reported cases in 2002 to 119 in 2009. While not a perfect system (it has been difficult to enforce in some rural areas), the changes brought in have significantly brought down the numbers. Researchers have found that a no-bail policy for perpetrators, forming a national council to regulate corrosive solutions, and offering treatment and rehabilitation for victims has helped reduce the amount of attacks. It has also helped improve the treatment for the victims.
For Laxmi, this is just the start. She believes that more campaigning is required, not only for legislation to protect women from acid attacks and providing rehabilitation for victims but also to change mindsets. Recently, she also began working as a project co-ordinator for the NGO Stop Acid Attacks. Although only four months old, this organisation - based in a three-room office in Delhi - has provided a space for survivors to meet and share their experiences.
More information on their activities can be found at their website and donations are gladly accepted. These go towards providing dressings and medical supplies for recuperating patients, covering the costs of medical, rehabilitation, surgery, physical therapy and psychological treatment.
Head over to change.org to sign the petition started by Preeti Singh Rathi's father calling for justice over her attack.
Author: Stephen Walsh/ RESET editorial