The Corroding Faces of Indian Women: Acid Attack

By Shatrunjay Bose, UPES Dehradun

Editor’s Note: Acid attacks have become a menace in India for women. The inappropriate use of acid on human body causes devastating effects on the body of the person. The most notable effects of an acid attack are the lifelong bodily disfigurement. The acid can rapidly eat away skin, the layer of fat beneath the skin, and in some cases even the underlying bone. Eyelids and lips may be completely destroyed, the nose and ears severely damaged. It is not a new case as it is a method of showing male dominance over women for suppressing them as no person can show there face in the society with a deterred face. In addition to medical effect due to acid attack, it also damages a person both psychologically and socially. Preventive measures have been initiated to curb the menace of this gruesome crime. These are strict legislation against the crime and regulation of acid sales.  The Supreme Court has played a proactive role in proposing various legislations and law for eradicating this grim situation.  Though there are many provisions that have been implemented but the author believes that there is a need for a specific legislation which would prevent people from committing such crimes in the future. The Author also believes that is is equally important to provide medical care for the victims and initiate a meaningful rehabilitation program. 

INTRODUCTION

The basic purpose of using acid was in metallurgy and neutralization reactions amongst others. The hydrochloric acid present in the stomach aids in digestion by breaking down large and complex food molecules. But inappropriate use of acid on human body causes devastating effect. The term “La Vitrioleuse” was coined in France after a series of 16 acid attacks against women were reported in 1879[ii]. Vitrioleuse means premeditative act of throwing acid on a person with the intention to disfigure, maim, torture or kill. Acid attacks have a prolonged effect that the effected part and mostly in all cases the face becomes disfigured for lifetime. But the survival rate is high amongst victims of acid attacks. As a result the victim has to face a numerous physical challenges, which require long term surgical treatment, as well as mental or psychological challenges, which require devotion of their time to psychologists and counselors at each level of physical recovery.[iii] Acid attacks are very much prevalent n developing nations like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and have recently surged in India.  Another factor that puts victims at increased risk for an acid assault is their socioeconomic status, as those living in poverty are more likely to be attacked.[iv] Additionally, all three nations with the most noted incidence of acid attacks – Bangladesh, India, and Cambodia – are ranked 93rd, 114th, and 104th, respectively, out of 134 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index, a scale that measures equality in opportunities between men and women in nations.[v]

The most notable effects of an acid attack are lifelong bodily disfigurement. According to the Acid Survivors Foundation in Pakistan, there is a high survival rate amongst victims of acid attacks. Consequently the victim is faced with physical challenges, which require long term surgical treatment, as well as psychological challenges, which require in-depth intervention from psychologists and counselors at each stage of physical recovery. These far-reaching effects on their lives impact their psychological, social and economic viability in communities.[vi] Time is ripe for the nation to stand up and collectively protest against the gruesome crime and demand exemplary punishment against the attackers.

ACID AND ITS USE

Acid is basically a liquid which tests sour and turns blue litmus into red. A wide variety of acid is available and can be classified into mineral acid (inorganic acid), sulfonic acid, carboxylic acid, halogenated carboxylic acids and nucleic acid. Inorganic acid includes hydrogen halides and their solutions (hydrofluoric acid, hydrochloric acid, hydrobromic acid and hydroiodic acid), halogen oxoacids (hypochlorous acid, chlorous acid , chloric acid , perchloric acid and corresponding compounds for bromine and iodine), sulfuric acid, fluorosulfuric acid, nitric acid, phosphoric acid etc. Sulfonic acid includes mesylic acid, esylic acid, besylic acid, tosylic acid etc. Carboxylic acid includes acetic acid, citric acid, formic acid, lactic acid, oxalic acid and tartaric acid. Fluoroacetic acid, Trifluoroacetic acid, Chloroacetic acid, Dichloroacetic acid and Trichloroacetic acid are halogenated carboxylic acids. Normal carboxylic acids are the direct union of a carbonyl group and a hydroxy group. In vinylogous carboxylic acids, a carbon-carbon double bond separates the carbonyl and hydroxyl groups. Nucleic acids include Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and Ribonucleic acid (RNA). [vii]

There are numerous uses for acids. Acids are often used to remove rust and other corrosion from metals in a process known as pickling. They may be used as an electrolyte in a wet cell battery, such as sulfuric acid in a car battery. Strong acids, sulfuric acid in particular, are widely used in mineral processing. In the chemical industry, acids react in neutralization reactions to produce salts. For example, nitric acid reacts with ammonia to produce ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer. Additionally, carboxylic acids can be esterified with alcohols, to produce esters. Acids are used as additives to drinks and foods, as they alter their taste and serve as preservatives. Phosphoric acid, for example, is a component of cola drinks. Acetic acid is used in day to day life as vinegar. Carbonic acid is an important part of some cola drinks and soda. Citric acid is used as a preservative in sauces and pickles. Tartaric acid is an important component of some commonly used foods like un-ripened mangoes and tamarind. Certain acids are used as drugs. Acetylsalicylic acid (Aspirin) is used as a pain killer and for bringing down fevers. Most commonly household use of acid is as a toilet cleaner, especially to remove yellow residues off. For this purpose mineral acid (inorganic acid) in highly diluted condition is used and preferably it is hydrochloric acid.

Acids play an important role in the human body. The hydrochloric acid present in the stomach aids in digestion by breaking down large and complex food molecules. Amino acids are required for synthesis of proteins required for growth and repair of body tissues. Fatty acids are also required for growth and repair of body tissues. Nucleic acids are important for the manufacturing of DNA and RNA and transmitting of traits to offspring through genes. Carbonic acid is important for maintenance of pH equilibrium in the body

EFFECT OF AN ACID ATTACK ON THE HUMAN BODY

The medical effects are extensive because majority of acid attacks are aimed towards the face. As a majority of acid attacks are aimed at the face,[viii] several articles thoroughly reviewed the medical implications for these victims. Severity of the damage depends on the concentration of the acid and the period of time before the acid is thoroughly washed off with water or neutralized with a neutralizing agent. The acid can rapidly eat away skin, the layer of fat beneath the skin, and in some cases even the underlying bone. Eyelids and lips may be completely destroyed, the nose and ears severely damaged.[ix]  The Ear cartilage is usually partly or totally destroyed which leads to deafness. Eyelids may be burned off or deformed, leaving the eyes extremely dry and which may cause blindness. The attack scars can run down from the chin to neck area, shrinking the chin. Inhalation of acid vapors usually creates respiratory problems. In addition to these above-mentioned medical effects, acid attack victims also face the possibility of septicemia, renal failure, skin de-pigmentation, and in severe cases, death. Though not exhaustive, their findings included[x]

  • The skull is partly destroyed/ deformed and hair lost.
  • Ear cartilage is usually partly or totally destroyed; deafness may occur.
  • Eyelids may be burned off or deformed, leaving the eyes extremely dry and prone to blindness. Acid directly in the eye also damages sight, sometimes causing blindness in both eyes.
  • Nose can become shrunken and deformed; the nostrils may close off completely due to destroyed cartilage.
  • The mouth becomes shrunken and narrow, and it may lose its full range of Sometimes, the lips may be partly or totally destroyed, exposing the teeth. Eating can become difficult.
  • Scars can run down from the chin to neck area, shrinking the chin and extremely limiting range of motion in the neck.
  • Inhalation of acid vapors usually create respiratory problems, exacerbated restricted airway pathways (the esophagus and nostrils) in acid patients.

In addition to these above-mentioned medical effects, acid attack victims also face the possibility of septicemia, renal failure, skin de-pigmentation, and even death.[xi]

OTHER EFFECTS OF ACID ATTACK

In addition to medical effect on the human body due to acid attack, it also damages a person both psychologically and socially. These are discussed below.

Psychological: Acid assault survivors also face many mental health issues upon recovery. Many victims reported higher levels of anxiety, depression, lowered self-esteem  and increased self-consciousness, both socially and personally. Acid assault survivors also face many mental health issues upon recovery. One study showed that when compared to published Western norms for psychological well-being, non-Caucasian acid attack victims reported higher levels of anxiety, depression, and scored higher on the Derriford appearance scale, which measures psychological distress due to one’s concern for their appearance. Additionally, the women reported lowered self-esteem according to the Rosenberg scale and increased self-consciousness, both in general and in the social sphere.[xii]

Social: In addition to medical and psychological effects, many social implications exist for acid survivors, especially women. For example, such attacks usually leave victims handicapped in some way, rendering them dependent on either their spouse or family for everyday activities, such as eating and running errands. These dependencies are increased by the fact that many acid survivors are not able to find suitable work, due to impaired vision and physical handicap. This negatively impacts their economic viability, causing hardships on the families/spouses that care for them. As a result, divorce rates are high, with abandonment by husbands found in 25% acid assault cases in Uganda (compared to only 3% of wives abandoning their disfigured husbands). Moreover, acid survivors who are single when attacked almost certainly become ostracized from society, effectively ruining marriage prospects.

STATISTICS

Motivation for acid attacks in India mirrors those in Bangladesh: 34% of the analyzed print media in India cited rejection of marriage or refusal by women of sexual advances as the cause of the attack and dowry disagreements have been shown to spur acid attacks. Land, property, and/or business disputes accounted for 20% of acid assaults in India from 2002 to 2010. One such incident would be Sonali Mukherjee’s case where the perpetrators were granted bail after being sentenced to nine years of Jail.[xiii] Thereafter, when her family approached High Court, all the legislators, and MPs in search of justice, all she got in return was assurances and “nothing else”. The perpetrators got away scot-free. Without media attention, an acid attack victim languishes in pain and poverty,[xiv] their families often unable to bear the medical expenses.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation survey says that India is the fourth most dangerous place in the world for women to live in[xv] as women belonging to any class, caste or creed and religion can be victims of this cruel form of violence and disfigurement, a premeditated crime intended to kill or maim her permanently and act as a lesson to “put her in her place”. In India, acid attacks on women[34] who dared to refuse a man’s proposal of marriage or asked for a divorce[xvi] are a form of revenge. The number of acid attacks has been rising[xvii] in India and there have been 68 reported acid attacks in the state of Karnataka since 1999. Tom O’Neill of National Geographic reported that acid attacks are also used to enforce the caste system in modern India.[xviii]

Acid attacks in India, like Bangladesh, have a gendered aspect to it: analyses of news reports revealed at least 72% of reported attacks involved women. However, unlike Bangladesh, India’s incidence rate of chemical assault has been increasing in the past decade, with a high 27 reported cases in 2010. Altogether, from January 2002 to October 2010, 153 cases of acid assault were reported in Indian print media while 174 judicial cases were reported for the year of 2000.[xix] However, scholars think that this is an underestimation, given that not all attacks are reported in the news, nor do all victims report the crime to officials.

AWARENESS IN INDIA

The issue of acid attack is a burning one and needs to be addressed on priority. The common man on the Patna Street says that it’s a good thing that the Supreme Court has tried to restrict the sale of acid, but in reality it’s not going to change anything. “I earn my living selling diluted acid from door-to-door so that people can clean their toilets,” Mantu who hawks “home-made toilet cleaner” tells me. “If this new law will actually be implemented in Bihar, I’m done for. As it is, I earn about Rs 100 after selling at least 20 bottles. Many families use this acid because it is half the price of fancy toilet cleaners.’[xx]

Kamla Bhasin, the author and gender expert in her treatise on ‘Exploring masculinity’ says, “I believe we need a movement of men towards parenting, household work and family kitchens. Let us give ladles and spoons to our boys so that their hands are not free to pick up guns; give them children to look after and play with so that they have no time to play with death. Make men mothers so that they have no time to be rapists, murderers or terrorists. Make them ‘homemakers’ so that they stop being ‘trouble makers’; create ‘love instincts’ in them to drown their ‘killer instincts'”,

The Kolkata-based Acid Survivors Foundation India (ASFI) says, based on a study, that the most prominent causes of acid attacks in India are domestic violence, dowry demands, marital rejections and suspicion of infidelity. Sociology professor Satish Deshpande said recently that Indian men were finding it difficult to cope with emancipated women who were pursuing professional life outside the home. “For men whose patriarchy is seen to be threatened and insecure, this new breed of women may be an unbearable provocation,” he said. “Let’s not talk about women in Metro cities who are a threat to male ego. There are so many incidents from our own towns and villages in Bihar where women face abuse and tension from their husbands because they have tried to better their economic or social status. The man may ‘give permission’ for his wife to join a women’s group or to complete her education. But in many cases, if the woman wants to assert her right over her own earned money, or participate in decision-making, the husband doesn’t like it, the father-in-law will not like it,” Urmila of Bihar Mahila Samakhya Society points out. “And most violence, including that of acid attacks, springs from this inability of some men to cope with the independent-minded woman, be it in the town or in the village.”

PREVENTING FUTURE ATTACKS

Research has prompted many solutions to the increasing incidence of acid attacks in the world. Many countries look to Bangladesh, whose rates of attack have been decreasing, as a model, following their lead in many legislative reforms. However, several reports highlighted the need for an increased, legal role of NGOs to offer rehabilitation support to acid survivors. Additionally, nearly all research stressed the need for stricter regulation of acid sales in order to combat this social issue.

Strict Legislation against the Crime

India’s top court has ruled that authorities must regulate the sale of acid used by jilted boyfriends and others to attack women. The Supreme Court’s ruling on July 16, 2013 comes after a particularly notorious incident in which four sisters suffered severe burns after being attacked with acid by two men on a motorbike. An acid called “Tezaab”, which is designed to clean rusted tools but is often used in the attacks, can currently be bought across the counter.[xxi] But the judges said the buyer of such acids should in future have to provide a photo identity card to any retailer when they make a purchase. The retailers must register the name and address of the buyer. Growing public anger at the levels of violence against women was fueled last December by the horrifying gang-rape of a student on a bus in New Delhi, prompting a toughening of laws on sexual violence.

Proposed Law

The Law Commission, headed by Justice A.R. Lakshmanan, proposed that a new section 326A[xxii] be added to the IPC against the acid attackers. The proposed Section 326A will read as follows:

(i) Voluntarily causing grievous hurt by use of acid,etc – Whoever burns or maims or disfigures or disables any part or parts of the body of a person or causes grievous hurt by throwing acid on or administering acid to that person, with the intention of causing or with the knowledge that he is likely to cause such injury or hurt, shall be punishable with imprisonment of either description which shall not be less than 10 years but which may extend to life and with fine which may extend to rupees ten Lakh provided that any fine levied under this section shall be given to the person on whom acid has been thrown or administered.

Classification of offence under section 326 A(i) Minimum Imprisonment of 10 years extendable up to imprisonment for life and fine. It should be made a cognizable, non-bailable, non-compoundable offence and triable by Magistrate of the First Class.

(ii) Intentionally throwing or administering acid – Whoever throws acid on, or administers acid to, any person with the intention of causing burns or maiming or disfiguring or disabling or causing grievous hurt to that person shall be liable to imprisonment of either description for a term not less than five years but which may extend to 10 years and with fine which may extend to Rs. 5 Lakh.

Classification of offence under section 326 B: Minimum Imprisonment of five years extendable up to 10 years and fine. It should be made a cognizable, non-bailable, non-compoundable offence and triable by Court of Session.[xxiii]

The Law Commission also proposed that in cases of acid attack a presumption be incorporated in the Indian Evidence Act as Section 114B. The proposed Section 114B of the Indian Evidence Act shall read as under.

Section 114 B: Presumption as to acid attack – If a person has thrown acid on, or administered acid to, another person the court shall presume that such an act has been done with the intention of causing, or with the knowledge that such an act is likely to cause such hurt or injury as is mentioned in Section 326 A of the Indian Penal Code.

The Law Commission also proposed that a law known as ‘Criminal Injuries Compensation Act’ be enacted as a separate law by the government. This law should provide both interim and final monetary compensation to victims of certain acts of violence like rape, sexual assault, acid attacks, etc., and should provide for their medical and other expenses relating to rehabilitation, loss of earnings, etc. Any compensation already received by the victim can be taken into account while computing compensation under this Act.

The Law Commission also proposed a law known as ‘Criminal Injuries Compensation Act’ to be enacted as a separate law by the government. This law intends to provide both interim and final monetary compensation to victims of certain acts of violence like rape, sexual assault, acid attacks, etc., and should provide for their medical and other expenses relating to rehabilitation, loss of earnings, etc. Any compensation already received by the victim can be taken into account while computing compensation under this Act.

Regulation of acid sales

A positive correlation has been observed between acid attacks and ease of acid purchase. Sulfuric, nitric, and hydrochloric acid are most commonly used and are all cheap and readily available in many instances. For example, often acid throwers can purchase a liter of concentrated sulfuric acid at motorbike mechanic shops for about 40 cents. Nitric acid costs around $1.50 per liter and is available for purchase at gold or jewelry shops, as polishers generally use it to purify gold and metals. Hydrochloric acid is also used for polishing jewelry, as well as for making soy sauce, cosmetics, and traditional medicine or amphetamine drugs. Due to such ease of access, many organizations call for a stricter regulation on the acid economy. Specific actions include required licenses for all acid traders, a ban on concentrated acid in certain areas, and enhanced system of monitoring for acid sales, such as the need to document all transactions involving acid. However, some scholars have warned that such stringent regulation may result in black market trading of acid, which law enforcements must keep in mind.

CONCLUSION

Nesar Ahmed, in an e-mail response to an earlier article raised some pertinent questions,

The fact is that the mere idea of house husbands is taken to be revolting, whereas the indoctrination of housewives begins since childhood. What’s wrong with boys opting for home science? Don’t they live in homes? Why is unemployment associated only with men? Are women meant to do unpaid, invisible, uneconomic domestic work? Since when did we accept that the state and economic system cannot create employment for all men as well as women? The theory that ‘women are enemies of women’ is hammered. Do men really foster sisterhood of women? Do they not play women in their families against each other, so that they can be the all-knowledgeable monkey who stops the fighting cats and gets the bread?”13

Restricting the sale of acid in our country is not only the solution. The real one is for mothers to make sure that their male children and the female children are treated equally, also the male gender should learn to respect the rights of the opposite. It is very important to provide counseling and medical care for the victims who are physically disfigured and mentally devastated. Most of the cases these victims are not well off financially and unable to afford the cost of medical treatment. Initiation of meaningful rehabilitation program to bring them back to the main stay of the society along with financial assistance is very important. For this purpose NGOs play a very important role and their recent activities in this regard needs to be applauded.

 Edited by Hariharan Kumar

[i] Shatrunjay Bose, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun

[ii] ‘Comparative exploration of acid attack violence’, Central global initiative for University of North Carolina.

[iii] Adnan Khan, The real miracle workers fighting, and healing, Pakistan’s acid attacks. Acid Survivors Foundation, Pakistan, (Apr 2012), available at http:// acidsurvivorsfoundation.org/, last visited on 27.8.2013

[iv] International women’s right watch review Asia Pacific. Naripokkho; Bangladesh Mahila Parishad. ‘ Baseline report violence against women’,

[v] ‘Combating acid violence in Cambodia, Bangladesh and India’. Avon foundation for women. (2011).pp 1-64.

[vi] ‘Breaking the silence:  addressing acid attack victims in Cambodia’ Cambodian Acid Survivors Charity. (May 2010). pp. 1–51.

[vii] Retrieved from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/acid

[viii] Mannan, Ashim; Samuel Ghani, Alex Clarke,  & Peter E.M. Butler (19). “Cases of chemical assault worldwide: A literature review”. Burns Journal (2006).  pp.149–154.

[ix] Keerthi Bollineni, ’Gender based violence in public places: acid throwing’. Centre for equity and inclusion, India

[x] ‘Acid violence in Uganda: situation analysis’, Acid Survivors Foundation Uganda. (November 2011). pp. 1–21

[xi]  Olaitan, Peter B; Bernard C. Jiburum. ‘Chemical injuries from assaults: An increasing trend in a developing country’. Indian Journal Of Plastic Surgery (January 2008) 41 (1): 20–23.

[xii] Mannan, A.; S. Ghani, A. Clarke, P. White, S. Salmanta, & P.E.M. Butler. ‘Psychosocial outcomes derived from an acid burned population in Bangladesh, and comparison with Western norms’. Burns Journal (August 2005) 32 (2): 235–241

[xiii] Danish Raza, ‘Just salt on our wounds: Acid attack victims remain unhappy with SC rulings’. First Post, ( July 20, 2013)

[xiv]  ‘Iranian acid attack victim pardons culprit’, Al Jazeera English. (July 31, 2011).

[xv] Declan Walsh. ‘hope in Pakistan for curbing acid attacks’. New York times (April 9, 2012) .

[xvi]Thomas Reuters.  ‘ The world’s 5 most dangerous countries for women: Thomas Reuters foundation survey’ (august 13, 2011)

[xvii] Gayatri Lakshmibai. ‘The women who conquered acid attack’.( July 11,2011)

[xviii] Tom O’Neil. ‘India’s Untouchables’. (June2003).pp 1-31.

[xix] ‘India’s acid attack victims demand justice’. BBC news. (April 9, 2008)

[xx] Frank Kisner. ‘More house husbands, less acid attacks’ The Times of India, Patna. (August  4th ,2013).

[xxi] ‘India’s top court moves to curb acid attacks’ Al Jazeera English. July 18th, 2013.

[xxii] Inserted by the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act,2013, sec.5 (w.r.e.f. 3-2-2103), Indian Penal Code.

[xxiii] Retrieved from ASFI.org/ Law_concerning_acid_attacks/

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