In the range of violent attacks against women, acid attacks are one of the most devastating.
In many ways it is worse than death. It is a living hell. And you are plunged into it without warning. One day you are this young woman, looking forward to a new job, a new life. Within the fraction of a second, your life is transformed. Your face, eyes, nose, ears, skin sizzle and burn as someone decides to “teach you a lesson” by flinging acid at you. If you survive, and many do, you must wonder if it was better that you had died.
Death came to 23-year-old Preeti Rathi, after she battled for a month in various hospitals to survive. She has become one more statistic in India’s growing list of people, mostly women, who are punished in the cruelest way imaginable — by being singed with acid.
Preeti came to Mumbai on May 2 from Delhi to start work as a nurse at INS Ashwini, the naval hospital in south Mumbai. She never made it. Even as she stepped off the train, a masked man came up to her and flung acid on her face. Then he turned around and ran before anyone could react and stop him. The grainy footage of him on the CCTV cameras, even as he removed his scarf to wipe his face, has not helped the police catch him.
Meanwhile Preeti, like others before her, was taken from one hospital to another before she was finally admitted to a large, well-equipped private hospital. But even the best surgeons could not save her.
We have no statistics on the number of women like Preeti who die, or are maimed, due to acid attacks. The National Crimes Record Bureau does not include acid attacks as a separate category. In any case, not all attacks are reported to the police, or reported by the media.
While accurate numbers would give us an idea of the extent of the crime, it is the nature of the crime that makes your blood curdle. What kind of men are these that they can plot to inflict this kind of punishment on a woman? Many of the cases are those of women who have refused a man in marriage, or spurned advances.
Some of these stories are now known because the women, despite their unbearable pain and disfiguration, have been brave enough to talk about it and bring out this horrendous crime into the open. People need to know. They should be revolted. And they should demand exemplary punishment for the criminals as also every kind of help for the survivor.
One such brave survivor is Sonali Mukherjee. In 2003, she was a bright 17-year-old from Jharkhand dreaming of doing her PhD in sociology. But before she could realise her dream, three young male students who had been harassing her, decided to “teach her a lesson” because she did not respond to them by throwing a jugful of acid on her face. Within seconds, her face and part of her chest melted away. She lost sight and hearing. She could not walk or talk.
The men were caught and convicted. But they were let off with a light sentence. If this had happened today, under the amended law they would have had to serve a minimum of 10 years going up to a life sentence. Meantime, Sonali continues to fight to live and has been through 27 surgeries. She still has a long road to travel but it is her spirit that is inspirational.
In the range of violent attacks that women can and do encounter, acid attacks must stand out as one of the most devastating. The “weapon” of choice is cheap. It is available at any shop that sells household cleaning liquids. The shopkeeper does not need any special license to sell hydrochloric or sulphuric acid that are commonly used in such attacks. So a criminal can get his “weapon” for less than a hundred rupees.
When it comes to crimes against women, India is in any case fairly high on the list of countries with some of the worst records. Not surprisingly, it is also among the five countries with the highest number of acid attacks alongside Cambodia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Since Preeti’s death, the Maharashtra government is talking of restricting the sale of acid. The Tamil Nadu government and several other State governments have also taken such steps. This might have some impact. In Bangladesh, this apparently did make a difference. A tougher law on acid attacks combined with licensing for acid sale led to a reduction by 75 per cent over a 10-year period of acid attacks in Bangladesh. In Pakistan, where only around 30 per cent of the acid attacks are actually reported, the increase in the jail term to 14 years plus a fine of one million rupees has led to an increase in the conviction rate and more women are reporting the crime.
Preeti’s tragic death might bring the focus back to this excruciatingly cruel form of violence. Yet, given our experience in dealing with other forms of violence against women, even a tougher law, or a restriction on the sale of acid, will not be enough to stop the crime. What needs to change is the entrenched attitude in men that compels them to destroy women if they cannot own them.