SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Another face of violence

Victims have to endure continuous trauma.

Victims have to endure continuous trauma.  

BRIDE-burning. Widow-burning. Female infanticide. Pre-natal sex selection. And now acid attacks: the latest addition to India's — and South Asia's — hall of infamy.

Nearly 280 women were killed and 750 injured through acid attacks in Pakistan in 2002, according to Human Rights Watch. The Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) in Bangladesh recorded 485 such attacks in 2002 alone; it is estimated that at least 864 women, 412 men and 14 children had acid thrown on them there in the four years up to 2003. In both countries, cases appear to be increasing at a rate of 40 to 50 per cent every year.

There are no comparable nationwide figures for India. However, the largest and most populated nation in the region, with a high prevalence of various forms of violence against women, is unlikely to get left behind in the race.

The Bangalore-based Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women (CSAAAW), for example, has investigated 35 cases of acid attacks over the past five years in Karnataka alone. And this does not include the latest incident, which took place in the State capital in mid-July 2004, partly because the victim and her family have opted not to go public with their trauma. According to CSAAAW activists, with many cases remaining unreported for fear of further violence as well as social stigma, the number probably represents no more than the tip of the iceberg.

Media reports from different parts of the country over the past few years suggest that the acid attack phenomenon is becoming increasingly common and widespread, with neither class nor caste nor creed nor any other variable serving as protective barriers, and with triggers ranging from unrequited love and marital discord (often over trivial matters) through family feuds and property disputes to enforcement of social diktats of various kinds.

In January 2004, three working women travelling in a local commuter train in Mumbai were seriously injured when acid was thrown in through a window. A July 2002 newspaper report from Kanpur claimed that at least half a dozen cases had come to light in that part of the country over the previous seven months, even though only two had been registered with the police. And, of course, acid attacks made national headlines in 2001 when members of an obscure militant group in Kashmir followed through on their threat of violence against unveiled women by throwing acid on four young women in Srinagar. Although men, too, have been attacked with acid, women are disproportionately represented among the victims of this form of violence.

CSAAAW, a coalition of organisations and individuals across Karnataka, hopes to forge alliances with groups elsewhere that share their concern about violence against women in order to focus attention on this particularly monstrous crime. In their analysis, acid attacks constitute an exceptionally cruel addition to the long list of violent crimes against women, including rape, dowry-related and other forms of domestic violence, pre- and post-natal elimination of female children, and sexual harassment. A nationwide attempt to collect and collate information may yield a more complete picture of the prevalence and nature of such attacks in India.

Of course, numbers are significant only to the extent that they can be used to convince the public and the authorities about the seriousness and pervasiveness of the crime, and the need for special measures to deal with it. What is extraordinary about acid attacks is that they are clearly and cruelly calculated to permanently disfigure, debilitate and, eventually, destroy the person at the receiving end, both physically and psychologically.

The malicious intent is clear from the fact that most attacks are directed primarily at the face and result in terrible damage and distortion. The consequent defacement drives many victims underground in the face of ridicule and rejection, and makes it difficult for them to function in society. Most women find themselves abandoned by their husbands and sometimes, tragically, even alienated from their children, who find it difficult to come to terms with their mothers' unrecognisable faces. With few employers willing to hire people with such visible deformities, the majority find it difficult to earn a living even after they regain their capacity to work. At the same time, many are solely responsible for their children, and all of them have to deal with greatly increased healthcare needs and the prohibitive cost of essential medical treatment.

The multiple, diverse and long-term consequences of acid attacks ensure that most victims endure lifelong trauma in one way or another. It is not for nothing that such attacks are categorised among the grossest violations of human rights to surface in recent times.

Take the case of Hasina Husain, an attractive, smart, educated, Bangalore-based young woman who was just 20 when a former employer threw acid on her face and hands in 1999. A member of the defence forces, moonlighting with his own business, the man had been harassing her after she quit her DTP operator's job in his failing company and began working in another firm. The acid burnt a hole in her head, dissolved her lips, nose and one of her earlobes, welded one side of her neck to her shoulder, transformed the shape and colour of her face, and left her blind in both eyes. Her fingers were also fused together.

Five years, 18 surgeries and Rs. 6 lakhs worth of treatment later, her face is still disfigured and she has not been able to get back to normal life, especially work, mainly because her sight has not been restored despite three corneal implants. She requires several more surgeries but they have been indefinitely postponed due to financial constraints. Meanwhile, her attacker, Joseph Rodrigues, is now a free man, recently released after having spent just five years and three months in jail and paying a fine of Rs. 3 lakhs for the crime that devastated Hasina's life.

Still, Hasina's case has made history as the second one in the State to result in a conviction; the first involved former Prime Minister Hardenahalli Dodegowda Deve Gowda's wife and daughter-in-law, who were attacked with acid by a relative in 2001. The many other women whose cases CSAAAW has been involved with — among them Noor Jahan, Shanthi, Tara and Shruthi — have not come even thus far in their quest for justice.

The good news is that several survivors have been brave and strong enough to join in the struggle against acid attacks. Some of them shared their experiences at a public hearing held in Bangalore in January 2004, which launched the campaign. They have also told their stories in a documentary film, "Suttaru Solloppadavaru (Burnt not destroyed"), directed by Sanjana C.B. and Usha B.N., which is being widely used to create public awareness of the problem. Another bit of good news is that the campaign has prompted many members of the public to not only join the struggle but also contribute in different ways towards ameliorating the situation of survivors.

However, according to CSAAAW activists, the fight for the rights of survivors as well as the prevention of future attacks has to be waged on several fronts, ranging from the legal to the social. They are exploring the question of whether or not a comprehensive law is required to deal with atrocities against women, including acid attacks. Bangladesh enacted legislation to deal with acid crimes in 2002. They are also examining the possibility of reducing the easy availability of cheap, corrosive acids through more strict regulation of the production, transportation, storage, sale and use of such hazardous substances.

Although they have had some success in persuading the police to register such cases as "attempts to murder" and not just "causing grievous hurt", they find that investigations are all too often inadequate and flawed. And, as in other gender-related crimes, the investigative and legal processes tend to focus on the character and behaviour of the victim rather than the perpetrator. They believe the police as well as lawyers and judges need to be sensitised if more such gender-related crimes are to be brought to trial and to eventually result in conviction, which is seen as a vital aspect of prevention. The campaign has also revealed the urgent need for more informed and sensitive responses from healthcare professionals, not to mention families, friends, employers, colleagues and society as a whole.

However, they say, the greatest challenge is to build public opinion against such crimes and to create a consensus within civil society that upholds the principle of zero tolerance for violence.

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