Gender Violence: The Health Impact – The Gendered Nature of Acid Attacks

by Vaibhav Gupta

An acid attack is a form of violence that affects women and girls disproportionately. The Law Commission of India reports that most of the acid attacks registered in India have been against women[1]. A report from the Cornell Law School[2]on combating acid violence published in January 2011 corroborates this. According to this report, 72 per cent of acid and burn attack victims in India are women, clearly indicating the gendered nature of such attacks.

Acid and burn attacks in India need to be understood in the context of the socio-cultural transformation that is taking place across the nation. This requires a study of the reasons behind such attacks and their prevalence in our society. However such a study is difficult to undertake because until recently, India did not even recognise acid attacks as a separate offence.

Trends from neighboring Bangladesh, though, point to a shocking fact: in 78 per cent of acid attacks reported in Bangladesh, the motive behind the crime is cited as the victim’s refusal to marry the perpetrator or her denial of a sexual advance[3].

The 2013 data from India’s National Crime Records Bureau lists 57 cases of acid attacks on women in 2010, 77 in 2011 and 83 in 2012.The upward trend is similar to other gender based offences in India including rape, kidnapping and abduction of women, cruelty by husbands and assault on women.  [4].

Laws against Acid Attacks

India recognised acid attacks as a criminal offence in 2013 when the Parliament passed The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013. Under the amended legislation, an attempt to throw acid can earn the perpetrator a prison term of five to seven years (Section 326B)[5], while causing permanent or partial damage or deformation can result in a jail sentence of no less than 10 years and up to a maximum of life imprisonment (Section 326A)[6]. The law also stresses that the victim should be compensated by the perpetrator[7]as well as by the respective state government.[8]However, it should be noted that while offenses under Section 326A require the fine imposed to be proportional to the medical expenses incurred by the victim, this is not the case for offences committed under Section 326B.

Implementing Laws: Impossible?

The problem is not just one of legislation, but its implementation and monitoring as well. According to the Supreme Court’s directives[9]on the regulation of acid sales:

1) A buyer must provide a government-issued identity card showing he/she is over 18 years of age
2) Every seller must maintain records of every buyer of acid

However, in practice, this does not seem to be regulated. Individuals are easily able to purchase acid for household purposes bypassing any such process. Even the government seems casual about the severity of these incidences, their investigation, compensation, and punishment; the Delhi High Court in April 2014 highlighted a case where compensation to the victim was delayed for over 6 months. This begs the question: Can the Government afford to be so casual about such a serious crime?

What can be done?

India also lags behind its neighbors in providing protection against acid offences. Bangladesh’s Acid Offences Prevention Act 2002 and the Acid Control Act 2002 banned the open sale of acids, and imposed stringent punishment (including the death penalty) and a fine on offenders. The law further outlays that investigations have to be completed within 30 days and the trial within 90 days. Dedicated Prevention Tribunals have been set up with the sole objective of looking into these crimes. In Pakistan, perpetrators of acid attacks may be punished with a maximum of life imprisonment.

The National Commission for Women prepared a draft proposal in 2008 that specifically dealt with acid attacks in India; in addition to classifying an acid attack as a separate and most heinous form of offence, the law intended to make provisions to:

1) Assist the victim of an acid attack by providing her with medical treatment services;

2) Provide social and psychological support;

3) Provide legal support to survivors;

4) Arrange rehabilitation mechanisms/schemes, taking into account the specific needs of the victim; and

5) Regulate and control acid and other corrosive substances

However, the law was never discussed. We still lack a comprehensive piece of legislation on acid attacks that deals with prevention, regulation of acid sales, punishment, medical care and rehabilitation.

This devastating form of violence continues to take place against the girls and women of this country without stirring the conscience of lawmakers and people in positions of power. As the Cornell Law School report says, ‘Acid attacks are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence.[10] It is high time policymakers initiate steps to address the issue through advisories, amendments and legal directives.

[1] Law Commission of India Report to Supreme Court on Writ Petition 129 of 2006, Laxmi vs. Union of India

[2]‘Combating Acid Violence in Bangladesh, India and Cambodia’, Cornell Law School, 2011

[3]‘Combating Acid Violence in Bangladesh, India and Cambodia’, Cornell Law School, 2011

[4]Crime in India 2013, National Crime Records Bureau

[5]Sec 326B of IPC

[6]Sec 326A of IPC

[7]Sec 326A of IPC

[8]As per section 357B of Criminal Procedure Code

[9]Law Commission of India Report to Supreme Court on Writ Petition 129 of 2006, Laxmi vs. Union of India

[10]‘Combating Acid Violence in Bangladesh, India and Cambodia’, Cornell Law School, 2011, Foreword by Yakin Erturk

*****

Vaibhav Gupta is currently a fellow with PRS Legislative Research’s Legislative Assistants to Members of Parliament Programme. When he’s not volunteering with organisations that work on everything from education to disability, Vaibhav dreams of building his own start-up in the policy field. 

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