Gender Violence in India Report 2014: Acid Attacks

An acid attack is the premeditated act of throwing concentrated acid (usually sulfuric, nitric, or hydrochloric acid) on the body of another person. The purpose of this is to intentionally disfigure and cause extreme physical and emotional pain to the victim.[1]

The effects of acid attacks include blindness, disfiguration of the face and body, scarring, and long-term psychosocial and economic difficulties. Treatment for acid violence can include multiple expensive surgeries, physical therapy, and long-term medical care, which are often out of reach for many victims due to geographic isolation, the prohibitive costs of hospitalization and specialized care, and lack of appropriate medical facilities.[2]

While acid attacks occur in many countries around the world, they are particularly prevalent in South Asia, and ‘perpetrators’ motives are often tied to gender inequality and discrimination’.[3] In India, acid attacks are most commonly perpetrated against women, often in retaliation for ‘spurning suitors, for rejecting proposals of marriage, [or] for denying dowry’.[4] The types of acid used for these attacks can be bought easily and inexpensively in many neighborhood stores and until 2013, the sale of acid was not regulated by any governing body.[5]

The Avon Global Center for Women and Justice also reports that a majority of acid attacks in India, about 61% out of those reported in news media, occur in public spaces like bus stands, road sides, trains, schools, colleges, and markets.[6] Acid attacks may also harm bystanders and relatives in addition to the primary intended victim.

Know the Law

In the 2013 Criminal Law Amendment Act, the Indian Penal Code was amended to include a specific category for acid attacks. According to Section 326B of the Amendment, attempting to throw or administer acid with intent to deform, maim or burn another person can be punished with five to seven years in prison, plus a fine. According to Section 326A, anyone who ‘causes permanent or partial damage or deformity to’ or ‘maims or disfigures’ another person by intentionally throwing acid shall be punished with a minimum sentence of ten years’ imprisonment, plus a fine. Sentences up to life in prison may be issued.[7]

In 2013, the Indian government reclassified acids as a poison, bringing them under the regulatory purview of the Poison Act of 1919. This Act empowers state governments to regulate the safe possession, sale and registration of substances designated as poisons. Including acids in this category means buyers of over-the-counter concentrated acids must provide proof of identity to the retailer upon purchase.[8] Retailers must also register the purchase and the address of the buyer, and concentrated acids can no longer be bought by individuals under the age of 18. While this is a national ruling, the responsibility to implement the law remains with state governments.[9] Data on whether the ruling has reduced the frequency of acid attacks in India are not yet available. However, Bangladesh saw a 15-20% decrease in the number of acid attacks following the adoption in 2002 of laws to limit access to acids and increase criminal penalties; this suggests that such laws can be effective in decreasing acid attacks.[10] As of September 2014, however, few states have implemented the new laws, and compensation and medical help for victims often remain mired in inter-departmental confusion.[11]

Keeping Count

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has yet to publish data on acid attacks, as they were only recognized as a distinct category of crime in 2013. The Acid Survivors Trust International, an organization dedicated to preventing acid attacks and supporting victims, estimates that between 500 and 1000 acid attacks occur annually in India, based on comparison with neighboring countries that do publish data.[12] The Avon Center report ‘Combating Acid Violence in Bangladesh, India, and Cambodia’ tracked news reports of acid attacks in India from January 2002 to October 2010, as a proxy for the actual prevalence of attacks. Table 1 and Figure 1 below show the number of acid attacks reported across all the news sources examined in the report. Note that the actual number of attacks is almost certainly orders of magnitude greater than the number that make it into the news. However, if the rising number of news articles is in fact at least partly due to greater numbers of attacks and not simply to increased media attention, the report suggests that acid attacks have been on the rise in recent years.

Table 1: Acid Attacks in News Reports, 2002-2010[13]

Year 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Number of acid attacks reported in news 4 6 10 22 19 19 25 21 27

 Figure 1

Acid Graphic

Statistics and surveys of acid attack survivors show that acid violence is often connected to other forms of gender violence. A survey of 56 women in Karnataka who survived acid attacks between 1999 and 2007 found that 55 of them knew their attacker. All of the women surveyed stated that, prior to the acid attack, they had experienced other forms of gender violence or harassment, including workplace harassment, domestic violence or dowry demands.[15]

[1] ‘Combating acid violence in Bangladesh, India, and Cambodia’, Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School  et al, 2011, p. 1-2, http://www.ohchr.org/documents/hrbodies/cedaw/harmfulpractices/avonglobalcenterforwomenandjustice.pdf, accessed 21st November 2014. This report examined news reports of acid attacks in India from January 2002 to October 2010; it also studied reports of acid attacks in Bangladesh and Cambodia.

[2] ‘Burnt not defeated: Women fight against acid attacks in Karnataka’, Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women (CSAAAW), 2007, pg 28, http://www.lawschool.cornell.edu/womenandjustice/upload/burnt-not-defeated.pdf, accessed 21st November 2014.

[3] ‘Combating acid violence’, Avon Center, p. 9. See above note 1.

[4] ‘Report on the inclusion of acid attacks as specific offenses in the Indian Penal Code and a law for compensation of victims of crime’, Law Commission of India, 2008, p. 3, http://lawcommissionofindia.nic.in/reports/report226.pdf, accessed 21st November 2014.

[5] Mahapatra, D., ‘Government to treat acid as poison, regulate sales’, Times of India, 17th July 2014, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Government-to-treat-acid-as-poison-regulate-sales/articleshow/21111357.cms?referral=PM, accessed 21st November 2014.

[6] ‘Combating acid violence’, Avon Center, p. 14. See above note 1.

[7] Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, Ch. 2(5), http://indiacode.nic.in/acts-in-pdf/132013.pdf, accessed 8th October 2014. Sec. 5 of the Act inserts Sections 326A and 326B into the Indian Penal Code.

[8] Poisons Act, 1919, Sec. 2(a-g), http://www.health.mp.gov.in/acts/poison-act-1919-2.pdf, accessed 21st November 2014.

[9] Mahapatra, D., ‘Government to treat acid as poison, regulate sales’. See above note 5.

[10] ‘Combating acid violence’, Avon Center, p. 12. See above note 1.

[11] Dasgupta, K., ‘Acid attack survivors in India find safe space but little legal respite’, The Guardian, 9th September 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/sep/09/acid-attacks-india-legal-respite, accessed 22nd November 2014.

[12] ‘Where it happens: India’, Acid Violence, Acid Survivors Trust International, http://www.acidviolence.org/index.php/acid-violence/countries/india, accessed 22nd November 2014.

[13] Table 1 adapted from data provided in ‘Combating acid violence’, Avon Center, p. 11. See above note 1. Note that the data for 2010 only go up to October.

[14] Figure 1 adapted from ‘Combating acid violence’, Avon Center, p. 11. See above note 1.

[15] ‘Burnt not defeated’, CSAAAW, 2007, pg 30. See above note 2.

 

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This series of posts were researched, drafted and edited by Divya Bhat, Shakthi Manickavasagam, Titiksha Pandit and Mitha Nandagopalan.

December 2014

16 Days Campaign Theme series: Women’s bodies and (en)gendered political violence, by Swati Parashar

Swati Parashar

Women’s bodies and (en) gendered political violence in South Asia

The feminist axiom that ‘personal is political’ comes to mind while studying cases of political violence that include terrorism, armed insurgencies and communal riots. Women are part of the political violence landscape in three significant ways: as victims and survivors, as perpetrators; and as cultural bearers of ethnic, religious and national identities. In a short piece like this it is not possible to engage all questions around women, gender and political violence. I would like to focus on two important aspects – women and girls whose bodies continue to serve as battle ground and whose complex experiences of violence are reduced to ‘bare life’ stories of victimhood where women are further disempowered and kept away from peace processes and conflict resolution.

This piece is being written in the backdrop of the terrifying ordeal of the Pakistani teenager, Malala Yousufzai, from Swat who was shot by Taliban militants for praising the American ‘enemy’ and of propagating ‘secular’ values by advocating education for girls. Bizarre accusations, one would think. Malala recovers miraculously in the quiet surroundings of a hospital in the UK while her ordeal bears testimony to the fact that all militant projects and political violence are waging a ‘war on women’. A fourteen year old, school-going, teenage girl becomes a ‘threat’ to a militant group’s (Tehrik-e-Taliban in this case) ideology and their masculinity that is usually validated by erasing women out of public spaces, by issuing religious diktats of violence against women and by bombing and killing girls in schools and women in market places and shrines. Not long before this case a 14 year old girl affected by down’s syndrome, Rimsha Masih, was perceived as threat by extremists and fundamentalists. She was accused of burning pages of the Koran and charged under the notorious blasphemy laws in Pakistan. She was subsequently acquitted of the charges after an Imam was accused of falsely planting burnt Koran pages into the pile of papers she had burnt. Her life continues to be threatened and a normal childhood is denied to her.

There are many Malalas and Rimshas in the world today. Militant groups in Afghanistan perpetrate violence and abuse against women with ease, despite aid dollars pouring in and government pledges to fight terrorism and extremism. Extremist groups in Pakistan target women and girls (Muslims and non-Muslims) indiscriminately. The situation is no different in India, where Maoist women cadres are targeted by their own comrades who rape and abuse them. The state does no better when security forces kill ‘Maoist’ women and carry them like animals for barbeque. The rape and torture of women in custody is also common (Soni Sori’s case is a brutal reminder here) and dehumanising women who are considered as the ‘other’ is the norm. In Sri Lanka, former women cadres of the LTTE have not been spared either, as they are abused, raped and marginalised while the government propaganda machinery talks about its benevolent rehabilitation efforts. It is, therefore, not without significance that large numbers of women continue to be soft targets in acts of political violence (by state and non-state actors) and this factor needs to be exposed and highlighted consistently.

The fallout of this violence against women is their absence in formal peace talks and conflict resolution processes. This is based on the widely held belief that men participate in armed resistance and thus ‘sacrifice’ their lives and freedom for their ethnic, political or religious group. Women, on the other hand, perform multiple roles in wars and political violence, including as armed guerrilla fighters, militants and support systems. However, their experiences are only documented in public memory as ‘worst sufferers and victims’. Lack of social and political recognition of their participation in armed resistance (for example in Kashmir, Sri Lanka etc.)* has resulted in their exclusion from all peace talks. The message from such situations is that stakeholders in peace must have served and sacrificed in the war and it is usually men who are recognised in their war roles. Increasingly, feminist scholarship and activism has challenged this notion of what women ‘do’ in wars and articulated that women’s voices are critical in not just engendering and sustaining a conflict but also in its resolution.

There is another aspect to this exclusion of women in resolutions of political violence and conflict. ‘Peace’ deals are waged on women’s bodies as we witnessed in the case of the Nizam- e -Adl resolution negotiated between the Taliban and the Government of Pakistan in February 2009. Under the “peace for Sharia” deal the Taliban agreed to stop its armed campaign in the Swat region and surrender its arms in exchange for the legal enforcement of the Sharia laws. Sharia courts would interpret civil rights according to Islamic strictures and women would be veiled and pushed into a life of invisibility, violence and abuse. This deal subsequently collapsed because the Taliban refused to disarm but it highlighted how wars – and also peace – are waged on women’s bodies. In many parts of Afghanistan, women and girls continue to be exchanged as part of the practice of baad or informal conflict resolution. The violence against women continues even if there are policies and laws to prevent it.

As someone who studies political violence and insurgent wars, I conclude with the conviction that political violence has deep implications on the personal lives of people and is particularly played out on women’s bodies. Feminist discourses, in recent times, have been increasingly divided over the universal application of human rights, gender equality and respect for local cultures and traditions (this debate did not end with the Shah Bano case in India!). We would be doing great disservice to our own feminist activism and scholarship if we argue that violence against women is acceptable in any culture and tradition. Political violence thrives on ideologies that ‘other’ women and justify violence against them. The way forward lies not just in exposing these cultures of violence but in articulating our fundamental feminist commitment that critiques and questions traditions and cultural and religious practices that marginalise women and inflict violence on them. I am always reminded of the poet Sahir Ludhianvi’s powerful words;

Zulm ki baat hi kya, zulm ki auqaat hi kya
Zulm bas zulm hai, aaghaaz se anjaam talak

(What is about oppression? What is with its impression?
Oppression is, all of it, but oppression. From beginning to end.)

Dr. Swati Parashar is a lecturer in International Studies at the Faculty of Arts, University of Wollongong, Australia. Her research, publications and teaching focus onterrorism and security studies; feminist international relations; and women, gender and political violence

For further references on these and related topics see the following.

  • Alison, Miranda (2004), “Women as Agents of Political Violence: Gendering Security,” Security Dialogue, 35, 447–463
  • Moser, Caroline and Fiona Clark, eds. (2001), Victims, Perpetrators or Actors? Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Violence (New York: Zed Books)
  • Parashar, Swati (2011) “Gender, Jihad, and Jingoism: Women as Perpetrators, Planners, and Patrons of Militancy in Kashmir”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 34: 4, 295 — 317