Acid attacks are on the rise in Bangalore, leaving a trail of disfigured and often disabled women who, until recently, could find little sympathy among the public and next to no support from the state. Not much is done to combat the problem, with acid still cheap and readily available in shops and police unwilling to interfere in ‘domestic’ disputes. But since Sushma, Verma, Sanjana and Mallige started campaigning for better rights for the victims of acid attacks in 2003, things in the state of Karnataka are changing for the better
In 2000 we were working with some women in Bangalore when we met Nurjehan, a poor mother-of-three who had been horribly defaced by an acid attack. Later, we heard about a 16-year-old middle-class girl who had been partially blinded after a similar attack. The police told us these were just isolated instances, but we decided to go on a fact-finding mission across the state of Karnataka (of which Bangalore is the capital). We found there had been 68 acid attacks in Karnataka since 1999. These are only the cases that have been reported; there are definitely many, many more cases that go unreported across India.
Acid attacks are a form of gender violence; they are intended to silence women who stand up for themselves. Women were being attacked for doing well at work, protesting against domestic violence, leaving their jobs – essentially whenever they demonstrate independence. There is a myth that women are only attacked with acid when they reject someone’s sexual advances. But we found that it happened for all sorts of reasons: women of all castes, classes and religions were being attacked by husbands, lovers, employers, jealous colleagues and even landlords.
Shockingly, acid is still easily available. Even a child can buy a litre of highly concentrated acid over the counter for less than 20 rupees. It continues to be used to clean bathrooms, tiles and jewellery, and there are no laws to regulate its sale or concentration.
Many of the victims of these attacks are turned away from hospitals because they can’t afford the treatment. And if they are admitted, a lot of hospitals don’t know how to treat them. Not many people realise that acid victims need a different kind of first aid; they can’t be treated like ordinary burn victims. In several cases, women have died because they could not access, or afford, the proper care.
We launched CSAAW (Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women) in 2003 with two aims: to prevent acid attacks, and also to make the government rehabilitate the survivors.
In January 2004 we organised a public hearing, with survivors speaking before judges and government officials. It was a turning point. The police commissioner issued a notice to his officers that acid attacks should be considered attempted murder and the government began to consult us on the issue.
The media organisation Pedestrian Pictures, one of our partners in CSAAW, made a documentary film that featured survivors across the state talking about their experiences. We called it Suttaru Sollapavadaru (Burnt, but not defeated). It was shown across the state and got a great response. I think it helped people realise that acid survivors are not just victims to be pitied, but also strong women who need help to move on with their lives.
Hasina Hussein, a 19-year-old girl, became our figurehead. She was attacked and blinded by her employer in 1999. She got a lot of publicity because she was young and educated. In Hasina’s case, her attacker was imprisoned for life by the high court, after being given a light sentence by the lower court. It was the first time life imprisonment had been awarded for an acid attack. She was also awarded 500,000 rupees as compensation [almost £6,000] which, though inadequate to meet her medical expenses, is the highest-ever payout given to a survivor. Hasina’s case has become both a precedent and a deterrent.
In 2004, in response to our demand for medical aid for survivors, victims were granted 200,000 rupees to meet the medical expenses of each survivor and 25,000 rupees as compensation. Government hospitals were also ordered to help victims of acid attacks. The amount is still too low, as most survivors spend five times that on medical expenses, but it was a major step towards recognising the government’s responsibility.
Another step forward is that the media has become more sensitive. During the early years coverage was sensationalist, with newspapers somehow implying that the victim had done something to deserve her fate, or else featuring gory before-and-after pictures. Now the press has got behind us and reports impartially on everything we do.
But while there has been some change, there is still terrible indifference. The state is still reluctant to take on the acid manufacturers and there is still no regulation of the sale of acid. Money that has been set aside for the survivors is slow to reach them.
While there are enough laws on paper to prosecute attackers, enforcement is, as ever, a problem. The police are reluctant to interfere with what they consider domestic disputes.
In many cases, the women tell us that they don’t want plastic surgery; they want jobs. Most have been blinded or lost their hearing or the use of their hands, thereby losing their livelihoods. Many have young children or parents to support. We are lobbying for them to be recognised as disabled and be eligible for government jobs.
For the survivors, life can never be normal again. We believe that the only way to stop acid attacks is to root out the patriarchy behind them, the culture of silencing women who speak out.
• Sushma, Verma, Sanjana and Mallige (who prefer to use only their first names) were talking to Kavitha Rao. Burnt, but not defeated, with English subtitles, can be seen here:
Source: The Guardian Weekly