S. Senthair EPW

The deaths of two young women in Tamil Nadu in February following acid attacks on them once again draw attention to the urgent need for measures to prevent this heinous crime and the need for punishment that will deter other males from seeing a bottle of acid as the balm for their wounded pride.

S Senthalir ([email protected]) is a Bangalore-based independent journalist.

On 24 February 2013, while All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party members burst crackers and distributed sweets to celebrate the 65th birthday of the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, 20-year-old Vidya breathed her last at Kilpauk Medical College Hospital (KMCH) in Chennai.

The victim of an acid attack, Vidya succumbed to burn injuries in the early hours, just days after 23-year-old Vinodhini, who suffered 40% burns in an acid attack and battled for her life for three months, died on 13 February 2013. With 38% burns and without proper first aid, Vidya was taken to KMCH after a delay of four hours on 30 January 2013. Her family, which had to fend for itself, was at the mercy of the hospital staff and management. The victim was admitted to the general burns ward and remained there for 17 days. It was only when her condition worsened on the 18th day that she was moved to the intensive care unit (ICU).

Even after Vidya died, her family had to wait for nearly four hours for the doctors to permit them to fulfil her last wish of donating her eyes. Annoyed by the government’s neglect, her family demanded that the hospital management explain why she had died. After the postmortem, they refused to accept her body till late in the afternoon, wanting the health minister and secretary to visit the hospital. They accused the hospital of not providing the treatment an acid attack victim required and sought an explanation for the government’s callousness. Their pleas went unheard. Neither the health and family welfare minister nor any official from the departments concerned visited the hospital to console the family that lost its only daughter to horrendous gender violence.

KMCH alone treats four to six acid attack cases every year and almost all the victims are young women. The hospital’s doctors say there has been an increase in the number of cases in the past few years. The media has reported 27 acid attacks on women in Tamil Nadu since 2001.

Lack of Awareness

Regardless of this, there is no widespread awareness of the first aid to be administered to acid attack victims. Acid is a corrosive liquid that has the potential to seep deep into the skin and damage muscles, blood vessels, and bones. Burns experts and plastic surgeons point out that the injured part should be bathed in cool running water for at least 15 minutes so that the acid is diluted and washed away. Three hours after the first aid, depending on the part that has been injured, the affected layers of skin have to be removed.

But not many doctors or hospitals are aware of this. Vidya’s brother Vijay said that no water was poured on her immediately after the attack, and she was covered with a cloth and taken to a nearby private hospital, where the doctors did not know what had to be done. They cleaned the wounds and applied some ointment.

The 2011 “Combating Acid Violence in Bangladesh, India and Cambodia” report by the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School, the Committee on International Human Rights of the New York City Bar Association, the Cornell Law School International Human Rights Clinic, and the Virtue Foundation says that acid attack victims in India receive unacceptable treatment in government hospitals and it could be attributed in part to a lack of facilities. It notes,

Most government hospitals in India do not have plastic surgeons or medical facilities to conduct necessary procedures for acid survivors. In addition, there is a shortage of plastic surgeons in the country. According to medical experts, there are only around 2,500 plastic surgeons in the country of one billion people. Even if there were more trained professionals, hospitals do not have facilities and equipment to support them.

On the other hand, there have been no efforts by the government, including the various state women’s commissions and the Ministry of Women and Child Development, to curb acid attacks on women. The National Commission for Women had in 2009 proposed a Scheme for Relief and Rehabilitation of Offences (by Acids) on Women and Children, which emphasised disbursing Rs 50,000 for a victim’s treatment immediately after an acid attack. Depending on the nature of injuries and the treatment required, this could go up to Rs 25 lakh. Besides, the family or legal heir would be entitled to a compensation of Rs 2 lakh. But none of these provisions have been implemented.

While Vinodhini received a compensation of Rs 3 lakh from the prime minister’s relief fund and Rs 2 lakh from the Pondicherry government two months after the attack, Vidya’s family did not receive any compensation from any official source till her death. All that they got was the Corporation of Chennai mayor sympathetically saying Vidya’s case was an unfortunate incident, and callousness from the women’s commission, health ministry, and ministry of women and child development. Acid attacks on women did not figure in the state government’s statistics on crimes against women as late as September 2012. There is no record to indicate how many women have been victims of acid attacks in the state.

Changes in Law

The accused in both cases are in jail and have expressed no regret for their inhuman act. It was only on 3 February 2013 that the Criminal Law (Amendment) 2013 promulgated by the president of India inserted Sections 326(A) and 326(B) in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to deal with acid attacks. Section 326(A) states that

whoever causes permanent or partial damage or deformity to, or burns or maims or disfigures or disables, any part or parts of the body of a person or causes grievous hurt by throwing acid on or by administering acid to that person, or by using any other means with the intention of causing or with the knowledge that he is likely to cause such injury or hurt, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which shall not be less than 10 years but which may extend to imprisonment for life and with fine which may extend to Rs 10 lakh. Provided that any fine imposed under this section shall be given to the person on whom acid was thrown or to whom acid was administered.

Section 326(B) declares that

whoever throws or attempts to throw acid on any person or attempts to administer acid to any person, or attempts to use any other means, with the intention of causing permanent or partial damage or deformity or burns or maiming or disfigurement or disability or grievous hurt to that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which shall not be less than five years but which may extend to seven years, and shall also be liable to fine.

Ignorant of the new ordinance, police officers initially charged the accused in both cases under Section 307 (attempt to murder) of the IPC, and after the women’s deaths, with murder under Section 302. This has tended to be the general practice in acid attack cases on women. However, under Sections 307 and 302, the prosecution has to prove that the accused threw the acid on a victim in an attempt, or with an intention, to kill her. According to a report by the Campaign and Struggle against Acid Attacks on Women (CSAAW), a Bangalore-based forum, this is often difficult to prove, and the accused walks away scot-free. It would therefore be more appropriate to book these cases under Section 326(A) along with Section 302. The families of the victims could claim compensation from the accused under Section 326(A).

Easy Availability of Acid

Studies have shown that the easy availability of acid is one of the main reasons for the increasing number of acid attacks on women. Bangladesh is the only country in the region that has enacted specific laws to not only criminalise acid attacks, but also control the easy availability of acid – the Acid Crime Control Act and Acid Control Act of 2002. Besides, business users of acid are required to obtain licences.

Harsher punishment for perpetrators, coupled with a sustained campaign in the media and other efforts by the CSAAW, have proved to be a deterrent in Karnataka. A report by the forum states that there have been 80 cases of acid attacks on women in Karnataka since 1999. After a judge imposed a life sentence on a man found guilty in an acid attack case in 2006, there has been a sharp decrease in such attacks. The report states that 15 to 20 cases of acid attacks on women were reported every year before 2006, but this fell to four to five cases a year after the court’s verdict.

Acid attacks cause death or permanent damage to victims, and untold suffering to them and their family members. Those who do not die suffer for the rest of their lives, unable to take care of themselves or afford proper treatment. Fact-finding conducted by the CSAAW in Karnataka and the “Combating Acid Violence in Bangladesh, India and Cambodia” report indicate that there has been an alarming increase in acid attacks on women who assert their independence by declining marriage proposals or refusing to act in accordance with the way male-dominated societies want them to.

What will happen to the families who have lost their women to this gender-related violence that punishes women who transgress their traditional roles? Will the legislation appropriately punish the perpetrators and deter others from reaching out for a bottle of acid? Will the government or society at large take the responsibility of putting an end to this sexual violence against women?

Let the deaths of Vinodhini and Vidya not be in vain.