Written by Meera Vijayann.
The rise of acid attacks against women in India, specifically women from marginalized communities, has taken a worrying turn in recent times. Now, a number of victims of bullying, abuse and violence are being forced to drink acid.
In July, when a 14-year-old girl from India’s lower caste community – the Dalits – was kidnapped and raped, two startling facts emerged: one, the girl had been previously raped by her assailant last December, and had been kidnapped again earlier this year. Two, in an act of utmost cruelty, she was forced to drink juice laced with acid, which destroyed her internal organs completely.
A disproportionate number of women from poor communities —specifically Dalit women —face the brunt of systemic discrimination and the lack of access to legal support. A report released by the UN Special Rapporteur on sexual violence against women in 2013 revealed that only 1% of complaints made by Dalit women actually lead to convictions. Witness protection is minimal, if not, entirely absent.
Sumitra Acharya, a lawyer who assists the Public Prosecutor as well as survivors of acid attacks in Bangalore, speaks openly about the difficulties that survivors of acid violence, especially poor women, face when navigating the Indian legal system.
“The problem is with how the law is implemented. When it comes to rape, every court is sensitive about it but when it comes to acid survivors, I don’t think there is sensitivity around it .With regard to acid attacks, survivors need to have in-camera proceedings so that they can have the confidence from the Public Prosecutor and state-appointed lawyer to adduce evidence without any fear.”
She adds, “When there is a lot of hype around a case, members from the accused side tend to always try to influence the acid attack survivor to turn hostile or try negotiating with the survivor to somehow escape from the conviction. The pressure on acid attack survivors is tremendous because there is no other person to look after them.”
Sumitra takes the example of Rekha, a young woman from Haveri, a small town in Karnataka, who was attacked in 2014. It took Rekha two years to receive part of the compensation from the Karnataka State Commission for Women.
“Survivors need more than just untimely pittance support from the government; they need to know (and feel assured) that they are going to be supported throughout to stand by the criminal justice system.” she says, “Yes, it is important to stand by the law, to understand the law and to provide evidence but all this is too much for people from poor, economically backward or marginalized communities to take on if the government fails to reach them with its exclusive schemes that might benefit acid attack survivors. State policies don’t take into account all these matters so to receive compensation, even up to 2 lakhs (around US$3000), is difficult.”
She argues that although it seems a fairly simple process to apply for compensation through the Karnataka State Legal Services Authority, a body that provides free legal access for vulnerable populations, it can be a tremendous struggle to prepare the documentation required. “They ask for hospital bills, reports, and so many other documents so it becomes a very challenging process for the survivor to even access what is meant for her.” Because of this, in many criminal cases survivors give in to the pressure, accept the monetary settlement offered by their assailants and this allows criminals to easily escape conviction.
A few politicians echo this concern. Dalit Mahasabha leader, N Babu Rao, pointed out last year that the laws regarding government compensation are defined in a manner that make it very difficult for survivors to receive benefits if they don’t suffer from a high percentage of burns.
The fact that ‘burns’ are seen as an important factor, complicates matters further. In a number of cases highlighted by the media, women have been subjected to internal ingestion of acid. Earlier this month, a 22-year-old died after being beaten and forced to drink acid by her neighbours. In another incident, a first-year Dalit student was forced to drink disinfectant by two other students in a college in Karnataka, as a result of which her food pipe was extensively damaged. Time and time again, these cases surface in the news. Yet, it is unclear how many cases go unreported.
Bhagirath Iyer, a volunteer with Make Love Not Scars, an organization that campaigns to end acid sale and raises funds for survivors, points out that there is an “unnecessary gap” as the first point of contact is a government hospital or the police, both government agencies. This could pose a problem when survivors don’t have procedural paperwork that they demand. “The only solution is to make sure that funds are released to the hospital irrespective of a survivor’s name.” he says. Iyer is of the view that if policy interventions worked efficiently, non-profits like MLNS could focus on rehabilitation and care.
The government has taken some measures to check acid sale and provide monetary support. However, in order to work towards its commitment to the UN’s Global Goals, India has to focus on introducing newer, smoother processes for survivors of violence; increasing transparency within local institutions and rigorously implementing laws is a first step. Even today, toilet cleaning acids can still be easily bought over the counter in stores, sometimes for less than Rs.30 (US$0.44) for a 750ml bottle. Until this changes, many will continue to live in fear.
Image: Make Love Not Scars (Two acid violence survivors wait at MLNS’ newly opened rehabilitation centre).