September 27, 2007

Patriarchy’s Brutal Backlash

KEROSENE, POISON and now, acid — the new weapon against women. Haseena, a 19-year-old girl from a middle class family was attacked with acid in 1999 by her boss because she turned down his marriage proposal and refused to continue working in his office. Two litres of pure sulphuric acid were poured on her. In 2000, Noorjahan, a mother of two children who ran a tea cart in front of a factory, was attacked by the factory owner’s son. In 2001, Dr Mahalakshmi, a doctor in Mysore, was attacked with acid by her landlord; later in the same year, Shanthi, a teacher in Mysore, was attacked by her husband. The list goes on.

In the last seven years, 62 women in Karnataka have been victims of acid attacks. These are the cases that have been reported or registered according to a recent Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women (CSAAW) report. There could be many more in actuality.

The list of 62 includes women of all ages, caste and class backgrounds. All of them were independent women who asserted themselves against coercion, pressure and violence. All were attacked by someone they knew — acquaintances aspiring to be lovers, husbands, bosses, landlords. It’s clear that acid attacks are being used as weapons in the brutal backlash of patriarchy towards women who show any form of agency.

Acid attacks are extremely difficult to treat: the acid seeps into the layers of the skin to cause long-term infection and corrosion. Victims often need multiple complicated and expensive surgeries. Not everyone can afford such treatments. So far, most families have sold their houses and other property to meet the expenses. To make matters worse, only some super specialty hospitals in Bangalore are equipped to treat acid attack victims. Government hospitals (including the burns ward in Victoria Hospital in Bangalore) have no facilities whatsoever to adequately handle such cases. Some doctors are not even aware of basic first aid measures such as flushing acid out of the body immediately after the attack. Many women do not survive because they’re unable to access proper medical care after the attack.

And one cannot begin to articulate the emotional trauma of the woman and her family.

There is no law in our country that recognizes acid attack as a crime. Cases are registered under IPC section 326 (causing grievous injury) or IPC section 307 (attempt to murder). There is no law that looks at these attacks as gendered crime. In many cases, the accused person gets out on bail despite these sections being non-bailable and continues to threaten the victim. Police investigations invariably begin with questions on the sexual history and purity of the woman. Most cases that have reached the courts have faced procedural delays. Survivors, who are already coping with so much, have to contend with legal harassment as well.

Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women (CSAAW), a coalition of women’s rights groups, media activists and students and concerned citizens, was started in 2003. The group has been working to help victims reclaim their lives as well as demanding that the government respond to their needs. These are some of their broad demands:

  • Control over availability of acid as acid is easily available
  • A specific law that recognizes acid attack as gendered crime against women
  • Proper medical facilities and medical aid for victims. All the government hospitals should be able to provide proper treatment to acid victims.
  • Necessary rehabilitation for the survivors

Here is an NPR article on acid attacks and a Deccan Herald article about some of the victims. Updates on the issue are available here, here, and here.

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