What's India Doing to Stop Acid Attacks?

Activist groups estimate that three acid attacks occur in India every week. On Tuesday the Supreme Court gave Parliament a week to finally act on behalf of the nation's women, who are the usual victims of the assaults. But change is slow in coming.

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Activist groups estimate that three acid attacks occur in India every week. And yet the acids used in these attacks are readily available in corner stores, despite the Supreme Court urging Parliament to introduce a plan for regulation. On Tuesday the high court gave Parliament a week to finally act on behalf of India's women, who are the main victims of the attacks, as the world asks: what's being done to end such assaults?

The Short Answer: Nothing

The Supreme Court initially asked Parliament to regulate the sale of acid in February, and has promised to release its own orders if the government fails to meet the July 16 deadline laid out on Tuesday. Hydrochloric acid, which is used as a cleaning solution, can burn through human flesh, but is available at any general store for about 33 cents. After hearing a plea from an acid attack survivor, the court issued a stern ruling condemning the government's failure to curb the sale of acids. “Seriousness is not seen on the part of government in handling the issue,” the Supreme Court said.

The ruling comes two months after 23-year-old Preeti Rathi died of wounds sustained during an acid attack in Mumbai. Rathi had just moved to the city to work as a nurse when a stranger threw acid on her face in the middle of a train station. In the wake of such tragedies, the government's failure to act has been receiving more scrutiny. “People are dying, but you are not worried about it. Think of people who are losing their lives every day. Girls are being attacked every day in different parts of the country,” the Supreme Court said.

The Long Answer: Not Enough

In April, following the fatal gang rape of a Delhi student in December, India's parliament passed a bill allowing for more severe punishments for assaults on women, including acid attacks. Previously, acid attacks were prosecuted as general acts of violence and courts had free rein to issue sentences. Under the April bill, the minimum sentences for acid attacks was set at 10 years, with a maximum life sentence. But although attackers are now also required to pay a fine of up to $18,000, they are not responsible for financially compensating the victim or assisting with medical expenses.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Bangladesh there is evidence that stricter laws lead to fewer attacks. There, those charged with committing an acid attack are eligible for the death penalty, and the sale of acids is strictly regulated. According to the Avon Global Center for Women & Justice, Bangladesh saw a decline in acid attacks between 2002 and 2009, while India saw a rise.

Legislation is the first step, but women's rights activists believe that societal change is what's needed to put an end to acid attacks in the country. Jaf Shah, the executive director of Acid Survivors Trust International, told The Week that, in addition to having better laws, India needs to change culturally, which can only come from "concerted grassroots action, from educational initiatives...and from democratic participation, where women's rights as equal citizens are recognized and enforced." She went on to say:

"There is a tremendous gap between rights and reality [in India]... State institutions have failed women and the lack of law enforcement is a major reason why violence against women is under reported." 

If India manages to regulate the sale of acids, it may see a drop in attacks similar to Bangladesh, but  the greater struggle will be breaking down the cultural norms that encourage these attacks. As a study by the Avon Global Center found, these attacks often are personal, and “perpetrators often intend to destroy what society considers to be one of the most valuable traits of a woman—her beauty.”

(All Photos AP.)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.