An acid attack is the deliberate assault of a victim with corrosive acid, aimed at disfiguring them, humiliating them and sometimes even killing them. In many parts of India, milk costs more than corrosive acid at local markets.
In states as diverse as Uganda and the United Kingdom, Afghanistan and India, acid attacks are becoming far more common. A combination of the wide availability of acid, weak and ineffectual laws surrounding its use in assault, and deeper cultural inequalities appear to have contributed to this increase. One notable implication of acid attacks is that, given the high percentage of female victims in some countries, they could be becoming a popular new form of gender based violence.
While acid attacks have not been specific to one region, they are perhaps most prevalent in India. Experts believe that the country with the most acid attacks may in fact be Afghanistan, although there is no way of gaining concrete evidence to substantiate this. Worryingly, the number of reported attacks grew by 250% between 2012 and 2014 and the BBC now estimates that up to 1000 attacks take place per year. Numbers may be even higher, however, as only cases requiring urgent medical attention and hospital treatment tend to be reported, while it is believed that many which result in death are covered up and recorded as suicide. Attacks are made easier and thus more prevalent by the ready availability of acid, which is used in a number of industries as well as in cleaning products, and as previously mentioned can be bought from local shops at a price cheaper than milk. While attacks can thus be carried out quickly and easily, it is a far harder process to ensure justice for the victims. Of the attacks reported between 2010-2014, only 60% resulted in filing of charge sheets. In total, 81% of perpetrators were able to obtain bail and 49% are absconding.
Disturbing acid attack statistics are not only limited to India. The United Kingdom is another example of a state suffering from rising rates of acid attacks. Over the last two years there has been a 30% increase in the number of assaults and the total number of threatened and actual attacks since 2012 stands above 500. British police believe acid may be becoming an alternative weapon to guns and knives in gang-related violence. Meanwhile, in states including Cambodia and Pakistan, the availability of acid through local industries like rubber production and jewellery manufacture has also made attacks an all too common criminal occurrence.
It is clear, therefore, that a number of states need to tackle the crime of acid attacks more effectively through government action and legislation. The Bangladeshi response to rising attack rates in the early 2000s is often cited as an effective model which other states should seek to replicate in order to reduce such assaults. Since laws were passed to restrict the sale of acid in Bangladesh in 2002, the number of attacks has gone down by 70%. Pakistan and Colombia have both since implemented more restrictive laws; the former in 2011 and the latter only this January after the high profile case of middle-class victim Natalia Ponce de Leon sent shockwaves through Colombian media. At present, the British Home Office is also debating whether there should be more regulation of corrosive substances in the UK.
While these are all steps in the right direction, legislation has not been able to eradicate the problem entirely, and in some states this is due to poor legislative implementation. India made a legislative breakthrough when, in 2012, acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal stood before India’s Supreme Court with a petition signed by 27,000 people calling for change in the laws surrounding acid sales. As a result, vendors now need a license to sell acid and buyers need to present photographic identification. While this is now the law, in reality most vendors and buyers ignore these specifications. Furthermore, legal cases bringing attackers to justice still take between 5 and 10 years. Rajendra Mal Lodha, India’s chief justice, believes there is still a long way to go and has said that, ‘the laws may be there, but they have to be effectively implemented and unless that is done I don’t think much can be achieved.’
Earlier this year, the Make Love Not Scars Campaign Movement was set up in India and has since garnered considerable attention online, with more than 1.3 million views as of February. This movement has brought some much needed attention to social media on the plight of acid attack victims, as well as highlighting the need for further reform of acid sale regulation. Videos featuring the survivor Reshma point out that it is just as easy, if not easier, to find acid to throw at a face in India as it is to find make-up to apply to it. The #EndAcidSale Campaign petition has now gained over 300,000 signatures. Hopefully movements such as this will encourage India and other states to look into closing the loopholes in their acid sale laws, speeding up the prosecution of those guilty of attack and better supporting victims.
While the introduction of such firmer laws and tighter regulations would definitely help prevent acid attack numbers from spiralling out of control, it appears that there may often be an underlying issue that is complex but essential to address; namely misogyny. According to research conducted by the London-based charity Acid Survivors Trust International, approximately 80% of global acid attacks each year are carried out on female victims. In India, more than 85% of victims are female, and many of them are young women who are often targeted for spurning the advances of men. Rajendra Mal Lodha has also spoken of how ‘mindsets have to be changed’ and that, ‘perhaps this could be part of education in schools for girls and for boys.’
Movements like Make Love Not Scars are giving many survivors the opportunity to have their voices heard and their story told. Hopefully this will help draw attention to the wider problem of acid being used as a weapon, particularly in the context of gender-based violence. As the push for further legislation and publicity continues, it is worth keeping in mind the words of Dolly, a survivor interviewed by the BBC who said, ‘I wasn’t the one who needed to keep my face covered since I hadn’t done anything wrong. The person who has committed this crime should be the one to cover his face.’