Why are so many women in India victims of acid attacks, and what's being done about it? Ria Sharma, winner of the Social Impact category in the Alumni Awards India 2016, and founder of Make Love Not Scars, explains.
What is the situation in India regarding acid attacks on women?
A reported 1,000 people are attacked with acid in India every year. I want to emphasise 'reported' because, from experience, most of the cases I have worked with go unreported. Keeping that fact in mind, I estimate the actual number of acid attacks to be much higher. Many victims choose not to report the crimes committed against them. There are two main reasons for this: first, the fear of social stigma; second, the involvement of a family member (a lot of survivors are attacked by their own spouse or someone from the family because of land or money feuds). But it's not only women who are victims of acid attacks. In the past year, I have seen an increase in the use of acid as a weapon against men, babies and even animals (the latter as a form of pest control).
Why are so many women the victims of acid attacks in India?
India has an obsession with beauty. A person's place in society (and especially a woman's place) is often set by their appearances. Men, on the other hand, are largely judged by their financial success. These outdated notions stem from a male-dominated society. As women try to break the mould of what society 'expects' them to be, there are bound to be negative consequences.
Perhaps the most vital aspect of breaking free of male domination is having the power and choice to say 'no'. Most acid attacks are committed by spurned and jilted lovers: when a woman denies the man’s advances, he attacks her with acid to disfigure (and sometimes kill) her, and to 'teach her a lesson' by ruining her standing in society. The 'victim-blaming' mentality that plagues our society means the attacker succeeds in his mission, impelled by the belief that 'If I can't have her, no one can'. In most cases, due to our obsession with beauty, he is proved right. He may have been the one to attack her but we, as a society, allow him to succeed in his vicious intentions.
What happens to the women and after these attacks? What happens to the perpetrators?
Most of these women are not aware of their rights because they come from poor backgrounds and are uneducated. This makes it especially hard for them to get access to fast, appropriate and high-quality medical attention. The result is that, for the majority, the damage is almost irreversible, with 70 per cent of survivors losing their vision. Most women are left permanently disfigured and disabled as well. They are also almost instantly isolated and alienated from a society that forces them to deal with their ordeals silently and behind closed doors. An acid attack also unleashes a massive financial burden on the family as they struggle to collect funds to save the woman’s life and vital functions by selling their belongings.
Once the family deals with the initial round of surgeries, they can seek justice. But due to the agonisingly slow pace at which the Indian judicial system works, the survivor almost never gets justice. Indeed, the perpetrator usually gets away with ruining someone’s life at no cost to their own. Even in cases where the survivor manages to fight her case in court, the process can take years and years. Although survivors are entitled to compensation from the government, too often this compensation never comes. The lawyers the state appoints often have little interest in the case, greatly limiting the chances of success. As a result, some survivors drop the case due to growing costs and the decreasing likelihood of a positive outcome.
At Make Love Not Scars, we look into all of the above aspects and aim to ensure free medical attention by either crowdfunding the treatment costs or finding an individual funder. We also have partners who provide free legal assistance to help victims fight their lengthy legal battles. We take care of the girls that are under our care, but the problem is that not all survivors find an organisation like ours to help them. They often have to face these challenges alone.
Can the victims ever fully recover and go on to lead normal lives?
The physical damage varies from case to case based on the severity of burns. Being a survivor of an acid attack is one of the hardest things to be because of the recovery process. Eyelid reconstruction and other surgery necessary for saving vital functions like vision come first before the cosmetic (plastic) surgery begins. Survivors undergo surgery for anywhere between two to ten years depending on how much they want to get done. There are some survivors who have suffered extensive burns and have undergone 45 surgeries, before stopping because of the toll it takes on them. Then there are survivors who give up after two or three surgeries because they can’t bear the pain. It really does differ from case to case, but the recovery process is both lengthy and extremely devastating – it's not only physical, it’s psychological too. A lot of the survivors suffer personality disorders because they can't recognise themselves anymore, and many fight depression every day because of what has happened. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and wake up in the middle of the night believing they're being attacked.
These women will never get back their identity and the face they have lost, but it's our mission to instil the confidence and skills necessary for them to re-enter society and live relatively normal lives. Life won't be the same as the one they knew before the attack, but we try to help them adjust to a new life. Once they reach that stage, they can start to think about who they want to be. Their journeys are inspiring regardless, but it's on reaching this stage that we see the stuff that all great stories and heroes are made of.