A day after a highly disfigured and blind Sonali Mukherjee shook the conscience of the country appearing on Kaun Banega Crorepati with her story of a brutal acid attack, Chennai was gripped by pain and outrage by a similar fate suffered by a young girl at the hands of a stalker.
The city is praying for Vinodhini who had just begun her life as an engineer, but who is now sure to lose her vision, suffer considerable disfigurement and have to undergo a series of reconstruction surgeries - all because she rejected the advances of an obsessive construction worker in her hometown near Puducherry.
The accused is in custody and is booked for attempt to murder. At the most, he will get ten years in jail, if convicted.
Going by Sonali Mukherjee’s decade-long ordeal, one can very well imagine what will happen to Vinodhini. While Sonali fought against tremendous odds, including her desire not to live and 22 long surgeries that haven’t apparently done much to correct her disfigurement, her attackers were out on bail in four months.
As in the case of Sonali, Vinodhini too was smart and good looking, and was on the cusp of her adult life when her lumpen stalker threw acid on her. Her family, that had invested everything they had on her education, is now shattered even as the doctors explain how they plan to reconstruct her face and replace her burned-out eyes with artificial eye-balls.
The photos of Vinodhini that local newspapers carried show a sprightly and good-looking young girl - a deeply painful testimony of what violence against women can do in this part of the world.
Although acid attacks have been recorded in many parts of the world, South Asia is the epicentre for this barbarous practice. It is also one of the worst regions in the world where women are treated very badly and are targets of violent crimes.
The corrosive acid is only a metaphor for this inequality. It’s cheap, easily accessible and is almost exclusively used by men against women - about 80% of the victims are women.
Acid attacks are carried out by not only by obsessive and jilted men, but also by others, including by male members in a family or community. A large number of cases in Dhaka are by husband and men in the household; while in Pakistan, they include men from the community, including religious fundamentalists. The most sensational case in Chennai was several years ago, when Chandralekha, a prominent IAS officer, was attacked and disfigured by a hired-criminal from Mumbai.
The intent of the attacks is clearly not to kill, but to disfigure and blight the victims’ future. It is evidently an act of revenge and domination. With hardly any protection, social or physical, it demonstrates how vulnerable women are in our society. In Vinodhini’s case, her family did file a police complaint about the stalker, but she was still a soft target.
For strange reasons, historically, Bangladesh has been endemic to acid attacks in the region since the early 1980s with reported cases ranging from 100 to 400 a year. Dhaka even has an NGO that specialises on the issue - the Acid Survivors Foundation. Unfortunately, all that such organisations can do is to help the victims with surgeries and rehabilitation.
They can help the girls move from victimhood to survival. Despite the efforts of such organisations, the practice continues unabated (more than 90 victims in 2011) although the Acid Survivors Trust International claims that they have been able to reduce the incidence in Bangladesh by about 70%. Pakistan also has a similar problem that was the central theme of an Oscar winning documentary titled Saving Face.
The numbers in India could be higher going by media reports from different parts of the country, but nobody is keeping a count.
Is it a law and order issue? Can the police prevent it? Will restriction of availability of acid help?
Doubtful, because acid is only the tool.
At the heart of the problem is the lower status of women in society and their vulnerability to violence by men in the region. Culturally sanctioned patriarchy is a cliched word, but that is the truth. For generations, women in the region have been attacked, raped, killed, maimed and banished from public life. And it is being perpetrated by current societies as well.
This is borne out by facts. India has the worst Gender Inequality Index (GII) in the region. Such a shame that with a GII of 129 (just 19 points away from the worst record in the world) India has the worst living conditions for women in South Asia. Pakistan, which we think is more backward than us, is way ahead at 115. Even Nepal (113) and Bangladesh (112) fare better.
It may sound hollow and rhetorical if one says that the only lasting solution is gender equality - more freedom, power and influence for women, that too in every aspect of public life: politics, police, administration, education, health, judiciary... and more importantly, in decision-making roles.
What Amitabh Bachchan wrote after meeting Sonali on his reality show might have moved his viewers: "Denied justice, she pleaded publicly to end her life... Denied that too because euthanasia is illegal in the country, she decided not to remain silent and suffer... Her story is one of immense courage... The nation salutes her as do all of us, but simultaneously hangs its head in shame for this dastardly act." But we need to move beyond shock and outrage.
Where do we start?