Will curbing the sale of acid alone protect women from attacks?

The corrosive deaths of two girls in succession in Chennai has finally prompted some action on the supply of cleaning acid, a cheap but strong weapon for violence against women in the sub-continent.

The Madras High Court on a PIL on Monday has asked the Centre and the state for its views on regulating the supply of acid as well as prosecuting unlicensed vendors. A liquid as dangerous as this should not be freely available.

Last November, Vinodhini, a sprightly young girl from Pondicherry was attacked with acid by a man because she refused his marital advances, and died in a terrible condition in Chennai three months later even as the state rose in outrage. Last week, another girl Vidya, who suffered acid injuries inflicted on her died in similar conditions, which further raised the pitch of the anger.

Probably, the lingering resentment over the Delhi gangrape has amplified the public voice in the state.

Curb violence against women before curbinb acid sales. Reuters

Curb violence against women before curbinb acid sales. Reuters

However, the outrage was strangely more against the free availability of acid rather than the practice of acid-attacks against women, and the latter’s general vulnerability to violence. Some call the liquid hydrochloric acid, some say it is nitric acid. It doesn’t matter, because it is only a tool of violence.

Acid (called “dravakam” locally) is a highly feared weapon of violence, particularly against women because it completely disfigures them. As the cases of Vinodhini and Vidya showed, survival is difficult and is fraught with endless surgeries and medical expenses.

Its history as a tool of violence in the state, mostly against women, is in fact quite old. Although it has been in practice, the first prominent victim of the liquid was a charming IAS officer, Chandralekha, who was targeted by a hired criminal in 1992. She was a victim of planned political violence and the purpose was clearly to disfigure and humiliate her. Despite immediate medical attention and several surgeries, she still bears the scars of the attack and is a rare icon of survival.

As elsewhere in the world, in Tamil Nadu too acid-attacks don’t occur in a cultural vacuum. In the state, it has a context of violence and gender inequality. The threat of throwing “dravakam” is quite common in the lexicon of violence. Years ago, a prominent political party leader threw acid on another leader from his own party in a bitter public fight. The victim, who managed to escape with his life, sports severe scars on his face. An acid attack was also central to a critically acclaimed Tamil movie (Vazhakku Enn 18/9) recently.

In Bangladesh and Pakistan, where acid attacks on women are like epidemics, availability of the liquid is only one part of the story. That the attacks continue unabated and the lives of women continue to be blighted point to the ham-handedness of the governments and the culture of violence against women.

In both the countries, several steps have been taken to limit the availability of acid and punish the perpetrators of violence, but it hasn’t  dramatically changed the outcome because the underlying factors that sanction the violence haven’t changed. In a lawless situation, the curbs on the availability of acid do not necessarily work.

In Bangladesh, the phenomenon is so pervasive and threatening to women that the country has dedicated NGOs working on the issue. There is an Acid Survivors’ Foundation and an Acid Survivors International. Despite several efforts, both by NGOs and the governments, Bangladesh still recorded 90 cases in 2011, excluding all unrecorded incidents. The pervasiveness is the same in Pakistan as well, where in 2011 alone, there were 150 reported cases.

Fortunately in India, we don’t keep a record and are blissfully unaware of our own record of such violence.  However, the stories of severely disfigured survivors such as Sonali Mukherjee, who appeared on KBC with Amitabh Bachchan, and Shirin Juwale, and reports from different parts of the country certainly point to a dreary case that has not been appropriately accounted for.

Just as cameras in vehicles and more police on the roads haven’t deterred rapists from attacking women since the Delhi outrage, curtailing the supply of acid alone will not help because the real issue is the politically and culturally sanctioned violence against women, and the overall culture of violence and lawlessness of our societies. Political expediency breeds this culture.

As a Firstpost article argued earlier,  at the heart of the problem is also the lower status of women in our society and their vulnerability to violence. Acid is a symbol of male dominance because the intent is to “prove a lesson” and “show the woman her place.” In Bangladesh and India, it is mostly by the men who want to control women, while in Pakistan, it is commonly within families for whom women are symbols of honour.

As we noted earlier, 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. As indicated by its pathetic Gender Inequality Index (GII), which is the worst in south Asia, India is a horrendous place for women. Unless this situation changes, even the most sincere curbs will only work as ineffective short cuts.

The free flow of this dangerous liquid has to definitely stop. As in the argument against gun culture goes, limited availability of the weapon will certainly curtail its use. But, stopping with it will be yet another opportunity lost to curb violence against women.

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