BY GRACE YI
Recent acid attacks have devastated the lives of women in South Asia, reflecting an unsettling yet unfaltering trend that has persisted for the past several decades. The purpose of the acid attacks, where acid is thrown onto the face and body, is not to kill (though often it does), but to permanently maim. The skin on the face is deeply marred as the skin tissue burns and melts; the healing process, usually involving multiple surgeries and skin grafts, is costly, extensive, and at best the victims are still significantly disfigured, blinded, or disabled – all resulting in severe physical and emotional trauma in an overwhelmingly female population.
The main reason behind the attacks is inherently gendered: acid attack perpetrators are usually men who feel that they have been scorned by women, often over dowry disputes, rejections of interest or love proposals, anger over divorce, even jealousy over affairs or neglect.4 Furthermore, acid is easily obtained in commercial form at public markets, sold alongside everyday commodities. The attacks serve as a permanent marker of revenge, intended to bring a woman down from her functional position in society to that of a disfigured social outcast. Even further, although there have been laws implemented against the attacks, often the overwhelming sociopolitical opinion of locals or officials is that the attack was justifiable or even deserved, and attackers go largely unpunished.2
Acid attacks occur throughout the world, but disproportionately in South Asia. The attacks in South Asia are so prevalent because of their mostly patriarchal societies: men are given a greater social value in society and their sense of entitlement is a significant contributing factor in acid attacks.3 A precedent has been set for men who perpetrate these crimes to little or no consequence while the social, mental and physical effects on their victims is devastating. It is the simplest way to exact a lifetime of revenge for few, if any, repercussions.3
Over 3,500 Bangladeshis have suffered from acid attacks in the past two decades.1 In 2014, deliberate acid attacks afflicted 349 people in India alone, with many more going unreported from fear of retaliation.6 However, in recent years, governmental legislature has tightened regulations concerning acid sales and stricter punishments for attackers. Furthermore, NGOs in South Asia like the Acid Survivors Foundation or Stop Acid Attacks have been working to change the public perceptions of survivors of acid attacks, providing them employment support and help in re-establishing themselves in society. As a result, rates of attacks have been on the decline, yet much work remains to be done.
Acid attacks present a problem in our complex and vastly gendered world. There is both an authority dynamic and a political element to acid attacks.2 Men feel a sense of power over women’s appearance or place in society in that they are able to destroy it. Even more, they feel validated in doing so because the law surrounding acid attacks is so loosely formulated and rarely followed.2 Because of their assumed superior role in society, men feel justified in manipulating women’s bodies for their own vindication; by virtue of this superior role, many women are reluctant to report these attacks out of fear or shame.2 It is a cyclical process that at once affords power to men and further subjugates women in a society that is already unquestionably gendered.
Even still, progress has been made. Research shows that tighter laws on acid purchases has a positive correlation with fewer acid attacks, and the same trend is observed for stringent policies against attacks – even implementing death penalties for attackers.4 It remains obvious, however, that efforts at changing policy and ensuring safety must continue until the security of women in public who choose to seek independence is no longer questioned.