Ex-IAS officer and former UNICEF country representative
Nusrat was just 17. Imran lived next door in a village in Mymensingh district of Bangladesh. He had been following her to school and back, making overtures of friendship. But Nusrat was not interested. One evening, on her way home, he tried to forcibly pull her towards his house. She resisted and ran home, terrified. She was too scared to tell her parents. The next day, Nusrat emerged hesitantly from school. She was suddenly grabbed from behind and before she could scream for help, Imran had splashed acid on her face and neck and arms. She screamed in agony, in anger and in shame, but there was no one to help.
I was working in Dhaka those days, putting together a group to counter various forms of violence and abuse against children for UNICEF. Part of our broader mandate was to address the issue of violence against women in the country. Acid attack on women was — and remains — a particularly violent form of crime against women.
And that is how I met Nusrat. “We want help to become normal people, doing jobs, earning money and trying to help others who were attacked like us,” she said. “Our needs are not photos and reports in papers,” she said, pointing to the six young women who accompanied her. They were all survivors of acid attacks. Most of them wore headscarves that hid the scars and disfigurement on their faces. But each was so vivacious and spirited that we forgot the scars they bore.
This group became the core of the Acid Survivors Foundation in Bangladesh. The problems that faced them were complex and required sustained attention and significant resources if a solution was to be found. That was in the 1990s.
Last week, I watched the film Chhapaak. It opens with a harrowing scene of the attack on Laxmi Agarwal that Deepika Padukone portrays with sensitivity and authenticity. I was transported back to our work with the Acid Survivors Foundation.
Acid attack is an extreme manifestation of gender-based violence against women. With roots in patriarchy, it is experienced by women from all cultural and religious groups in several countries, including India and Bangladesh. The National Crime Records Bureau data in India shows that in 2018, there were 228 acid attacks and 59 attempted attacks using acid.
What can we do about this problem? What about the victims? Their immediate need is for first aid. This is of critical importance. The areas of the face or body which have come into contact with acid must immediately be washed with profuse amounts of water. This dilutes the acid and reduces the corrosive damage. But how many people know this?
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in India published Training Curriculum Handbook in 2017 for training first responders. This handbook could include a section for dealing with acid attacks and be used widely. Women’s self-help groups, anganwadi workers, ASHAs, police officers and other frontline field staff could be trained on the first aid measures that will help minimise the seriousness of the injuries and the consequent disfigurement and damage.
Victims of acid attacks need specialised medical care, including multiple rounds of reconstructive surgery. Not all hospitals in India have specialised ‘burns units’ and even fewer may have resources to provide the full extent of the care that acid attack cases need.
While the new Section 357-C of the IPC calls for “all hospitals, public or private” to “immediately provide the first aid or medical treatment, free of cost to the victims of any offence covered under section...”, the reality on the ground appears to be different.
Generous victim compensation funds are now technically available, though accessing these still remains a challenge. Under the Victim Compensation Fund, the state and district legal services mechanisms can use the funds to provide assistance to victims of crimes of violence. However, questions relating to the rationale of allocation of these funds to different states and their utilisation levels remain a matter of concern.
Apart from the sheer physical pain, the victim of an acid attack suffers from mental trauma and social isolation related to the physical disfiguration. The challenges in finding support for psychological rehabilitation are often beyond the capacity of most families that are hit by this crime.
In response to the outrage from the public, new laws were passed to prohibit the open sale and stocking of acid. However, their implementation leaves much to be desired. There should be much stronger oversight over their functioning by public authorities with the participation of citizens’ groups.
A number of helplines for adults and children function in our country. Can we think of measures to strengthen how these helplines can be oriented to respond to acid attack reports by linking survivors to first aid and treatment sources and to peer support groups that can provide firsthand support in the crucial days following the attack?
Most of the interventions we have are aimed at providing support to the victims of acid attacks, which is legitimate. However, it is also necessary to look at ways to understand why young men are motivated to act in such heinous ways and to determine effective means of changing such behaviour.
There was an attempt to address this aspect of the problem in Bangladesh. Research undertaken in that country, prior to the interventions described earlier, show that by and large, older men and women were resigned to the view that nothing will change. The majority of younger females also thought the same.
However, it was found that younger males were more open to changing their attitudes. Based on this understanding, a major communication campaign was designed aimed at young males. Stories of men standing up against violence against women from different parts of Bangladesh were documented on film. These stories were presented by well-known movie actors of the country. Instances when imams in Bangladesh had issued fatwas opposing violence against women were also documented. Over 100 NGOs volunteered to take the campaign forward and to engage in discussions with young people, both male and female.
Why do men behave in this heinous fashion in our country? What can be done to stop this? Isn’t it time that the government, research institutions and NGOs in India spent time and effort on research and communication on this issue in our country as well? Cannot universities and schools use Chhapaak as a teaching and learning tool to sensitise our younger generation and build a new role model of compassion and caring among younger males?
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